Afleet Alex runs away from field for victory

Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Preakness winner became the second favorite in 10 years to win the Belmont.

NEW YORK -- No acrobatics, no long shots. Just an overpowering, seven-length victory by Afleet Alex in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, the final and longest leg of the Triple Crown.

The Preakness winner came through with his usual burst of speed turning for home, with jockey Jeremy Rose waiting for precisely the right moment to blow away Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo and nine other rivals.

With no Triple Crown at stake, racing fans had to settle for watching the locomotive-like power of an amazing colt who averted disaster by a whisker last month at Pimlico when he tangled with another horse and was nearly knocked to his knees.

Rose held on with all his might in that ride; this time, it was smooth sailing.

"He should be a Triple Crown winner, but I messed up," in the Derby, Rose said, referring to Afleet Alex's third-place finish at Churchill Downs, where he was beaten by two longshots.

But two out of three ain't bad, with Afleet Alex becoming just the 11th thoroughbred to win the Preakness and Belmont after running in the Derby. Among the elite group are Native Dancer, Nashua and Damascus, each of whom just missed in the Derby, too.

Afleet Alex easily won his rubber match with Giacomo. The son of Northern Afleet finished ahead of Andromeda's Hero, with Giacomo finishing seventh in the field of 11 3-year-olds. Nolan's Cat was third.

Afleet Alex became just the second favorite in the last 10 years to win the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, where four of the previous six races produced huge payoffs. Last year, Birdstone spoiled Smarty Jones' Triple Crown try and returned $74 for a $2 win ticket. In 2002, Sarava won and paid $142.50.

Afleet Alex dropped back early as long shot Pinpoint towed the field through a moderate pace. Giacomo, with Mike Smith aboard, was right off the leaders and made his move on the final sweeping turn at Belmont Park. But just when it looked as though the Kentucky Derby winner was going to roll to victory, Afleet Alex burst through and stormed into the lead.

Giacomo never mounted another threat and faded in the stretch, while trainer Nick Zito finally hit the board in this year's Triple Crown series with Andromeda's Hero. It was Zito's sixth runner-up finish in the Belmont, and a year after he won with Birdstone.

Winning time for the race was 2:28.75, well off Secretariat's record of 2:24 in 1973.

Nolan's Cat, winless in five previous starts, was 6 3/4 lengths behind Andromeda's Hero. Indy Storm was fourth, followed by A.P. Arrow, Chekhov, Giacomo, Southern Africa, Watchmon, Reverberate and Pinpoint.

Sent off as the even-money favorite by the crowd of 62,274, Afleet Alex returned $4.30, $3.60 and $3. Andromeda's Hero, ridden by Rafael Bejarano, paid $8.20 and $5.80. Nolan's Cat, with Norberto Arroyo Jr., paid $7.20 to show.

Smith said Giacomo had a breathing problem during the race. "He flipped his palate real bad, you can hear it. He made a loud, roaring noise."

Winning trainer Tim Ritchey laid out his ideal race Friday, noting that Rose needed patience in such a long race. He had it.

"All I kept saying was, 'Be patient, be patient, be patient. Wait, wait, wait,' " Ritchey said. "He just exploded. That was the plan. With these big, wide turns, you have to save all the ground you can. Jeremy Rose has now ridden three Triple Crown races like a Hall of Famer."

Afleet Alex, with his eighth win in 12 starts, earned $600,000 from the $1 million purse and boosted his bankroll to $2,765,800.

The handsome bay colt has become more than a racehorse for Cash Is King Stable, which was formed by five friends from the Philadelphia area who bought Afleet Alex for $75,000 last year. Part of the colt's earnings are being donated to pediatric cancer research through Alex's Lemonade Stand.

The stand was started by 4-year-old Alex Scott, who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer two days before her first birthday, in 1997. Alex died last August, but the owners, and Ritchey, have become part of the fund-raising drive and more than $2 million has been raised.

"There's more to life than just horse racing," Ritchey said the day before the Belmont, "... and this is part of it."

Afleet Alex certainly looked like a winner in the Derby until he was caught in the final strides by 50-1 Giacomo and 71-1 Closing Argument.

In the Preakness, the colt nearly went down after Scrappy T veered into his path at the top of the stretch, but Rose somehow managed to hang onto his mount and Alex still won by 4 3/4 lengths.

Rose took the blame for the defeat at Churchill Downs.

"I say I messed up because I had the best horse," the 26-year-old rider said. "You can't blame Tim, and you can't blame Afleet Alex. So if you have to blame someone, blame me. I don't want to hear any criticism about my horse. Knock me, but don't knock him. He's one of the best we'll see in a long time."

Zito finished off a Triple Crown series to forget: 0-for-11. Elected to racing's Hall of Fame two weeks ago, he at least hit the board in the Belmont. His other two starters were Indy Storm and Pinpoint.

The trainer failed in the Derby with a record-tying five horses, including favorite Bellamy Road, and failed in the Preakness with a record-tying three horses.

Ritchey and Rose, meantime, had quite an amazing journey in preparing for their first Triple Crown attempt.

Afleet Alex was a brilliant 2-year-old, winning his first four starts, including the prestigious Sanford and Hopeful stakes at Saratoga. The colt finished second in the Champagne and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and came into the year among the leading Derby contenders.

In fact, he liked running so much that Ritchey started training him twice a day. After a minor stakes win at Oaklawn Park, Afleet Alex was last in the Rebel Stakes, with Ritchey explaining his colt had developed a lung infection. It was the only time Afleet Alex failed to finish in the top three of any race.

He finished the Belmont, all right, and aced the "Test of the Champion."

"He's a beast, he's a freak of nature, he's made out of steel," Rose said. "He's the best 3-year-old in the country."

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