Following stumble, Afleet Alex wins with ease

Sunday, May 22, 2005

BALTIMORE -- Afleet Alex was gathering momentum, coming off the far turn and looking ready to romp in the Preakness Stakes.

In an instant, he was cut off by Scrappy T. The horses clipped heels in a frightening collision and Afleet Alex was forced to his knees.

"I held on to the mane and he picked himself right up," jockey Jeremy Rose said, "and from that point on, I knew we had it won."

Incredibly, Afleet Alex regained his footing and his drive. And in the span of few breathtaking strides, tragedy was averted and the courageous colt breezed home.

"My thought process was that I was going to get run over," Rose said. "The instinct was to hang on and try to get my balance back."

The final margin Saturday was 4 3/4 lengths. It should have been more.

"I'd say double whatever I did win by," Rose said. "If I won by four or five, it should have been 10. We were rolling. We were going real fast."

Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo finished third, ending any chance of a Triple Crown try in the Belmont Stakes in three weeks.

With a quarter-mile to go, Scrappy T was in the lead when he responded to a left-handed whip from jockey Ramon Dominguez by veering sharply to his right and directly into Afleet Alex's path.

The record crowd of 115,318 at Pimlico gasped, but Afleet Alex regained his balance and rolled on to a sweet victory, with Scrappy T second.

"He's an amazing horse that just put all the doubters to shame," Rose said. "A lot of people said he can't do this, he can't do that, this and that. Well, there it is."

The frightening scene was reminiscent of the 1987 Kentucky Derby, when Alysheba clipped heels with Bet Twice inside the 3/16ths pole before recovering to win the race by three-quarters of a length.

It was the fifth straight year the Preakness favorite has come through. Which was a far cry from the Kentucky Derby, when Giacomo staged the second-biggest upset in the race at 50-1 odds. However, the gray son of Holy Bull was unable to pull off another win and never really challenged.

"I don't think there was any embarrassment in running third in the Preakness," Giacomo trainer John Shirreffs said. "We were pleased with the effort."

And for just the third time in nine years, the Belmont will be run in three weeks without a Triple Crown on the line.

No Smarty party like last year, or yellow buses following Funny Cide in 2003 or one-liners from War Emblem's trainer Bob Baffert in 2002.

Rose thrust his right arm in the air in a victory salute after crossing the finish line. And a few minutes later he was simply amazed at what had happened.

"He's just that athletic," Rose said, "and I was just that scared."

Winning trainer Tim Ritchey has been in the business for 30 years and has seen horses take bad steps and still win but "I've never seen a horse stumble that badly and lose his momentum that much to come back on and win in a Grade 1 race like this."

Dominguez, riding Scrappy T for the first time, apologized.

"I'm sorry for the incident," he said. "The horse completely caught me off-guard. I decided to hit him left-handed and it caught him completely off-guard, because he just made a right-hand turn. I had no control over the situation."

While Giacomo's Derby win was a stunner, Afleet Alex's made perfect sense. The son of Northern Afleet ran a sensational race in the Derby as the second choice behind favorite Bellamy Road, only to be caught in the final strides by Giacomo and Closing Argument at almost 72-1.

Not this time, not even after being hammered by Scrappy T. Afleet Alex is now headed to the Belmont as long as the colt comes out of the race healthy. Among the horses he could face are Andromeda's Hero, Buzzards Bay, Southern Africa and Shamoan.

Sent off as the 3-1 favorite, Afleet Alex returned $8.60, $5 and $3.20. Scrappy T paid $11.20 and $5.80, and Giacomo, the third choice at 6-1, paid $4.80. The finish remained unchanged after a brief steward's review of the collision.

Sun King was fourth, followed by High Limit, Noble Causeway, Greeley's Galaxy, Malibu Moonshine, Closing Argument, High Fly, Hal's Image, Wilko, Galloping Grocer and Going Wild.

Winning time for the 1 3-16 miles was 1:55.04, well off the record of 1:53.40.

And so the Afleet Alex party is on -- perhaps a few weeks later than expected -- and there's a large contingent celebrating, led by the five Philadelphia-area friends who bought the horse for $75,000 last year just up the road at the Timonium 2-year-old sales.

Afleet Alex has also touched the colt's breeder, who has terminal cancer, and the parents of an 8-year-old girl who died of cancer last August.

And now they have the classic victory they wanted so much.

Afleet Alex, who loves to run just off the lead, was 10th in the early going. The bay colt who weighs "just under 1,000 pounds," according to Ritchey, moved into contention on the final turn. And just as he appeared ready to make the same explosive move he used to win the Arkansas Derby, one of the scariest moments in Preakness history took place.

"I thought he was on the ground," Ritchey said. "I couldn't believe he got up and won the race."

Trainer Nick Zito struck out again in the Preakness. Two weeks after failing to win the Derby with five horses, he missed again with three horses. Sun King was fourth, Noble Causeway was sixth and High Fly was 10th.

In the $1 million Preakness, Afleet Alex earned $650,000 to boost his career bankroll to $2,165,800. The colt has won seven of 11 races.

Afleet Alex was a brilliant 2-year-old, winning his first four starts. He finished second in the Champagne and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile after a troubled trip, and came into the year as a leading Derby contender.

But after winning a stakes race at Oaklawn Park, Afleet Alex finished last in the Rebel Stakes, and Ritchey said his colt had developed a lung infection. Afleet Alex bounced back and won the Arkansas Derby by a record eight lengths to restore his reputation.

John Silvertand, the 60-year-old breeder, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2002 and given three months to live. But he said the effort to get Afleet Alex to the Triple Crown races gave him extra incentive to survive.

Cash Is King Stable, which owns Afleet Alex, is donating part of their horse's earning to Alex's Lemonade Stand, a children's cancer charity they learned about after reading a story in the newspaper. The lemonade stand was set up at Pimlico, as it was at Churchill Downs.

Alexandra Scott was diagnosed with cancer two days before her first birthday, in 1997. She opened the lemonade stand when she was 4, hoping to raise $1 million for her hospital. The girl died last August.

Nobody would have thought any of this was possible when Afleet Alex was a baby. With his mother unable to nurse her foal, Silvertand's daughter fed the horse out of a Coors Lite bottle with a nipple on top. A few days later, a nurse mare arrived and Afleet Alex was on his way to the races.

"An amazing story," Ritchey has said. "I'm proud to be part of it."

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