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Afleet Alex Is Back for Seconds

Seven-length win in the Belmont gives him two jewels in Triple Crown, missing only the Derby.

June 12, 2005|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

ELMONT, N.Y. — Nick Zito tried 11 ways to win a Triple Crown race this year, but the best the trainer could do was Andromeda's Hero's second-place finish in Saturday's Belmont, and even that was an illusion.

Afleet Alex, towering over his contemporaries once again, whipped the pants off them, much the way he had in the Preakness. The colt's seven-length margin made him the 11th horse to run in all the Triple Crown races and win the Preakness and the Belmont after not winning the Derby.

Zito, who ran five horses in the Kentucky Derby and three each in the Preakness and the Belmont, stopped in the Belmont Park tunnel on his way back to the barn and raved about Afleet Alex.

"The way he ran today, just three weeks after the Preakness, was amazing," Zito said. "The way he's done it is great for racing. This horse was a great 2-year-old, and he hasn't stopped. He's a very special horse."

Among the no-sweep horses who flubbed in the Derby before winning the next two in the series have been Point Given (2001), Risen Star (1988) and Little Current (1974). Point Given's downfall was getting caught up in a speed duel at Churchill Downs. Risen Star missed a hole that might have made him a winner in Louisville, and Little Current was stopped several times in a 23-horse Derby field. It's the woulda-coulda-shoulda of the Triple Crown that leaves Affirmed as the 11th and last horse to sweep, in 1978.

Afleet Alex is a good fit with Point Given and the others. He finished third, beaten by only a length, in the Derby. Giacomo, the Derby winner, repeatedly had trouble getting his breath in the Belmont but still made the lead with a quarter-mile left before finishing seventh, 18 lengths from the winner. Afleet Alex, despite clipping heels with another horse and almost falling, beat Giacomo by 9 3/4 lengths in the Preakness.

Afleet Alex was inside, next to the rail, for a long time in the Derby.

"I just wished I had room to hit him left-handed that day," said Jeremy Rose, the first jockey to win the Belmont on his first try since Rene Douglas with Editor's Note nine years ago. "Instead I had to switch to the right. It may have cost us second, or even the win. I feel responsible, although I don't know whether I did anything wrong. I had the best horse, and he should have been a Triple Crown winner."

Afleet Alex's trainer, Tim Ritchey, preferred to look only ahead.

"He ran a great race in the Derby, but I can't look back," Ritchey said. "[Winning the Derby] just wasn't to be. Jeremy rode the Triple Crown races like a hall of famer."

Ritchey, saying that the immediate goals for Afleet Alex are the Haskell at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., and the Travers at Saratoga in upstate New York, also was emphatic that the colt's five owners, who masquerade as the Cash Is King Stable, want to race the horse next year.

The crowd on a steamy, overcast day was 62,274, about half the record throng that watched as Smarty Jones failed to sweep the triple a year ago. Afleet Alex, a $75,000 auction purchase, earned $600,000 of the $1-million purse, racking up his eighth win in 12 starts. He ran 1 1/2 miles in 2:28 3/5 and paid $4.30, the lowest payoff for the race winner since A.P. Indy's $4.20 in 1992.

Andromeda's Hero finished 6 3/4 lengths ahead of Nolan's Cat, a maiden who took third by 2 1/4 lengths over Indy Storm. The rest of the order of finish was A.P. Arrow, Chekhov, Giacomo, Southern Africa, Watchmon, Reverberate and Pinpoint, who led for the opening mile.

Mike Smith got off Giacomo after the race, and before he could explain to trainer John Shirreffs, standing by, about his mount's breathing problems, the Derby winner let out a roar -- for the fourth time, by Smith's count. It was the unmistakable sound of a displaced palate, a condition in which a horse flips his palate over the trachea and shuts off his air.

"Down the backstretch, I could hear the loud, roaring noise," Smith said. "So I got him to the outside and dropped his head -- a lot of times that will help get [the palate] back. But he never did."

Giacomo was ahead of Afleet Alex on the long backstretch, and ahead of them all for several strides at the quarter pole.

"He let out another [roar] then," Smith said. "He got worked up in the [security] barn, and in the post parade. [But] I won't take anything away from Afleet Alex. He ran great."

After a mile, Afleet Alex was in eighth place, Rose just waiting to push the button. Rose said he might have waited longer to make the lead, but when Giacomo, by now the only horse in front of them, stopped running, the choice was academic.

"My horse exploded at the quarter pole and that was it," said Rose, who could have gone down and been trampled by trailing horses in the Preakness. "We had a perfect trip this time. Alex put me in the garden spot. There was no clipping of heels this time, and I like it that way."

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