June 18, 2010

Remembering ... Afleet Alex

Watching Thoroughbred horse racing gives the viewer continuous opportunities to see something marvelous. These athletes, with their grace and power, speed and determination, are born to thrill. When a horse exceeds all others in each quality, they are called great, and on those rarest of occasions when a great horse has the chance to display everything they have, we are left to watch in awe. I have been lucky enough to see many truly awesome performances over the years. Few, if any, were more memorable than what a plucky little bay colt was able to do on May 21, 2005.

Afleet Alex snatched classic victory from the jaws of almost certain disaster on that day. His win in the Preakness Stakes was one of the most miraculous displays of grace and power, speed and determination I have ever seen, or will ever see. As if shot out of a cannon, Afleet Alex exploded on the turn. It was the type of move destined to win a race by a shockingly large margin. But then, in a heartbeat, the unexpected happened. Managing to stay upright after being sideswiped by the bolting race leader, Scrappy T, was amazing. Regrouping to score a 4 3/4-length victory in the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown was perfection.

Overcoming adversity was nothing new for Afleet Alex. Likely to die as a newborn foal when his mother was unable to produce milk, Alex was bottle fed by 9-year-old Lauren Silvertand in order to have a chance to live. Displaying the heart that the world would soon see, Afleet Alex survived and grew strong. From this scary beginning a wonderful story was born. Overlooked by the big money, he was purchased for a bargain price by a group of five Philadelphia partners buying their first horse.

When Afleet Alex’s ownership heard of the heartwarming story of Alex Scott, a little girl who fought cancer for both herself and others until her death, and her lemonade stand, they thought of their friend and Alex’s breeder, John Silvertand, and his battle with cancer. They knew right away that they would utilize Afleet Alex’s talents to fight cancer. The owners announced they would donate a portion of his winnings to Alex’s Lemonade Stand, and they did much more to support the noble cause. Alex’s Lemonade Stand became almost as big a story during the 2005 Triple Crown as the horse himself. Thanks in large part to Afleet Alex, Alex Scott’s dream of raising $1 million to benefit pediatric cancer research has been long since exceeded.

There was much more to this colt than an admirable story though. On the racetrack, Afleet Alex proved to be a star from his very first race run for Cash is King Stable, trainer Tim Ritchey, and rider Jeremy Rose. In his debut, he romped by more than 11 lengths in a Delaware Park maiden special weight. Returning in a little over two weeks, Alex was once again thoroughly impressive as he destroyed Delaware allowance runners by 12 lengths, again stopping the timer in 1:03 4/5 for 5 ½ furlongs. It would be the last time Alex would be seen in anything other than a stakes race. From there he left his Delaware base for the big races of New York and Saratoga.

An easy score in the grade 2 Sanford announced Afleet Alex as one of the top juveniles in the nation. A brave score in the sloppy, grade 1 Hopeful elevated him to be the top rated two-year-old in the land. This would prove to be the highlight of his early career though, as things would not have a storybook ending for Afleet Alex for some time after his initial four victories. His first try at a distance saw Alex prove game, but come up a little short in the prestigious Champagne Stakes, finishing 2nd to Proud Accolade by a half length. A strong effort, but his winning streak had been broken. It was on to Lone Star Park for the only Breeders’ Cup to be run in Texas. The tough little colt by Northern Afleet out of the Hawkster mare Maggy Hawk would again run huge. Out wide most of the race, Afleet Alex powered to the lead in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile stretch only to succumb late to the rally of the English invader, Wilko. It was a loss that cost Afleet Alex an Eclipse Award, but still, six races and six excellent performances.

At three, Alex would prepare for the Triple Crown in Arkansas. He began with an easy score in the sprinty Mountain Valley Stakes earning a lofty 106 Beyer figure in the process. It was all systems go for a march to Louisville. His next race saw Alex be ridden for the first time by anyone other than Jeremy Rose, as his connections went with the high profile John Velazquez in the Rebel Stakes. Bet down to 3-5, Afleet Alex backed out inexplicably and finished a well beaten last. A shocking result for the model of consistency; people wondered what happened.

They would not need worry long. After bouncing back from the lung infection that caused his only less than stellar performance, and reunited with Jeremy Rose, Afleet Alex used the Arkansas Derby as a launching pad to the Kentucky Derby. Literally. Afleet Alex showed a turn of foot seldom seen in our sport to romp home in the Arkansas Derby by eight lengths. Sent off as one the favorites on Derby Day, it would prove to be his only stumbling block to becoming our twelfth Triple Crown champion. Much like the previous year’s Breeders’ Cup, Alex ran big to look like a winner off the Derby’s blistering fractions, before succumbing late to the rally of the longshot closer, Giacomo. For whatever reason he weakened late and finished 3rd beaten one length. For Afleet Alex, the best was most assuredly still to come.

If the amazing Preakness made him a star, it was the Belmont Stakes that proved the fact. Sent off as a heavy favorite, Alex would, just as he had done in the Arkansas Derby and Preakness, unleash a move on the turn that was as electrifying as it was lethal. Leaving the Derby winner behind to struggle in his wake, Afleet Alex cantered home the best by an effortless seven lengths, and there could no longer be any doubt that he was a superstar.

To the dismay of the racing world, his overpowering performance in the Belmont Stakes would be his final career race. First a hairline fracture was found in July, and then he was retired later in the year after another injury was detected, which was believed to have caused the colt's original hairline condylar fracture of the left front cannon bone. Today he stands at Gainesway Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. Five years removed from his win in the Belmont, and his breeding career has just began to roll with his first crop of racing age now three. In fact he has a couple of promising colts in Afleet Again, and Afleet Express, ready to challenge Jackson Bend in tomorrow’s Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth Park.

Afleet Alex’s resume of eight wins in twelve starts, earning nearly three million dollars, and an Eclipse Award as the most outstanding three-year-old male of 2005, while impressive, seems somewhat unfulfilled. He was a champion from day one in my book, and he was only getting better. He could handle any distance and his explosive rally had become irresistible. His final two races in the Preakness and the Belmont were his best ever, and performances that I can never forget. Who knows how good this horse may have become? I remember you Afleet Alex.


railrunner said...

I was just watching his races on Monday, it always gives me fresh tingles when I watch his Preakness...how in the world did he win that one?!
The Belmont was stunning as well, he was so explosive.

Kimness said...

He had the potential to be a TC winner - too bad he didn't win the Kentucky Derby.
And like railrunner, I too get 'fresh tingles' when I watch his Preakness. That was one amazing race!
I remember you Afleet Alex & I route for your babies every chance I get! (great article Brian - thank you!!)

LDP said...

I saw the Preakness, the day of my uncle's funeral. He was only 28 and die from colen cancer. I had been so shaken by his death and then again at the viewing I was unable to go to the actual funeral.

Alex's performance in the Preakness was the inspiration I needed that day. I loved his brilliance, but even more his heart and courage. He was a great horse and it's such a shame his career was cut so short.

Brian Zipse said...

Yes he was Railrunner...Thank you Kimness! These beautiful animals can be so inspirational, can't they LDP? ;)

ja.raymond said...

I'd forgotten just how amazing he was! Almost any other horse would have totally spit the bit right there when he clipped heels, but, no, he just kept diggin'!
What a little fighter - from birth to Belmont!
TY Brian, for refreshing my memory. :)

The Paper Tyger said...

Loved cheering him home to victory that year at Belmont...such a gutsy horse. Hope some of that courage lives on in his progeny. Great to read about him again!

Brian Zipse said...

Thank you Jane, he is definitely a special horse. I think he will prove to be an excellent sire, and good to see you here The Paper Tyger.

PEGGY said...