Afleet Alex, the dramatic winner of the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) three weeks ago and morning-line favorite for tomorrow's Belmont Stakes (gr. I), will be in a stalking position early in the race according to trainer Tim Ritchey.
Ritchey addressed the media outside Barn 5 on the Belmont backstretch Friday morning, the day before the "Test of a Champion." He discussed race strategy, his jockey Jeremy Rose, and for life after the Belmont for Cash is King Stable's son of Northern Afleet
The Belmont, third leg of the Triple Crown, is unique not only for it's 1 ½-mile distance, but for the track configuration. The largest racetrack in North America, the main track at Belmont is 1 ½ miles. Most racetracks are a mile or 1 1/16-mile layouts.
"It's somewhat of a rider's race," Ritchey said. "They have to judge the pace and know how fast they're going. Jeremy has to realize that whenever they switch to their left lead around that turn, they're at the four and a half (furlong) pole, they're not quite at the half-mile pole, so you've got to sit. On a mile racetrack when they switch leads, it's the three-eighths pole going into that turn and they start to gather a horse up and ask them to get up on the bit a little bit and make a run. Well, here you can't do that because you're too far from home.
"After already going a mile, there isn't a horse that can make another half of a mile big burst," he said. "It just doesn't happen. If he's patient and waits until the three-eighths pole and starts to pick it up a little bit, and then asks him a strong last quarter, I think that's the way you have to win this race."
But more than a rider's race, "you have to have a dead-fit horse," Ritchey said. "He has to have patience. He has to be able to rate and relax which has been the undoing of a lot of horses in this race. They haven't been able to relax. My horse has that quality where he'll relax as long as Jeremy wants him."
Ritchey was asked where Afleet Alex needed to be during the race based on the past history of deep closers not faring well.
"Horses start to stop enough where you can make up three, four, five lengths from the head of the lane to the wire without a problem," Ritchey said. "I think he'll be closer than that because I think it will be a slower pace. You'll have one or two of the horses that show speed try and kind of get off and open up a little bit and slow the pace down. They'll be going in :49 and change, which is kind of a gallop for most horses. I think you will not see a very strung-out field down the backside at least. They'll kind of start to stagger out after they get to the half-mile pole. By the time they turn for home, I think he'll be with two or three lengths and be able to make a run from there. At least that's what I hope."
Also making a run at time will be others in the race, including Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner and Preakness third Giacomo. Afleet Alex and Giacomo are the only two horses in the race to compete in both races and are two of only three graded stakes winners in the race. Based on Giacomo's 4-1 price on the morning line, most have considered this a two-horse race. But not Ritchey.
"This is an 11-horse race; no doubt about it," he said. "You just can't count one or two horses in any race."
Afleet Alex overcame a dramatic stumble at the top of the stretch of the Preakness, and ran off to win by 4 ¾ lengths. The bay colt apparently bounced back well from his acrobatic, and athletic, feat.
"He was a little muscle sore for a day or two, but he came right out of it," Ritchey said. "I think when any athlete is very, very fit, be it a baseball player, football player, whatever, they can overcome things. Their recuperative ability is a lot better than it would be if they were not in their peak of fitness."
Should he come out of the Belmont in good order, Ritchey and Cash is King have mapped out what's next for Afleet Alex.
"He'll get some time off. By that, I mean he'll train, he just won't train as rigorously," Ritchey said. "He won't do a series of breezes. I do want to have him hopefully ready for the Haskell, possibly the Travers. There are other goals later in the year. He will get a little bit of a rest. It won't be long because he likes to go out and do things."