As a budding athlete in grade school, Tim Ritchey recalls, he did "two-a-day" drills as a member of the football team.
"In grade school we did 'two-a-days'," said Ritchey, who trains Afleet Alex, the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) winner who is among the favorites for the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). "I know you get fit a lot quicker and you pick up on things a lot quicker."
Ritchey is applying those lessons learned at a young age, along with lessons learned as a trainer of show horses and a healthy dose of what he calls "common sense," in his training of Afleet Alex.
While some trainers treat their horses like fine china that is protected at all costs to minimize the risk of injury, Ritchey employs a regimen in which Afleet Alex is given a lot of exercise, sometimes going to the track twice a day for jogs and gallops. The colt only goes to the track once a day before a breeze, but he rarely goes more than two days without a strong gallop on the track.
Owned by the Cash is King Stable, Afleet Alex has won or placed in eight of nine starts, with six victories and $1.3 million in earnings to his credit. The son of Northern Afleet
was purchased for $75,000 from the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic May sale of 2-year-olds in training.
"They (horses) are athletes and they have to be fit," Ritchey said. "You cannot baby them."
Ritchey said by trial and error he determined Afleet Alex needed more time out of the stall than many other horses. He noted the colt became bored while in his stall for 23 1/2 hours a day. So he decided to provide more activity in the colt's daily activities.
In addition to going to the track more often than other horses, Afleet Alex also has a rubber ball suspended in the center of his stall that he plays with throughout the day.
"They are all individuals, and you can't treat every horse the same, just as you can't treat every person you meet the same," Ritchey said. "He looks forward to going out there. A fit and happy horse is what you want."
A former steeplechase rider, Ritchey calls upon his experiences within that sport and showing horses as his models for trying to figure out horses quickly.
"With show horses, you get a horse and you have 15 to 20 minutes before you go into the show ring to figure them out," said Ritchey, noting his willingness to quickly try to learn a horse's personality traits.
"It's a bit of trial and error and common sense," Ritchey said, adding that when he was involved with steeplechasing, he noticed horses liked being out for long periods of exercise.
While his training program with Afleet Alex is successful, Ritchey acknowledges it's not practical to follow the same routine with all 45 horses in his stable.
"It is a time-consuming process, but when you have a horse of this caliber, you do what you have to do," Ritchey said. "It is just not physically possible to do it with every horse."
Overall, Ritchey said it is Afleet Alex who makes him look good, not the opposite.
"Horses make the trainer," Ritchey said. "I don't care what anybody says. Trainers don't make the horse."
An Eclipse Award finalist as top 2-year-old male of 2004, Afleet Alex won the Mountain Valley Stakes at Oaklawn Park before turning in the worst finish in his career when sixth in the Rebel Stakes (gr. III). But he rebounded nicely to win the Arkansas Derby by a widening eight lengths in a performance Ritchey hopes is duplicated May 7.
"He ran better than I thought he would," Ritchey said of the Arkansas Derby. "I was just very pleased he ran his race. It is good to see him perform the way he had shown me he could in the mornings."
Saying that training Afleet Alex is a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience which he hopes is repeated at some point in the future, Ritchey appears humbled by the experience.
"He is a special horse, and I am just fortunate to have had the opportunity to train him," he said.