Steve Haskin's Derby Report: Afleet Heat
by Steve Haskin
Date Posted: 4/26/2005 3:06:04 PM
Last Updated: 4/27/2005 5:27:05 PM

By all accounts, Afleet Alex feels right at home at Churchill Downs.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Tuesday's activity can be pretty much summed up in two words: Afleet Alex -- with the emphasis on Afleet. Working over a loose track that was playing on the slow side, Alex blazed his five furlongs in :59, with several others getting him in :58 3/5.

One of those others was yours truly. Equipped with my trusty video camera, I caught him in :58 3/5, then timed him twice off the video, with the same result each time. Of the 29 works at the distance, the second-, third-, and fourth-fastest were 1:00 2/5, 1:00 4/5, and 1:01 1/5.

Prior to the work, trainer Tim Ritchey said he was looking for Alex to "start off slow and finish a little faster." He had been hoping for some rain overnight to tighten up the track, which had produced several slow Derby works in the past week.

There was nothing slow about this work, but there was a lot more to it than just the final time. It answered a lot of important questions, mainly that Afleet Alex can really motor without anyone stepping on the gas; he obviously loves the track; and the way he negotiated the turns showed he may be the most agile horse in the Derby.

Alex and jockey Jeremy Rose came on the track shortly after the renovation break, following gallops by Derby starters High Limit and Flower Alley. Accompanied by Ritchey on the pony, Alex went up the chute, where he cantered in circles for about five minutes, then jogged with the pony all the way around the oval until Ritchey let him loose after passing the three-quarter pole.

By the time Alex hit the five-eighths pole, he was rolling at a pretty good clip. The clockers got him in splits of :12 2/5, :24, :35 2/5, and :46 3/5. For whatever it's worth, I caught him closer to :47, with a final eighth in :11 3/5. But what's a few ticks here and there. What was to be taken from this work was the way Alex cut the corner turning for home. Horses running that fast often naturally drift three or four paths off the fence, but Alex hugged the rail and switched leads right on cue. You don't often see that kind agility, and when you do, you certainly take note of it.

Down the stretch, Rose's hands barely moved and couldn't have been any farther down on the horse's neck, which is another important thing you look for. Alex flew home under a nice loose rein, doing everything on his own, and had his ears back and his mind on business. Many horses will again drift off the fence while galloping out, but Alex was still glued to the rail going into the turn. He galloped out six furlongs in a strong 1:12 1/5 and pulled up seven panels in an equally strong 1:26. Just like that, the Churchill Downs track wasn't quite so slow any longer, although you wouldn't know it by looking at the 52 works at four furlongs, which, except for a bullet :47 3/5, ranged from :48 to :51 3/5.

So, what does one make of this work? It no doubt was pretty quick, 10 days after his eight-length romp in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II). But, as mentioned earlier, he did it all on his own, and some good horses simply work fast. Last year, Smarty Jones seemed to be on cruise control while working five furlongs in :58 flat, and he, too, hugged the rail the way Alex did.

A Third Coin in Pletcher's Fountain

Looking back at Saturday's Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II), the consensus around Todd Pletcher's barn is that the victorious Coin Silver, who is out of a Conquistador Cielo mare, used the slop to his advantage in drawing off to a 3 1/2-length score. As for his place in the Pletcher pecking order, he still is a clear-cut No. 3.

But horses have a way of changing dramatically leading up to the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), and this son of Anees has a lot more to recommend him than just having a superior slop pedigree. This colt should be taken seriously, regardless of the track condition.

Although the wet track condition did affect the performance of several horses, especially Rockport Harbor, Coin Silver was not exactly relishing it. He was given a sound bump shortly after the start and dropped well of the pace for the first time in his career. Instead of getting rank, he settled beautifully down on the inside and began to make steady progress. Just when it looked as if he were going to get boxed in, with slop hitting him in the face, he slipped between horses like an old pro and closed in on the leaders.

From the quarter pole to the eighth pole, he had his head way up in the air and was stuck on his left lead. Although he appeared to be struggling with the track, he still managed to draw clear. Nearing the wire, he suddenly dropped his head and shoulders, switched to his right lead and leveled off beautifully, finding another gear. By the time the wire came up, he looked as if he were just getting started...shades of Charismatic in the '99 Lexington.

When he broke his maiden, his victory was overshadowed by the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) and Swale (gr. II) Stakes, and Noble Causeway's impressive allowance victory. But in that 1 1/8-mile maiden race, which was earlier on the card when the track was extremely deep and tiring, he stretched out from seven furlongs and was under pressure every step of the way, being challenged by several different horses. He battled on tenaciously to win by 1 3/4 lengths in a gutsy effort, and his time of 1:52 was not that far off Noble Causeway's 1:50 4/5, when the track was already starting to get quicker.

What I really like about this colt, other than he seems to be improving at a rapid pace, is the fact his maternal great-grandsire is Prove Out, who is a rare find in today's pedigrees. Prove Out, a son of Graustark, is from a great King Ranch family, and on his best day was as good a racehorse as any I have ever seen – just ask Secretariat, Riva Ridge, Forego, Halo, and the other top horses he destroyed. Combined with Anees (by Unbridled, out of a daughter of Alydar and Ivory Wand), Coin Silver has an impeccable pedigree and will run all day. If you're looking for a big price in the Derby, he could be ready to make another big jump on May 7.

In Other Derby News

-- Bandini, who jogged Monday, walked the shed this morning between 5:30 and 6.

-- Another horse who just walked today was Consolidator, who may work Wednesday. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas was in California and was due back later this afternoon.

-- Nick Zito's foursome of Bellamy Road, Sun King, High Fly, and Noble Causeway all had good gallops this morning. Bellamy Road was a bit tougher today than he was yesterday. High Fly also wanted to get it on and was really feeling good coming back. Sun King has been strong the last two mornings, and Noble Causeway went very smoothly again.

-- High Limit had another strong gallop today after yesterday's powerful move. The son of Maria's Mon is looking good physically. Some who have been observing him say he has had made great progress since the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). Bobby Frankel will work him in company over the weekend.

-- Flower Alley again galloped in blinkers and was a picture coming down the stretch with fluid strides and his ears straight up.

-- Greater Good, who galloped today for trainer Bob Holthus, will work on Thursday at 7 o'clock.

-- Because of the rain forecast Thursday to Sunday, Craig Dollase has decided to hold off a bit before shipping Wilko to Kentucky. Last year's Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner is now scheduled to arrive on Saturday.

-- Churchill Downs will test all Derby and Oaks (gr. I) starters for milkshakes prior to the race, and for all stakes, they have increased the number of drugs tested for from 30 to 90.

-- Question of the day: is Spanish Chestnut really not running in the Derby as has been announced, or will he be used again as a rabbit for Bandini? For some reason, this colt's name just doesn't want to go away.

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