Only a handful of people were watching on the morning of April 26 when Afleet Alex recorded his first workout over the Churchill Downs strip in preparation for this year's Kentucky Derby.
The son of Northern Afleet turned in a solid :59 flat clocking for the five furlongs, but it wasn't the time that made an impression so much as the sheer athleticism the colt displayed. With his regular rider, Jeremy Rose, in the irons, Afleet Alex was glued to the rail around the turn and down the stretch, gliding along in an efficient and effortless manner. One of the workout's observers, The Blood-Horse's senior correspondent Steve Haskin, remarked as Afleet Alex was pulling up that the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) winner appeared to be a very "nimble-footed" runner.
That comment and the April 26 morning image of the athletic Afleet Alex flashed before me as I watched his sleight-of-foot trick at the top of the stretch in the 130th Preakness (gr. I), one that transformed near-disaster into delirium for jockey Rose, trainer Tim Ritchey, and the five Cash is King stable partners that bought him one year ago for $75,000.
The Pimlico crowd of 100,000-plus (at least those who were paying attention to the race) and a television audience in the millions gasped as one as a bolting Scrappy T knocked the front feet out from under Afleet Alex. They let out a collective sigh of relief when the remarkable colt refused to go down, the split-second reaction by horse and rider contributing to what will be one of the most famous incidents in Triple Crown history. As Afleet Alex rose, re-gathered himself, then dusted Scrappy T and the rest of the 14-horse Preakness field, the racing world stood in awe of his accomplishment. A new hero had emerged.
Afleet Alex is the real deal. He's an old-fashioned horse, one who wasn't babied as a 2-year-old when he showed championship form, falling just three-quarters of a length shy of an Eclipse Award as Wilko scored a 28-1 upset in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I). That was Afleet Alex's sixth start of 2004; only two of the 20 Derby horses had busier 2-year-old campaigns.
For a fleeting moment at the top of the Churchill Downs stretch, Afleet Alex looked like the Derby winner, but the first Saturday in May wasn't to be his day. His connections made no excuses when Afleet Alex weakened in the final furlong, finishing third, a length behind Giacomo, the 50-1 longshot who ran the race of his life on the biggest day of his life. Excuses were left to the Monday morning handicappers.
The best horse doesn't always win the Kentucky Derby. Gallahadion won the roses in 1940, but Bimelech proved the better of the two when he went on to win the Preakness and Belmont. Native Dancer aced the Triple Crown's last two legs after suffering his only career loss when Dark Star pulled off a stunning upset in the 1953 Kentucky Derby. Damascus, unnerved in the old, claustrophobic Churchill Downs paddock, ran third to Proud Clarion in the 1967 Derby but added the Preakness and Belmont en route to Horse of the Year laurels. Add Capot (1949), Nashua (1955), Little Current (1974), Risen Star (1988), Hansel (1991), Tabasco Cat (1994), and Point Given (2001) to the list of vanquished Derby runners who won the Triple Crown's final two legs.
Will Afleet Alex join their ranks, or will Giacomo become the 12th horse to win the Derby and Belmont sandwiched around losing the Preakness? More than anything, racing fans expect a rematch of these two runners in the June 11 Belmont Stakes (gr. I). It couldn't possibly duplicate the excitement raised by Smarty Jones during his Triple Crown bid last year, but it will provide bragging rights toward a divisional championship.
One thing is certain: Win or lose on Belmont day, Afleet Alex already has given racing fans something they'll never forget.