When Afleet Alex returned to Belmont Park July 28 following surgery to repair a small hairline fracture of his ankle, it was concluded by most everyone that two possibilities existed regarding his future: he either would recover sufficiently to race as a 4-year-old, or his career as a racehorse was over.
But the very next day, managing partner Chuck Zacney launched what seemed to be a misguided missile when he uttered the words "Breeders' Cup."
"We look forward to Alex's return and hope to see him triumph in the Breeders' Cup," he said.
Not only Breeders' Cup, but triumph no less. Surely, this was no more than the ramblings of a delusional owner, everyone thought.
But, wait a minute. Dr. Patricia Hogan, the highly respected veterinarian who had performed the surgery, came out and said the Breeders' Cup was a possibility. So did trainer Tim Ritchey. So did noted veterinarian Larry Bramlage. They couldn't all be delusional. After all, this was Afleet Alex, who had already shown on several occasions he is no ordinary horse.
Well, Alex won't make the World Thoroughbred Championships, and wouldn't have in any event because of a week of rain that played havoc on Northeast tracks. But, the fact he came so close--just a faint shadow on an X-ray away--was nothing less than remarkable. With another week or so to allow the final 1% of the healing process to be completed, he actually could have pulled it off.
From the beginning, Ritchey and Hogan had to deal with their share of critics for pushing on with Hogan's aggressive post-op care recommendation, one in which she remained confident was the right way to go, considering how early the injury was detected. Hogan was the one who had to remove the drill bit from the bone five times to cool it off, as opposed to a normal two times, because Alex's bone was so hard.
"You can't just throw a horse in a stall for two months and expect it to heal well," Hogan maintained at the time. "He's used to being out several times a day and the screw is doing the job right now, and I really think exercise is important to the horse. The Breeders' Cup is not the goal, Alex's health is."
All year, Ritchey had to defend his twice-a-day training of Alex almost on a daily basis until the colt pounded his name into Triple Crown lore with his memorable victories in the Preakness (gr. I) and Belmont (gr. I), so he was no stranger to aggressive training. He immediately put Hogan's plan in motion.
After seven days of stall rest, Alex started walking--once a day for seven days, then twice a day. Finally, after walking five times a day, he was X-rayed and given the OK by Dr. Bramlage to jog. He began jogging Sept. 2, once a day and easy at first, then more often. After another set of X-rays he was given the go-ahead Sept. 16 to start galloping. Again Ritchey started slowly, then picked it up to where Alex was jogging early and galloping up to three miles later in the morning. Another set of X-rays were taken Sept. 28, and the following day Alex was given permission to breeze.
No one on July 27 could have envisioned in their wildest imagination that in only 65 days, Afleet Alex would be flying around the Belmont Park oval, working five furlongs in :59 4/5, the fastest work of the day at the distance. Or that he would come back Oct. 7 and turn in another bullet work, blazing a half-mile in :46 flat, more than a full second faster than the next fastest work.
Just like that, Alex was one prep race away from starting in the Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I). No, this was no ordinary horse.
But the Classic was never the ultimate goal, and when X-rays showed the fracture still was only 99% healed, it was decided to give him a little more time.
"The book isn't over; there are still more chapters to the story," Ritchey said the day after the surgery. One of those chapters has already been written.