Steve Haskin's Analysis: Afleet Group of Horses in 2005

Steve Haskin's Analysis: Afleet Group of Horses in 2005
Photo: Barbara D. Livingston
Afleet Alex's heroics were the highlight of the 2005 racing season.
Not to take anything away from the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, or Saint Liam's grade I victories in the winter, summer, and fall, or Giacomo's stunning upset in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), or Lost in the Fog's remarkable cross-country odyssey, but 2005 will be remembered for the heroic deeds of Afleet Alex.

For the first half of the year, there were countless stories written about the son of Northern Afleet   and his near-disastrous stumble in the Preakness (gr. I); his contribution to Alex's Lemonade Stand and its fight against juvenile cancer; his inspiration in keeping his cancer-stricken breeder alive; his runaway victories in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and Arkansas Derby (gr. II); his unorthodox twice-a-day training regimen; and even his two bullet works only two months after undergoing surgery for a hairline fracture.

I have on several occasions discussed my unabashed admiration of Afleet Alex. Some horses just find their way into your heart, and Alex is that kind of horse. But all sentiment aside, there have been few horses, statistically speaking, that can match his accomplishments:

-- For versatility, checking back over the last 40 years, there was no record found of any horse other than Afleet Alex having won the mile and a half Belmont Stakes and a six-furlong stakes in the same year.

-- Also in the last 40 years, the only two horses other than Afleet Alex to win the historic Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) at two and the Belmont Stakes at three were Secretariat and Affirmed.

-- Afleet Alex's final quarter of :24 2/5 in the Belmont Stakes was the fastest since Arts and Letters in 1969. To show his equal ability going long or short, he closed his final quarter in the six-furlong Mountain Valley Stakes in :24 flat for a final time of 1:09 2/5. And he turned in the same devastating move on the turn going six furlongs, 1 1/8 miles, 1 3/16 miles, and 1 1/2 miles.

-- Even with his stumbling badly at the quarter pole in the Preakness, only one horse in the past 14 years has been able to close his final three-sixteenths in faster time, and that was only by a fifth of a second.

-- Despite winning the Hopeful by a neck and the Preakness by a smaller margin than he would have had he not almost fallen, he still has won his eight career races by an average margin of 6 1/2 lengths.

-- He's won at six different distances from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/2 miles. He destroyed his opposition going short and long, winning by margins of 11 1/4 lengths and 12 lengths at 5 1/2 furlongs; by eight lengths at 1 1/8 miles; and by seven lengths at 1 1/2 miles.

-- Horses he defeated have gone on to win the Travers, Queen's Plate, Jim Dandy, Pennsylvania Derby, West Virginia Derby, Jamaica Handicap, and Leonard Richards, and were second in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Haskell Invitational, and Super Derby, and third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Super Derby. And Preakness runner-up Scrappy T. will be one of the horses to beat in Saturday's Cigar Mile (gr. I).

But Afleet Alex certainly was not the only bright star of 2005, which saw some of the most brilliant performances in many years. As long as they talk about Kentucky Derby preps, Bellamy Road's spectacular 17 1/2-length romp in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) in 1:47 flat will be a major topic of conversation. Bellamy Road's stablemate Commentator also stamped his brilliance with two dazzling efforts, including a game neck victory over Saint Liam in the Whitney (gr. I), his first win around two turns and his first test of class. His previous six career victories were by an average margin of more than 9 3/4 lengths. In his first start of the year, he won a seven-furlong allowance race by 16 1/2 lengths is 1:20 1/5. Fortunately, both these gifted horses will be back in 2006.

Seeing through the Fog

With Afleet Alex sidelined on Breeders' Cup day, no one can argue that Lost in the Fog was the media star of the event. The colt's critics have every right to state their case that he didn't beat any truly top-class stakes horses, but for him to win 10 straight races, while traveling all over the country and defeating every horse thrown at him, and in their own back yard, he deserved all the accolades he received. And it's not like his times weren't brilliant. He simply had a bad day on Oct. 29, likely due to several reasons, including a rough start and losing his composure in the detention barn, which carried over into the paddock.

Yes, Silver Train won the big race on the big day, but stating a case for him as champion sprinter, while knocking Lost in the Fog for losing one race at the end of a long, hard year after all he did accomplish sends out the wrong signals. Imagine stakes races all year drawing small fields of grade II and III horses while the grade I horses sit back and wait for the Breeders' Cup just so their owners can take home a statue.

Rabbits gone wild

Speaking of Bellamy Road and Commentator, both were victimized last year by some unorthodox rabbit tactics. In the Kentucky Derby, trainer Todd Pletcher and Spanish Chestnut's co-owners Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith used the colt to run Bellamy Road into the ground, even though Spanish Chestnut was trained by Patrick Biancone and had no shot to win. The recipient of these tactics was supposed to be the Pletcher-trained and Tabor and Smith-owned Bandini. But Bandini had been mainly a stalker and would have been hurt as well by a blistering pace, which Spanish Chestnut wound up setting.

Pletcher also had another stalker in the race, Flower Alley, who was wearing blinkers for the first time, and he, too, was caught up in Spanish Chestnut's frenzied pace. Bandini came out of the race with an injury and hasn't raced since. Neither has Spanish Chestnut. Bellamy Road injured a splint and didn't return until the Travers (gr. I). After finishing a game second to Flower Alley he popped his splint once again and was forced to miss the Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I). No one knows if the presence of Spanish Chestnut and his kamikaze mission had any bearing on these injuries, but the bottom line is that this was one rabbit attack that produced only victims.

Flower Alley went on to do quite well on his own, winning the Travers and Jim Dandy (gr. II), but when Pletcher reached into his hat and pulled out another rabbit for the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) to kill off Lava Man, guess who wound up going head-and-head with his own rabbit and staggering home a well-beaten fourth? Back on his own in the Classic, he came within a length of a possible Horse of the Year title.

The one case where a rabbit (make that two rabbits) did help was in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) when trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. used not one but two speedballs to gang up on Commentator to prevent a repeat of the Whitney, in which Saint Liam was unable to catch Commentator, falling a neck short. And gang up they did, with one of them blazing a hot trail on the lead, and the other taking back with the sole purpose of ambushing Commentator by eyeballing him wherever he went. Not only was it unusual to employ two rabbits, and use them on a search and destroy mission, it also was unusual using two horses from another owner. It gave Saint Liam the easy race Dutrow wanted for him and set the horse up for his Classic victory, but it came at the expense of Commentator, who came out of the race with a shin injury.

Odds and ends

.-- Too much of a good thing -- The accomplishment with the sharpest double-edged sword had to be Nick Zito's saddling five horses in the Kentucky Derby for five different owners. Although it would appear to be every trainer's dream, just imagine going into the Derby knowing you are going to saddle at least four losers and have to deal with no less than four losing owners. Zito, whose emotions flow like lava from a volcano, also was aware that if he had won, he would have to control his enthusiasm in deference to the losing owners.

-- Most underrated performance of the year – You don't hear much talk about it any more, but there have been few performances as dominating and powerful as Cesario's romp in the American Oaks (gr. IT). An amazing physical specimen, the way she ran off before the race, and then ran off in the race to crush her opposition, which included Melhor Ainda and Luas Line, suggests she was something special. And what a boost for Japan, which made its first major impact on American racing, and did it in spectacular fashion.

-- Plenty of room at the top – What in the world happened to the 3-year-old filly division? Sweet Catomine, Sis City, Summerly, Round Pond, and Smuggler, all took their place on the throne at some point, but all managed to fall off for one reason or another. Sweet Symphony took over the vacant seat in August, but she also didn't stay on very long. And then there was Splendid Blended, who had only two starts – a fourth in the Acorn (gr. I) and a victory over older horses in the grade I Vanity before being retired. Now it is up to the Eclipse voters to pick one of them up off the floor and put them back on the throne long enough to be voted champion.

-- Here's a toast to 6-year-olds Perfect Drift, Taste of Paradise, and Gygistar, and 7-year-old Evening Attire, as well as the 6-year-old mares Riskaverse, Megahertz, and Wonder Again. In this day and age in particular, we should appreciate these tough old warriors for their durability and consistency against top-quality competition. More than ever, racing needs horses like this, and it needs the fans to embrace them.

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