Stretching Out: Preakness Top Three Discuss the Belmont

In an NTRA "Pre-Belmont" teleconference Thursday, trainers of the first three Preakness Stakes (gr. I) finishers--Afleet Alex, Scrappy T, and Giacomo--spoke to national media about that battle at Pimlico and the grueling 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes (gr. I) that awaits June 11.

"Alex came out of the Preakness in good shape--which is amazing," said trainer Tim Ritchey of his popular colt. "He worked yesterday--a nice, easy maintenance breeze--and everyone around him is pleased."

Ritchey, who will ship the son of Northern Afleet  from Pimlico to Belmont Park Saturday, said the recent concern over a possible case of strangles at the Elmont, N.Y., track caused a minor hiccup in Afleet Alex's travel plans.

"I would have liked to have had him at Belmont all week, getting to know the track, but it wasn't meant to be. We wanted to wait until we knew the situation was under control," said Ritchey. "But it won't be a problem. He's overcome a lot already and he ran there last year in the Champagne (Stakes, gr. I)."

Afleet Alex ran second, beaten a half-length by Proud Accolade in the one-mile Champagne last Oct. 9.

Asked about the now-famous heel-clipping incident at the top of the Pimlico stretch with Scrappy T, a colt whose connections are also leaning toward a start in the Belmont, Ritchey said the athletic effort put forth by his colt would be remembered for a long time.

"The way he recovered transcended racing," said Ritchey of the colt whose name is also attached to the plight of a young girl who lost her battle with cancer. "This created a lot of new fans for him and also a lot of interest in racing itself."

Ritchey said he was gratified to learn that at least 17 racetracks nationwide will open their version of Alex's Lemonade Stand, named for young Alexandra Scott, who started her own stand in an effort to end children's cancer before an aggressive form took her life in 2004.

Ritchey, who has employed an unorthodox "two-a-day" training routine with the Cash is King Stable's star, said he learned the method from his days in show riding and three-day eventing.

"My program all along was to get him through the rigors of the Triple Crown, specifically the mile-and-a-half Belmont," said Ritchey. "That's really asking a lot of a horse. We used the two-a-days to get some miles underneath him and build up his endurance--he's as fit as be could be."

Ritchey said he would give rider Jeremy Rose as many mounts at Belmont as possible in the coming days to acclimate him to the large track, and that his friend, trainer Scott Lake, would also call on Rose to help out.

Ritchey said the distance shouldn't bother his colt, and that an ideal trip, depending on the pace, would be to be close to the lead and make another of his typical 3/8-mile moves at the end.

"It may not be as dramatic a run as the Arkansas Derby (gr. II), given how much distance they've already covered. But we'd still like him to make one good three-eighths run."

Ritchey said he rehabilitates the colt daily with a pulsating, magnetic blanket that deeply penetrates the horse's muscles. The conditioner also said a rest would be in order for Afleet Alex after the race no matter the outcome, followed by mapping out a plan to get to either the Haskell or Travers Stakes (both gr. I) this summer.

Ritchey noted the final contest for the year for Afleet Alex would be the Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I) to be held Oct. 29 at Belmont Park.

Giacomo's trainer, John Shirreffs, said he was happy to be entering the final leg of the Triple Crown under the radar, as he did in the 131st Kentucky Derby (gr. I).

"I think it helps," said Shirreffs, when asked if he liked the relative anonymity given the star power of likely favorite Afleet Alex. "The more rest a horse can get, the better. Having his picture taken six hours a day is tough on him."

Shirreffs, who brought the Derby winner back home to California immediately after the Preakness, said doing so forced him to make sure the Belmont really was the proper call for the horse.

"We brought him home to relax, to be in his own stall, to get him away from the pressures of the press, and to really get a good look at his condition. He's holding his weight, eating well, and traveling well on the track," said Shirreffs.

"When you get into these races, you want to finish the series if possible. If he's doing well, we need to give him the opportunity to run a-mile-and-a-half because it might benefit him."

Shirreffs said the consensus of opinion seemed to be that Giacomo, homebred by Californians Jerry and Ann Moss, was well suited for the longest of the classics.

"He has a long stride, he relaxes well, he covers a lot of ground, and he is always coming at the end," he said.

"I don't think you can make up a lot of ground at a mile and a half," said Shirreffs, who noted that speed has held up fairly well in the Belmont in recent years, and that it might behoove them to be in position early. "I'll leave it to (jockey) Mike Smith to see how the race unfolds."

Shirreffs, who will breeze his colt for a final time on Sunday, and ship the son of Holy Bull to Belmont on Wednesday or Thursday of race week, said had tragedy struck at the top of the Preakness lane going for the elusive Triple Crown would be "tainted. That's not how it was meant to be.

"I was just watching to see how Giacomo was moving--whether he was making up any ground," Shirreffs said. "I'm just glad the other two are both OK."

Trainer Robert Bailes, who is still deciding whether to send the son of Fit to Fight in next Saturday's Belmont, is another who is glad both horses survived to battle another day. He remains as baffled as most observers.

"I've never seen anything like that from him," said Balies of Scrappy T. "It could have been the crowd, or when Ramon (Dominguez) hit him but, unfortunately, the horse can't talk to me and I can't answer.

"I can't sit here and guess what would have happened, but Ramon told me he had a ton of horse at the lead and at the end. Could he outdo Afleet Alex? That's hard to say."

Bailes said he will stay with Dominguez because he is "an excellent jockey" who has "gotten along well with him," and one who is "getting to know both his good and bad habits."

Bailes said a five-furlong work Thursday morning in "58 and change" was "a little quicker than we wanted, but he did it within himself. He ate his lunch up, and we'll give it a day or two to see how he is."

Bailes said an option aside from the Belmont would be the grade II Dwyer Stakes July 4 over the same track.