Afleet Alex and Jeremy Rose after Arkansas Derby win.

Afleet Alex and Jeremy Rose after Arkansas Derby win.

Shawn Coady

Afleet Alex Follows Smarty On Derby Path

(from Oaklawn Park report)
Afleet Alex gave Oaklawn Park its second major contender for the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) in as many years with his smashing win Saturday in the Arkansas Derby (gr. II).

Last year, of course, Smarty Jones parlayed his victories in the Southwest, Rebel (gr. III), and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn into huge triumphs in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (gr. I), earning a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn president Charles J. Cella in the process.

There is no bonus in play this year, but Afleet Alex, by virtue of his dominant eight-length victory before a crowd of 71,010, will be among the favorites for the May 7 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

Afleet Alex's margin of victory was the largest in the 69-year history of the Arkansas Derby, and the crowd, buoyed by perfect weather, was the second largest in Oaklawn's 101-year history.

Afleet Alex came out of the Derby in good order, and present plans call for him to ship Wednesday to Churchill Downs.

Despite his disappointing fifth-place finish as the second choice in the Arkansas Derby, Greater Good also will be pointed for the Kentucky Derby.

"Greater Good has done a lot in his career so far," says trainer Bob Holthus, who, this week, will ship his entire string to Churchill Downs, "so we plan to give him another chance."

Flower Alley, the runnerup in the Arkansas Derby, also will go on to the Kentucky Derby, according to trainer Todd Pletcher. "Flower Alley is an improving horse," says Pletcher, "and he'll get a mile and a quarter. So I think we will give it a try."

The Arkansas Derby did have one casualty.

Batson Challenge, who backed up to finish last after making the early lead, came out of the race with two slab fractures of the knee, and will be sent to Kentucky for surgery.

The injury is not considered life threatening, but, according to trainer Peter Vestal, Batson Challenge will be retired from racing after compiling a 2-0-1 record from seven starts. Ironically, Ide, the sire of Batson Challenge, broke down on the eve of the 1996 Arkansas Derby, for which he would have been favored, and never raced again.

By way of comparison, Afleet Alex covered the mile and a furlong in 1:48 4/5 over a fast strip, three-fifths of a second faster than Smarty Jones' time last year. It was also nearly two seconds faster than Bandini's winning time a half-hour earlier in the Blue Grass at Keeneland.

Kentucky Derby future-book players in Las Vegas took immediate notice of the Arkansas Derby result, and dropped Afleet Alex's odds from 19-1 to 5-1.

For Rose, the victory on Afleet Alex was doubly sweet.

In addition to winning the biggest race of his career, Rose, riding at Oaklawn for the first time, also won the riding title by -- yes -- one winner over two-time Oaklawn champion Calvin Borel (48-47). Luis Quinonez finished third with 45 victories.

Nevertheless, trainer Tim Ritchey stopped short of naming Rose on Afleet Alex for the Kentucky Derby. "Let's just enjoy the moment," Ritchey said, "we'll talk about that later."

"If they name me on, they name me on," Rose said. "I just love riding the horse."

Otherwise, Rose, an Eclipse winner as an apprentice, and Ritchey's go-to rider for several years on the Maryland-Delaware circuit, was ecstactic in the aftermath of the Arkansas Derby. Rose had been the colt's regular rider until replaced by John Velazquez for the Rebel here March 19. Alex finished last at 3-5 in the Rebel, but was diagnosed shortly after the race with a lung infection.

"This is a perfect ending," said Rose. "It's like a Cinderella-type story. Get back on Alex, win the title on him, in the biggest race he's ever won, and I've ever won. You couldn't ask for anything more. This was Alex's best race, even better than the Sanford (last August at Saratoga). Today, he was really on top of his game."

"What a difference without a lung infection," said Ritchey, "Alex ran the race I knew he could. And I guess he silenced the skeptics who said he couldn't get two-turns."

Meanwhile, on Sunday afternoon, a Tex Sutton aircraft left Hot Springs Memorial Field for Louisville. Among its equine passengers were Derby runner-up Flower Alley, Andromeda's Hero, who finished third, Rush Bay (seventh), and Wild Desert (eighth).

Also on the aircraft were Rockport Harbor, who will make his next start Saturday in the Lexington Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland, and barnmate Round Pond, the winner of the Fantasy Stakes (gr. II) Friday. Round Pond will make her next start in the Black Eyed Susan Stakes (gr. II) on May 20 at Pimlico.