Trainer Nick Zito has had nine horses finish behind Afleet Alex this year, and will try him again with three more in Saturday's Belmont Stakes (gr. I). That in itself would certainly make the Preakness (gr. I) winner a thorn in Zito's side. But Zito and Alex have a history together that goes back a lot farther than this year's Triple Crown trail.
Last June, Zito ran a horse at Delaware Park, where he kept a small string. Zito's assistant, Tim Poole, arrived just before the race, and after stopping at the receiving barn, he drove to the horsemen's parking lot, located on the clubhouse turn. As Poole was getting out of his car, the horses from the previous race were pulling up on the turn. Just then, his phone rang. It was Zito, whose voice was bursting with excitement.
"Did you see that?" he bellowed.
"See what?" Poole asked, not knowing what he was talking about.
"That race, did you see it?" Zito said.
Poole, not knowing where this race had taken place, asked Zito what track he was referring to.
"Right there where you are," said Zito, who had just seen a first-time starter named Afleet Alex turn in a performance so impressive he knew immediately he had to have the horse. When Poole told him he had just arrived and hadn't seen the race, Zito told him to run in the racing office and watch the replay, and then go see racing secretary Sam Abbey and have him contact Afleet Alex's trainer, Tim Ritchey.
Zito's instructions to Poole were simple: "When you get a hold of Ritchey, tell him, 'Whatever you want for that horse just name your price'."
"He didn't say make me an offer," Poole recalled. "He said whatever he wants. But Ritchey said he didn't think he was for sale."
"Nick and I are good friends," Abbey said, "and he also asked me to ask Timmy if he was for sale. Nick is a great horseman and he obviously saw something special."
Later that day, Zito called Ritchey himself. "Nick asked if he was for sale," Ritchey recalled. "Then, he said again, 'Name your price.' But the owners (Cash is King Stable) had no interest in selling."
What was it about Afleet Alex's 11 1/4-length victory that got Zito so excited that he was willing to spend any amount for him?
"He was the only horse that's ever reminded me of Spectacular Bid," Zito said. "I remember when 'The Bid' broke his maiden, and it was so similar. I wanted to buy the horse for Bob LaPenta. I knew this was no ordinary horse; that's why I told Timmy to buy him at any price. Here I am offering a million dollars or more for a horse who had just broken his maiden at Delaware Park and they turned us down."
It wouldn't be the last time Cash is King managing partner Chuck Zacney and the other partners turned down a substantial offer for Afleet Alex. As Abbey said, "They knew what they had." And now the entire racing world knows what they have.
Purchased for $75,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic May sale of 2-year-olds in training, Afleet Alex has won seven of 11 starts, with three placings, and earned $2,165,800. In addition to winning the Preakness, the son of Northern Afleet
has won the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I), Arkansas Derby (gr. II), Sanford Stakes (gr. II) and Mountain Valley Stakes. He has also finished second in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) and Champagne (gr. I), and was third in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I).
So, Zito will try once again to beat the horse he so desperately wanted last year.
"He's a great horse," Zito said. "I've been on the racetrack since I was a kid, and I have never seen anything like what he did in the Preakness. And I mean never. His whole story, with Alex's Lemonade Stand, is so inspiring. After the (Kentucky) Derby (gr. I), when I got beat with all five of my horses, all I thought about was Alex Scott, and that put everything in its proper perspective."To purchase photographs of Afleet Alex and other great thoroughbreds, click here.