The day before the 130th Preakness Stakes (gr. I), jockey Jeremy Rose said of Afleet Alex, "This horse will run over broken glass if I ask him to."
Several weeks earlier at Churchill Downs, Liz Scott, mother of Alexandra "Alex" Scott, the 4-year-old girl who started the now-famous "Alex's Lemonade Stand" to raise money for cancer research, compared her daughter, who lost her battle with juvenile cancer last year, to Afleet Alex. "Alex was a fighter and determined," she said, "and watching this horse run definitely reminds me of her, with the same competitive, always-do-your-best attitude."
On May 21, the prophetic words of Rose and Scott and the heart of Afleet Alex became etched in Preakness lore. For as long as they run races at historic Pimlico Race Course, there will be erected a monument in the mind at the head of the stretch, honoring the courage and athleticism of a small bay colt and the rider with whom he bonded.
It all happened so quickly, yet the horrific image of Afleet Alex nearly falling after clipping heels will remain embedded in the memory, forever teetering on the edge of disaster.
Here was Afleet Alex, the horse whose life has been encompassed with one fairy tale saga after another, storming up on the outside of the leader, longshot Scrappy T. The record 115,318 fans in attendance erupted as they sensed the Cinderella story unfolding before them. But, in the blink of an eye, the scene changed. Jockey Ramon Dominguez reached back and gave Scrappy T a roundhouse left-handed whip, causing the colt to veer sharply to his right, and directly into the path of Afleet Alex. The crowd sensed that something ominous was about to happen, as if watching a car blow its front tire at the Indy 500 and spinning perilously out of control in front of oncoming traffic. Everyone held their breath, then let out a collective gasp.
Rose, who was expecting to see nothing but wide open spaces in front of him as he turned for home, suddenly was staring straight down into the brown Pimlico loam, which was moving rapidly toward him. Afleet Alex had clipped Scrappy T's heels and stumbled so badly, his face and knees were only inches from the ground. Rose's arms were now fully extended, as his body lurched in the air. He could only hang on to the reins, while grabbing hold of Alex's mane, and hope the colt who had become such a special part of his life would be able to pull himself off the ground.
"I think my heart stopped," Rose said. "I have no idea how I stayed on. The only reason I did was either Alex popped back up or little Alex (Scott) kept me on. I was basically hanging on in fear."
In one of the most remarkable recoveries ever seen, Afleet Alex not only was able to stay on his feet and keep Rose on his back, he got right back to the business of winning the race as if nothing had happened. It took him only two strides to switch over to his right lead, and just as quickly and dramatically as the scene had changed, it returned to normal. The only difference was that Alex was now on the inside of Scrappy T instead of the outside, his eyes glaring and his ears pinned, as if incensed at Scrappy T for putting him through such an ordeal.
Rose coolly regained his composure, and he and Alex quickly were back in sync, drawing off from Scrappy T to win by 4 3/4 lengths.
Following the race, emotions collided. The ecstasy of victory was tempered slightly by the frightful images that still were fresh in the minds of trainer Tim Ritchey and the partners in Cash is King Stable, whose first purchase was Afleet Alex.
"Unbelievable!" Ritchey exclaimed, his face still flushed. "I was horrified. I thought he was on the ground. He has the heart of a champion."
Joe Lerro, one of the partners--along with Bob Brittingham, Joseph Judge, Jennifer Reeves, and managing partner Chuck Zacney--said, "Oh, God, that scared me to death. I love Alex, and I love Jeremy. What a ride!"
For Zacney's wife, Carol, it didn't sink in until she was able to watch the replay while heading back to the stakes barn. She dreaded what was to come. When Alex almost went down, she clasped her hands in front of her mouth in shock. "Oh, my God. My baby!" she shouted, as tears quickly welled up with the realization of what might have happened to the horse she considered her "pet" and the jockey who calls her "mom."
"My big fear is that something is going to happen, and I always have nightmares about it," she said. "My mom died 20 years ago, and she was a very superstitious Irish lady, and now she's leaving that legacy behind. I always ask her to ride with Alex and Jeremy. Chuck's dad passed away when he was five, so I say, 'Mom, find Mr. Zacney and ride with him.' And after seeing what almost happened, I have to believe she was there with him today, because that was a miracle."
With all the connections of Afleet Alex being interviewed in an infield tent behind the winner's circle, a rainbow appeared to add to the ethereal flavor of the moment. One of the few to see it was Afleet Alex's breeder, John Silvertand, who has become a major part of the Afleet Alex fairy tale.
Afleet Alex's dam, Maggy Hawk, a daughter of Hawkster, was unable to produce milk, and therefore could not provide her foal with colostrum, the antibody-rich fluid that helps prevent disease outside the womb. Because a foal has only a 10% chance of surviving without colostrum, a nurse mare had to be found for the son of Northern Afleet. During the 12 days it took to obtain one, Silvertand's then 9-year-old daughter, Lauren, fed the foal milk every day out of a beer bottle. A photo of Lauren feeding Alex eventually made its way onto the colt's Web site and into other publications.
More than two years ago, Silvertand was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only a couple of months to live. As Afleet Alex's career progressed, Silvertand decided to discontinue chemotherapy and leave it "in God's hands" in order to fully enjoy the experience.
As the colt's fame grew, so did the story of Lauren. Before the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), Silvertand and his wife, Carolyn, were contacted by Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn and First Lady Dema Guinn, who said they were starting a cancer fund campaign and wanted to use the Silvertands' photo of Lauren to help bolster it.
Now Silvertand stood, away from all the excitement of the Preakness' post-race celebration. "I've got the shakes," he said. "The way he picked himself up and came back on was just fabulous."
Silvertand had traveled to Baltimore the day before the Preakness by himself from his home in Lake Worth, Fla. Although he had been feeling ill and was seriously thinking about staying home, he decided he had to be there for the race. This is what he had stayed alive to witness.
"My CEA (cancer screening) counts had been going down, but they've started to go back up again," Silvertand said. "So, I'm going in for a series of tests next week to see if the cancer has returned. But whatever happens, I didn't expect to be here this long, so it's all been wonderful for me. I try to plan things around Alex to keep me going. Right now, I'm planning on being at the Belmont (gr. I), then the Travers (gr. I) in beautiful Saratoga, and the Breeders' Cup. I can see it all in my mind. I don't notice my pain because of all the excitement that's going on. Maybe when everything quiets down tonight I won't feel as good as everyone else, but I'm still going to feel pretty good.
"This has been so much more than just a horse story. You have Alex's Lemonade Stand, which has been benefiting from all the publicity, and has gotten a great many people interested in horse racing. There are so many wonderful things in this world we will never get to see, and I'm just so glad to be here."
Alex's Lemonade Stand and its connection to Afleet Alex has been well documented. Zacney, who had named Afleet Alex after his son, heard about Alex Scott, a young girl diagnosed with neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of childhood cancer. Alex decided to open a lemonade stand in her front yard in order to raise money for cancer research. Word spread around the globe, and donations have now reached more than $2 million.
When Zacney heard about it, he naturally thought of Afleet Alex, his son Alex, and two of the other partners' children, named Alex and Alexandra. He pledged $5,000 to the fund, and now donates a portion of Afleet Alex's winnings. Last August, Alex Scott lost her battle with cancer at age eight, but her lemonade stand lives on. It collected around $11,000 at the Kentucky Derby and $17,000 at the Preakness. All of Afleet Alex's merchandising material is emblazoned with a lemon, signifying its support of the fund, and a portion of the proceeds are donated to Alex's Lemonade Stand.
Beyond the heart-warming fringes of the Afleet Alex story is Afleet Alex himself, and the unlikely cast of characters that surround him.
"Our story is about the little guy," Lerro said. "They called us bush league owners. They said we had a bush league trainer and a bush league jockey. Well, guess what? They didn't know about the heart of a champion. A lot of people wish they had our horse now, and our trainer and jockey."
Ritchey, a former show horse rider who nearly competed in the Olympics as a member of the U.S. Equestrian Team, recalls his first meeting with the horse who would change his life.
"Mr. Silvertand lost the horse on a coin toss following a foal-sharing agreement," he said. "He was considered an ugly duckling, and the person who won the toss (John Devers) sold him privately for $150,000 (to Joseph Allen). They broke him and put him in training, but the same advisers who told (Allen) to buy him, told him to get rid of him. So, he was consigned to the Fasig-Tipton Timonium sale as a 2-year-old."
Ritchey, who was training at Delaware Park, had met Zacney through his brother and one of Zacney's best friends. Zacney had followed Ritchey's career and often bet on his horses. He called and asked if Ritchey would buy a horse for him and the new partnership he was forming, all of whose members were from the Philadelphia/Delaware Valley area.
"I wasn't taking on any new clients at the time," Ritchey said. "I already had a full stable. But he was a great guy and straightforward, and we really hit it off. I told him, 'Sure, you guys get a little group together and we'll go ahead and do something.' "
That was in April 2004. One month later, Ritchey attended the Timonium sale with the intention of buying two horses. Ritchey picked out seven or eight colts he liked, one of whom was the son of Northern Afleet out of Maggy Hawk, consigned as agent by Robert Scanlon.
"I found him to be an extremely athletic, intelligent, and laid-back horse," Ritchey recalled. "The first time I had him out of his stall, they walked him for me. I loved the way he walked and moved. There were other horses outside at the same time, and they were leaping in the air and rearing and striking, and he just stood there like a rock and kind of looked at them as if to say, 'What are you guys doing?' That really impressed me. We had the vet look at his X-rays and do all the vet work, and he passed with flying colors."
Ritchey was willing to go up to $125,000, but there was only one other person, five seats away, bidding against him. The bidding crawled in $5,000 increments until Ritchey got him for $75,000, half of what he had originally sold for. Cash is King Stable had its first horse.
Lerro had joined the partnership because he had had a bad year betting and was looking for some action. All he recalls in the beginning was continuously calling Zacney and asking him, "What's our trainer's name again?" When Afleet Alex won his first two starts at Delaware Park by a combined 23 1/4 lengths, it was time to start thinking big. Ritchey rattled off a plan that would take the colt to the Sanford (gr. II) and Hopeful (gr. I) at Saratoga, then the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park and Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) at Lone Star Park.
Lerro called Zacney and said, "Who is this guy? He's out of his mind." Lerro went to Saratoga and took one look at D. Wayne Lukas and thought, "This is way out of my league. I can't handle this.
"Sure enough, Tim was right," he continued. "After Alex won the Sanford (in stakes record time), people started telling us that the Frankels and other top trainers are gonna be knocking at our door. At that point, I went 'Whoa.' I haven't stopped thanking Tim and Chuck since."
He thanked them when the $1.5-million offers started coming in. And he thanked them when the offers increased to $2 million. But Zacney and the partners had no intention of selling. This was about having fun and sharing it with friends and family. A victory in the Hopeful Stakes followed, and now Alex, the one-time ugly duckling, was a grade I winner. Although he ended the year with two narrow defeats in the Champagne and Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he still amassed earnings of $680,800.
During the winter at Oaklawn Park, Ritchey made a dramatic change in Alex's training routine that would become the brunt of jokes from other trainers. He began training the horse twice a day, jogging early, then following with a stiff gallop later in the morning.
"After the Breeders' Cup, he was getting bored in his stall, so we started walking him anywhere from three to five times a day," Ritchey said. "Then I began training him twice a day and he seemed to love it. You can't do it with every horse, but it really helped him. I had trainers at Oaklawn come up to me and say, 'Boy, you've got two horses that really look alike.' "
Alex rolled to an impressive victory in the six-furlong Mountain Valley Stakes March 5 before suffering a crushing defeat two weeks later in the Rebel Stakes (gr. III), finishing last as the 3-5 favorite, with John Velazquez replacing Rose in the saddle. But it was discovered the colt had a severe lung infection, and although many quickly dismissed him as a Derby contender, Ritchey never lost faith. He put him on antibiotics for seven days and pointed for the April 16 Arkansas Derby (gr. II). When Velazquez jumped ship and went to Todd Pletcher-trained Bandini for the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), Ritchey and the partners had a big decision to make: look for another big-name rider or go back to Rose, who had developed an almost spiritual-like rapport with Alex. They decided to remain loyal to Rose and named him to ride in the Arkansas Derby.
"After the Rebel, the first person back at the barn to see Alex was Jeremy," Zacney said. "It shows how much he cares for this horse. The bond the two of them have formed is really special, and it made a whole lot of sense to go back to Jeremy."
Following Alex's breathtaking eight-length victory, he was once again back on the list of leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby. Although Alex finished third at Churchill Downs behind longshots Giacomo and Closing Argument, he was beaten only a length while racing on the inside, considered the worst part of the track that day. (Alex actually came out of the Derby with another lung infection, but Ritchey and Zacney did not want to sound like they were making the same excuse again, so they treated him and kept it quiet).
About an hour after the Derby, while the connections of Giacomo were still celebrating, Rose, dressed and packed, made one final stop at Alex's Lemonade Stand to sign a photo. Dejected but proud of his horse's effort, he said, "He tried. He definitely tried. The horse gave me everything he had. We gave it our best and he dug in for all he's worth. He's a tough boy. He's still the best as far as I'm concerned, and hopefully we can try again in the Preakness."
So, now it was on to Baltimore and another shot at Giacomo and Closing Argument. Nick Zito had three of his five Derby starters--Sun King, High Fly, and Noble Causeway--back for another try in the 14-horse field, in which Afleet Alex was made the 3-1 favorite. The colt walked to the track to the chants of "Alex...Alex...Alex" resounding from the stands and the throng gathered near the gap.
The Bobby Frankel-trained High Limit, wearing blinkers for the first time, went to the front as expected, pressed by Going Wild, with Scrappy T and Galloping Grocer right behind. With High Limit and Going Wild at each other's throats, the pace over the drying-out track listed as fast was quick, with fractions of :23.17, :46.07, and 1:10.72.
Rose, who had broken from the disadvantageous 12 post, made a brilliant left-hand turn coming out of the gate, and somehow managed to get Alex to the two-path going into the first turn. He settled the colt nicely in 10th along the inside, about 10 lengths off the lead. Saving ground the whole way, he launched his bid and began picking off horses around the far turn while still hugging the rail.
By now, Scrappy T, winner of the Withers Stakes (gr. III), had put High Limit away and quickly opened a clear lead as they neared the head of the stretch. Only one horse had a shot to catch him, and that was a flying Afleet Alex, who was kicking into overdrive the same way he had in the Arkansas Derby and Mountain Valley.
He eased outside of High Limit and blew by him as if he were standing still, then quickly pounced on Scrappy T. The only question now was how far Alex would win by. Then came one of the scariest moments in racing history. "There was really nothing I could do," Dominguez said. "I knew Afleet Alex was right there. I looked back and I saw him stumble. It was scary, but luckily everyone is OK. I'm sure Jeremy knows it wasn't intentional."
Rose kept after Alex with several right-handed whips in the final furlong, and he continued to increase his lead. He closed his final three-sixteenths in an impressive :19 flat en route to a final time of 1:55.04 for the 1 3/16 miles, an excellent time over the deep track. Scrappy T hung tough, finishing five lengths ahead of Giacomo, who was a length in front of Sun King.
For the Derby winner, there was no disgrace in defeat. "You certainly can't feel embarrassed winning the Derby and coming back to finish third in the Preakness," trainer John Shirreffs said. "I think it says a lot about Giacomo."
So, the amazing journey of Afleet Alex marches on, driven by the power of the human spirit and one special Thoroughbred who has touched so many lives in so many ways.
As Rose sat on a bench the morning after the race, Alex, who was out grazing, came over to him and laid his head on the rider's shoulder. The day before, both had stared into the abyss, and each had helped pull the other out. Rose, without turning around, took out a mint and fed it to the colt, then reached up and gently stroked the side of Alex's head. Gratitude comes in many forms.