Two of the greatest moments on the Triple Crown trail came courtesy of Afleet Alex and Tapit, who both reside at Gainesway Farm. Alex, of course, is known for his remarkable recovery after stumbling so badly in the Preakness Stakes, his nose actually hit the dirt. Miraculously, he was able to pick himself up off the ground, and smoothly switch leads and draw off to an easy victory over Scrappy T., the horse who veered sharply in his path at the top of the stretch, nearly causing one of the worst catastrophes in Triple Crown history.
After nearly 10 years, that remains arguably the single most athletic feat by a Thoroughbred seen in many years.
Coincidentally, the day before the Preakness, Afleet Alex’s jockey, Jeremy Rose, said of the colt, “This horse will run on broken glass if I ask him.”
The following day, the prophetic words of Rose 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, and 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 reaching to try to grab 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. 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.
Alex provided another memorable moment, but this one was not in a race. It occurred while training for the Belmont Stakes.
It was a sweltering morning, with temperatures reaching into the 90s by 8:30. The humidity was so bad, people’s clothes clung to their body like wetsuits.
Afleet Alex, as was his custom, had already been out for his customary jog around the Belmont oval, and was now back for his usual second tour of the track, this time for a stiff gallop.
Accompanied by his trainer Tim Ritchey on the pony, Alex stepped onto the track and proceeded to turn in his typical strong mile and a half open gallop. I stood on the steps of the trainer’s stand with Bobby Frankel.
“Boy, he looks good,” Frankel said, as Afleet Alex motored by us at a powerful clip. Frankel was becoming more of a fan of Afleet Alex by the day, amazed at what the colt had been able to accomplish with such a rigorous twice-a-day training regimen. It was unheard of for a horse to train twice in a day, and many had been second-guessing Ritchey’s methods, including Frankel. But Ritchey, a former event rider, was a big believer in building up a horse’s stamina.
Frankel, extremely impressed with the gallop he had just seen, was heading back down the stairs of the trainer’s stand when we both noticed a horse flying past us. We couldn’t believe it. It was Afleet Alex coming around a second time. He was having a three-mile open gallop, and in stifling heat, and was actually getting stronger the farther he went.
Frankel could only shake his head in disbelief. When Alex and Ritchey came off the track, Alex’s veins were protruding outside his body and looked like a road map on connecting lines. Ritchey, his shirt soaked with sweat, looked down and said, “Do you think he’s fit.”
Ritchey didn’t know what to make of this gallop, and returned to the barn wondering if he had pushed the horse too far.
Frankel, on the other hand, was now totally convinced this horse was something special.
“You know what?” he said. “I was thinking, he just may be that good. Maybe he is a Seattle Slew or an Affirmed or one of those kinds. Looking how fast he’s run on his Sheet numbers, the fact that he’s still around and doing what he’s doing is pretty amazing.”
It became even more amazing when Alex demolished his field in the Belmont Stakes, winning eased up by seven lengths after weaving his way through the field from the back of the pack. His final quarter of :24 2/5 was one of the fastest final quarters in Belmont history.
Unfortunately, Alex never raced again after suffering a fracture. When he was operated on, veterinarian Patty Hogan said she had to go through several drill heads because Alex’s bone was so hard.
Afleet Alex resides at Gainesway Farm, and it was great seeing him again on a sunny, breezy afternoon the day before this year’s Kentucky Derby.
Alex has sired a number of top-class horses, including Travers Stakes winner Afleet Express, who also stands at Gainesway, and Afleet Again, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Marathon and Withers Stakes. In all he has sired 10 graded stakes winners, 23 black type stakes winners, and two champions.
He’s got a presence about him,” said Gainesway director of sales Michael Hernon. “He’s like a big Labrador, he really is.”
After starting off hot, Alex is looking for that next big horse to put him back in the limelight.
“The market is so unforgiving,” Hernon said. “The health of the horse is really significant. I remember reading a book by Tesio, and he’d go around looking at the stallions and if he didn’t that horse was primed and in great condition, he would wait a year; he might wait two years. It makes a lot of sense. The well being of the horse is really pertinent.”
If you’re looking for a current hot stallion, you can say Tapit has been scorching. With the magnificent Kentucky Oaks winner Untapable, the Peter Pan winner and leading Belmont Stakes contender Tonalist, Florida Derby winner Constitution, Tampa Bay Derby winner Ring Weekend , top-class stakes horses Tapiture, Belmont Stakes starter Matterhorn, Coup de Grace, Harpoon, Tap It Rich, and the brilliant, but ill-fated Hartford, Tapit has taken the racing and breeding world by storm.
“I remember watching him win the Laurel Futurity and going straight to the books to look up his pedigree,” Hernon recalled. “That really impressed me. Then you see names like Relaunch and Foggy Note and Mahmoud. Once a horse shows that kind of brilliance and acceleration you know he has it.
“He had that smooth as silk acceleration, and he’s also got the pedigree and the physical attributes, and he’s got a great libido. His fertility rate is very high.”
Looking back at Tapit’s memorable moment on the Derby trail, he gave his trainer Michael Dickinson a pleasant and emotional surprise by winning the Wood Memorial, a race Dickinson was convinced the colt was going to lose, due to all the time and training he missed being sick. But it became apparent that this was no ordinary horse.
Dickinson stood off in a corner of the Aqueduct winner’s circle and tried his best to explain how Tapit managed to win the Wood. But even he couldn’t do it. This was more than just another logic-defying conquest by “The Mad Genius.” Although some perceive Dickinson to be a graduate of the Hogwarts School, performing Harry Potter-like feats of magic, he knew there was nothing wizardly about this latest feat.
This was simply a trainer in awe of a horse. Tapit had overcome one setback after another that winter and spring, and somehow was still in the Kentucky Derby picture, despite missing 19 days of training with shin problems, and coming out of his sixth-place finish in the Florida Derby with a serious lung infection and a foot abscess.
“He won’t win the Wood,” Dickinson said a week before the race. “He’s not fit enough. I’ll be over the moon if he can finish third.”
Now, here he was trying to explain how Tapit could come from dead-last over a speed-biased track, circle the field five wide, and mow down every one of his 10 opponents to win by a half-length. And this with only one race all year and only one serious work since the Florida Derby.
“I was dreading the race, because I knew he wasn’t fit,” Dickinson said. “He’s a very generous horse, and he has such a big heart.”
By now, the words were becoming difficult to get out. Tears were welling up, and his voice began to quaver noticeably. “I felt I was putting him into battle unprepared,” he continued. “And if anything had happened I would have blamed myself. But the horse carried me through, and I’m indebted to him. He’s such a generous horse and we love him dearly.”
Following are photos of Afleet Alex and Tapit taken on that beautiful May morning.