Sir Winston Churchill once said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
Sir Winston’s equine namesake no doubt proved that statement correct to a number of people – men and women – following the colt’s upset victory in the Belmont Stakes.
It was only a matter of time that we had a Belmont winner infused with the blood of the Gainesway Farm stallion Afleet Alex. It was 14 years ago that Alex’s Cinderella story touched the heart of the nation, culminating with a rousing seven-length romp in the “Test of the Champion.”
Now we have Sir Winston, who is out of Afleet Alex’s daughter La Gran Bailadora. Alex was only 5 years old when La Gran Bailadora was born and she would help prove her young sire a hot commodity when she won or placed in 10 stakes. Sir Winston is only her second foal and first to make it to the races.
Just seeing Afleet Alex’s name in Sir Winston’s pedigree brings back a flood of memories of that 2005 Belmont Stakes, which began on a hot lazy afternoon on the Belmont Park backstretch as two figures strolled down the horse path heading to Barn 5. Afleet Alex and trainer Tim Ritchey had already spent five days stabled in Barn 14, designated as a monitoring barn, preparing for the 137th Belmont Stakes, but Ritchey decided he wanted to move to the barn in which he had originally been assigned.
This atypical stroll on a hot, humid afternoon didn't seem to faze Alex in the slightest. He was used to anything by now. But when Ritchey unhooked the lead shank and let him loose in his new stall, the colt suddenly started bucking, kicking, squealing, and rolling in his wood chips, interrupted only by an occasional quick stop in front of the window fan for a blast of cool air.
An amused Ritchey said to the Northern Afleet colt, “Hey, save that for Saturday.”
But Alex was saving much more for Saturday. The Preakness winner had already written one of the most amazing chapters in the annals of Thoroughbred racing, and was planning to add to it in the mile-and-a-half Belmont. This is a horse who had affected the lives of more people than any horse in recent memory. He kept his dying breeder alive. He kept the mission and memory of a courageous young girl alive. He kept the hopes of hundreds of seriously ill children alive. He kept the great American dream of his workaday owners alive. And he kept himself and his jockey alive with one of the most remarkable feats of agility ever seen in any sport just three weeks earlier in the Preakness Stakes.
Now he was about to spread all those stories to an even larger audience with his spectacular Belmont victory.
Although he was not trying for a Triple Crown sweep, the ovation he received following the race was no less enthusiastic than the ones that had been meant for War Emblem, Funny Cide, and Smarty Jones the previous three years. After three consecutive years of disappointment and frustration, the 62,274 Belmont fans on hand finally got their chance to erupt, and they did so with a deafening roar and a chorus of chants for racing's newest hero.
Whatever glory Afleet Alex had failed to attain with his third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby he made up for two weeks later in the Preakness. The frightening image of him nearly falling and picking himself up inches off the ground made its way on to national TV news and sports shows and front pages of newspapers across the country. The colt had become the poster child for courage and athleticism, and everything that is pure in the world of sport.
Alex’s owners, Cash is King Stable, as well as Ritchey, jockey Jeremy Rose, and publicists J.J. Graci and Anita Saint Clair, were now thrust into a world beyond their wildest imagination. In addition to the fame and glory, they all became involved with the fight against childhood cancer through Alexandra “Alex” Scott's now-famous lemonade stand that spread throughout the racing world thanks to the heroics of Afleet Alex and his ever-growing website and the proceeds from his merchandising products.
“Here was a little girl who had the awareness at age four to think about her fellow humans,” Ritchey said. “That's amazing to me. She obviously was a special little girl and we're all very thankful and grateful we could be a part of this cause and try to bring some awareness to the American public.”
Afleet Alex, who is out of the Hawkster mare, Maggy Hawk, was bred in Florida by John Silvertand, who was diagnosed with cancer more than two years earlier and given only a few months to live. But he said following the Preakness it has been Afleet Alex who has helped keep him alive.
His story began when Afleet Alex was just a baby. Maggy Hawk 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 colt. 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 Coors Lite beer bottle. A photo of Lauren feeding Alex eventually made its way onto the colt’s website and into other publications.
Soon after, Silvertand was diagnosed with terminal cancer. 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 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.
Following the Preakness, Silvertand stood clear of the excitement of the 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.
“Whatever happens, I didn't expect to be here this long, so it’s all been wonderful for me,” he said. “I try to plan things around Alex to keep me going. Right now, I'm planning on being at the Belmont, then the Travers 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 (taking in more than $2 million in donations worldwide). There are so many wonderful things in this world we will never get to see, and I’m just so glad to be here.”
Silvertand never got to see Alex run in the Travers and the Breeders’ Cup, as the colt sustained an injury that ultimately forced his retirement. But he at least stayed alive long enough to enjoy Alex’s amazing string of victories. In the end, he, like little Alex Scott, lost his battle with cancer.
I have spent countless mornings on the backstretch, but there is one I surely will never forget. It was the week of the Belmont Stakes and another 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. Rival trainers could only shake their heads at Ritchey’s unorthodox two-a-day training method.
To bring him out twice to train on such a hot, humid morning made no sense to them. And Alex himself was not the kind of horse who would take your breath away looking at him. One morning shortly after arriving at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, Alex was walking off the track and passed Wayne Lukas’ barn. Lukas, standing outside the barn, saw him and commented in disbelief, “That little muskrat is Afleet Alex?”
One of the trainers who second-guessed Ritchey’s methods was Bobby Frankel. As Frankel watched the morning activity from the trainer’s stand by the gap, Afleet Alex stepped onto the track, accompanied by Ritchey on the pony. As usual, it was Alex’s second visit to the track that morning, and he proceeded to turn in his typical strong mile and a half open gallop.
“Boy, he looks good,” Frankel said, as Afleet Alex motored by 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. 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 he turned around and noticed a horse flying past us. He couldn’t believe it. It was Afleet Alex coming around a second time…unheard of over Belmont Park’s mile and a half oval. 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 relief road map of connecting lines. Ritchey, his shirt soaked with sweat, looked down and said, “Do you think he’s fit?”
But deep down, even Ritchey didn’t know what to make of this gallop and questioned in private whether he had done too much with the colt. After returning to the barn he went into the office and expressed his concerns to Graci, 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.
Afleet Alex never ceased to amaze people with his toughness and resilience and his love of training. He had come out of his Preakness ordeal a little muscle sore, according to Ritchey, but “jogged right out of it.”
When Ritchey had brought him back to Delaware Park following his second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he jogged Alex two miles a day just to let him down a little bit following a hard campaign that saw him win the Hopeful and Sanford Stakes and finish a close second in the Champagne Stakes and BC Juvenile. Ritchey then stopped on him, walking him just once a day. But he could see Alex was not a happy horse and wanted to do more. So Ritchey began walking him from a half-hour to 45 minutes each morning and then again before feeding time in the afternoon. Then he started walking him early twice a morning and again after they were finished. That brought him up to an hour or more in the morning and 45 minutes in the afternoon. It was obvious Alex was happy being out of his stall.
Ritchey then started grazing him, but Alex would refuse to go back in his stall. Ritchey continued to do more and more with him when they arrived at Oaklawn Park, and the more he did the more Alex flourished and the happier he was. Ritchey could see the colt blossom with each day.
“Now when you went to his stall he’d come right up to you,” Ritchey said. “He was a happy horse again. I could always read his body language because he was such an expressive horse. I knew whether he was upset about something. Yes, he was training more than other horses, but he was enjoying it more than other horses. That’s how the whole two-a-day training evolved.”
Even as Alex underwent surgery for his fracture following the Belmont, Dr. Patty Hogan, who operated on him, was amazed how strong and tough he was. She said had to change drill heads several times because Alex’s bone was so hard.
It was that toughness and his raw talent and athleticism that allowed Afleet Alex to put on a show in both the Preakness and Belmont. I will never forget the morning after the Preakness with the entire racing world still abuzz after Alex’s amazing heroics, in which he not only averted disaster by literally picking himself off the ground, he got right back in stride, switching to his right lead, and draw off with ease as if nothing had happened.
Jockey Jeremy Rose sat on a bench as Alex was out grazing. The colt heard Rose unwrapping a mint and walked over 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, looking straight ahead, reached up and gently stroked the side of Alex's head. Gratitude comes in many forms.
And finally there was the scene following the Belmont Stakes. Immediately after the race, you could almost feel the roar of the crowd beginning to swell, and it erupted into a glorious crescendo by the time Afleet Alex reached the winner's circle.
“I’ve never even dreamed of a horse like this,” Ritchey said as he walked back to the barn. “He’s an absolutely amazing animal. I may get some good horses in the years to come, but I'll never have another one like him, no way, shape, or form. He's just a special, special horse, and now everyone is seeing it for themselves.”
Afleet Alex apparently does everything fast, as he surprisingly had already left the test barn when Ritchey went to check in on him. Back in Barn 5, Ritchey, Graci, and Saint Clair toasted Alex’s victory with champagne.
“To a job well done. You guys were a great part of it,” Ritchey told them.
The three, along with Cash is King managing partner Chuck Zacney and his wife, Carol, had recently visited New York Presbyterian Hospital, bringing Afleet Alex posters, caps, shirts, and buttons to the children and telling them of the horse “who almost fell, but didn't let it stop him, and how he kept fighting just like you guys are doing.”
In the quiet of the evening hour, all was finally tranquil as Afleet Alex grazed contentedly while Ritchey looked on, holding his jacket under his arm and wiping the sweat off his forehead. As if feeling the urge to be close to the horse, he walked over and took the shank and immediately gave Alex several firm pats on the neck before running his hand over his back and hind quarters.
Alex returned to grazing until he was interrupted by a sound off in the distance. It was the faint call of the day's final race. A wide-eyed Alex turned his head toward the grandstand and then turned his body until he was facing it. He picked his head up and cocked his ears and did not move a muscle until the call was over.
“He's probably saying, ‘Heck, I can whip them, too,’” Ritchey said. As soon as the race ended, Alex calmly walked back into his stall. After sharing a few special moments with Rose, who showed up later, and being given several mints, the light was shut off. All was dark, except for the glow that emanated from the stall. It was the same glow that had reached out and touched so many people. On this day it reached out and touched tens of thousands of appreciative fans at Belmont Park who despite years of disappointment and again not witnessing a Triple Crown winner, finally went home happy.