Everyone has an opinion in horse racing. It’s one of the most alluring aspects of the sport. Debates rage about which horse was better, which performance was greater, or which rivalry was the most memorable.
Handicappers, racing writers, and fans rarely, in fact, almost never, agree.
But there is one performance that stands out as unequivocally one of the best races a horse has ever delivered on the Triple Crown stage: Afleet Alex’s Preakness Stakes victory in 2005.
Seventeen years ago, racing fans witnessed one of the most remarkable performances in the history of the U.S. Triple Crown. The fact that it came from a horse with whom many had developed a deep, personal connection to because of his affiliation with the pediatric cancer charity Alex’s Lemonade Stand made that much more special.
When Afleet Alex picked himself up off of his knees after he was sideswiped at the top of the Preakness stretch by Scrappy T and then charged to an unforgettable victory, he carried the 120 or so pounds of jockey Jeremy Rose across the finish line in addition to the hopes and dreams of his breeder, owners, trainer, and fan base.
The middle part of the first decade in the 21st Century was a magical time in the Mid-Atlantic region. Funny Cide put New York in the spotlight in 2003 before Smarty Jones-mania swept through Philadelphia like a tidal wave in 2004. The year after Afleet Alex’s Triple Crown run in 2005, the ill-fated Barbaro put Fair Hill on the map with an exceptional display of dominance in the 2006 Kentucky Derby.
“My buddy and I, Joe Lerro, we were at the Super Bowl in February of 2004 and that was when Smarty was getting pretty much all of the headlines, and I said, ‘Joe, I want to put a partnership together. I’m really caught up in this Smarty Jones experience, ’ ” said Chuck Zacney, who founded Afleet Alex’s ownership group Cash is King Stable. “And that’s kind of why we got into horse racing.”
Hard to imagine, but Afleet Alex was the first racehorse Zacney and his newly formed stable ever purchased. Zacney enlisted Tim Ritchey, a top local trainer at Delaware Park, to select his horses. Ritchey picked Afleet Alex out on behalf of Zacney for $75,000 at the 2004 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic sale of 2-year-olds in training.
The story of Afleet Alex begins back in May 2003 in Ocala, Fla. His dam (mother), Maggy Hawk, did not produce milk and wanted nothing to do with the colt. His terminally ill breeder John Silvertand’s then 9-year-old daughter, Lauren, bottle fed him via a sterilized Coors Light bottle until they were able to secure a nurse mare.
Afleet Alex became acclimated quickly to human touch.
“He was a very kind horse, probably because he was so bonded with people being bottle fed and being basically raised by people,” Ritchey said. “So he had complete trust in people, and he was just a very pleasant horse to be around.”
Afleet Alex’s success helped Silvertand, who died of cancer in January 2007, persevere through some very difficult times. He remained a gentle horse throughout his career with an affinity for children.
“He was a sweetheart, especially with the kids,” Zacney recalled. “At that time, my son was 4 and 5 and I had a daughter who was 8, and some of the other partners had little kids, too. It really made it extra special. You talk about the peppermints, but anything that we had as far as apples and things that he likes, he was real easy to be around and to pet.”
When Ritchey got the athletic colt back to his barn following the 2-year-old sale, he became even more impressed. It didn’t take long for Ritchey and Zacney to realize they had something special in Afleet Alex, who was named after Zacney’s son as well as the names of two other partners’ children.
Just a couple of weeks after the auction, Afleet Alex won his debut by 11 ¼ lengths in a 5 ½-furlong race at Delaware Park.
“When we got him at the sale, it was mid-May,” Zacney said. “Five weeks later he was racing. So it was pretty incredible from going to a sale and going to his first race five weeks later and him winning at Delaware by 11-plus lengths.”
Afleet Alex followed with another runaway win by 12 lengths on July 12 at Delaware, setting the stage for a coming-out party that summer in upstate New York.
“I wanted to get a race into him before we took him to Saratoga for the Sanford [Stakes], and that’s why we ran him back,” Ritchey said. “He won that easily and he was already nominated to the Sanford. But after he broke his maiden, you could tell he was a special horse, and obviously he proved it.”
Afleet Alex lived up to expectations in the Sanford, winning by 5 ¼ lengths, but it was in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes where he really started to capture the imagination of racing fans.
On a sloppy track at Saratoga, Afleet Alex looked beaten when he veered out toward the cheering throng of fans on the rail at the Spa, but somehow he regained his focus under regular rider Rose and got to the finish line just in time for an unlikely victory by a neck.
“At that time, my son was only 4 so he was on my shoulders watching the races, and I remember the crowd cheering for him and when he kind of drifted to the outside rail, the place went silent,” said Zacney, who was at Saratoga with his family for both races. “All of the sudden, he started picking up again and then he just got up at the wire by a neck and the place went crazy.
“Since that time I’ve been going back to Saratoga on an annual basis, and it’s amazing that to this day the number of people who remember that race and certainly remember the horse.”
Afleet Alex closed out his 2-year-old season with a runner-up finish by a half-length in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes and a second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, beaten by less than a length by winner Wilko.
A finalist for the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male, Afleet Alex was on the short list of leading candidate for the 2005 Triple Crown races.
Afleet Alex won his first start of 2005 in the Mountain Valley Stakes at six furlongs at Oaklawn Park before he finished last of six as the 7-to-10 favorite in the Rebel Stakes. Ritchey subsequently discovered Afleet Alex had a lung infection.
The Afleet Alex who competed in the Arkansas Derby was a different animal compared with the one who raced in the Rebel. He simply overwhelmed the opposition, unleashing a devastating turn of foot to take charge before surging away to an eight-length romp.
“That was the kind of performance I always thought he was capable of,” Ritchey said. “None of the press believed us that he had a lung infection. I just took it for what it was, and when he ran back in the Arkansas Derby and didn’t have a lung infection, obviously, he showed his true ability.”
From there, it was on to Churchill Downs for Afleet Alex.
The 2005 Kentucky Derby was a strangely run race with an opening half-mile that ath the time was just half a second slower than the fastest opening half in the history of the race. Afleet Alex split horses and surged into contention in the stretch but ran out of gas late as Giacomo closed from 18th, more than 16 lengths back, to win at 50.30-to-1 odds.
Afleet Alex finished a very respectable third after only being five lengths behind three-quarters of a mile in a blistering 1:09.59.
“I always wanted to take a horse that I thought was a legitimate threat to win the race,” Ritchey said of his first Kentucky Derby starter. “Obviously, I thought he did. He did not have the best of trips in the race, only got beat a length. I think with a better trip he very easily could have won the race.”
After a Derby won by a 50-to-1 longshot, the Preakness drew a 14-horse field with seemingly no giant in the field. Afleet Alex was sent off as the lukewarm 3.30-to-1 favorite.
“One of the things that we always talked about was the confidence that we always had in Alex. We pretty much expected him to win each race,” Zacney said. “When he didn’t, we really had to analyze it as to why.
“We knew about the Rebel and the lung infection, and he did come up a little short in the Derby, maybe that was a little too close to the Arkansas Derby, but like I said we just went into each race with so much confidence and expected great things out of him and he usually came through.”
As per his usual tactics, Rose angled Afleet Alex hard left shortly after leaving the starting gate and settled in near the back of the pack while saving ground. Rose and Afleet Alex started picking off horses one by one on the turn, where they did have to wait for room for a few brief seconds, but approaching the stretch it was clear Rose was sitting on a rocket.
Just as he came up on leader Scrappy T’s flank, his rider Ramon Dominguez went to the whip with his left hand and his mount veered out directly into the path of Afleet Alex, who clipped his heels.
At that point, the crowd collectively gasped as Afleet Alex stumbled almost to his knees. Rose, in his first ever start in the Preakness, later said that he actually held on to the horse’s mane.
But Afleet Alex was never going to be denied on that day in that race. Instead, he picked himself up in an astounding display of athleticism and determination.
“When they mention Afleet Alex, they mention that Preakness race,” Zacney said. “They say that they still can’t believe that a horse pretty much went down to his knees. His nose touched the ground, and I think it pissed him off.
“Not only the horse but the jockey because most jocks probably would have just found a nice landing spot, but Jeremy just held on for dear life.”
Six strides later Afleet Alex took the lead and from there is was just a question of how many lengths he would win by and, of course, what the heck did racing fans just witness.
The answers were 4 ¾ lengths and arguably the greatest Preakness performance they’d ever see.
“The first thing I thought of was the whole field is right behind them,” Ritchey said.
“If he goes down and the jockey, Jeremy, goes down, the field is going to run over top of them. The slow-motion [replay], you can see that Jeremy is actually kind of coming off of the horse and as he came back up, the horse’s neck just hit Jeremy right in the chest and kind of pushed him right back in the saddle.
“It was truly an amazing thing to watch in super slow-motion, and then to get up from that bobble and in a matter of a stride, Jeremy was riding him and the horse switched leads and just started to draw away. It was pretty amazing.”
As incredible as it is to consider, from purely a power perspective, Afleet Alex was perhaps even better in the Belmont Stakes. He did not need to overcome adversity as he did in the Preakness, but he did so overwhelm the opposition that he even stunned racetrack announcer Tom Durkin.
The Belmont main track can be a tall task for a young rider since it’s a 1 ½ miles around rather than the more traditional mile oval. Ritchey gave Rose some very specific instructions, which he executed expertly and left Afleet Alex loaded approaching the Belmont Stakes stretch.
“I just told him, ‘Just be very patient, whenever they switch leads just remember you are not at the three-eighths pole, you’re a long ways from home. Halfway around the turn, if you think you should make your move, very slowly count to 10,’ ” Ritchey said.
When Rose asked Afleet Alex to accelerate, the response was immediate. Durkin mentioned his bid and then started to give the rest of the rundown of the field but had to stop in mid-sentence.
“Tom Durkin, he gave the greatest call. If you watch the replay he says, ‘He passed Giacomo like he was standing still.’ And he really did,” Zacney recalled. “He had such acceleration at the top of the stretch.”
Afleet Alex completed the final quarter-mile in :24.50, at the time the fastest final quarter since Arts and Letters in 1969.
Racing seemed to be gifted with a budding superstar who was just beginning to reach his pinnacle, but an injury subsequently sidelined Afleet Alex and he never raced again. The Belmont Stakes was just a temptation of what might have been for a horse with an electric turn of foot, but the Preakness will always be the race Afleet Alex is remembered for. Why not? It’s only one of the greatest individual performances in the history of the Triple Crown.
“When people know that we are associated with Afleet Alex, they always think of the Preakness race,” Zacney said “... That’s still one of the top two or three Preakness races — I consider it the top — I don’t think that’s ever going to be passed. It was just so, so impressive.”
This article was first published in 2015 and has been updated.