Afleet Alex’s Really Big Shoe

Pardon the Ed Sullivan reference in the headline, but this column is about the compelling story of Afleet Alex and the show he put on in the Preakness, and about one of the shoes he wore in that amazing performance that is currently up for auction~ Steve Haskin

Afleet Alex’s Really Big Shoe

By Steve Haskin

There are many poignant moments in Thoroughbred racing, but some linger longer than others, as if you can still see them in the mind’s eye. In 2005, the morning after the Preakness Stakes, jockey Jeremy Rose sat on a bench just outside the grassy area adjacent to the stakes barn. Several yards away, Afleet Alex was grazing, seemingly relaxed and content without a care in the world following the second jewel in the 2005 Triple Crown, in which he turned in one of the most remarkable athletic performances ever witnessed.

Alex’s groom then brought him closer to the fence where Rose was sitting, talking to some people. The colt leaned forward slightly and laid his head on the rider’s shoulder, perhaps looking for a handout. Rose, his eyes still focused straight ahead, reached up and gently stroked the side of Alex’s head and then fed him a mint. My first thought was that gratitude comes in many forms, as does the bond between humans and horses. The day before, both horse and rider had stared into the abyss and had somehow pulled each other out.

I can remember Rose’s prophetic words the days before The Preakness: “This horse will run over broken glass if I ask him to.”

I couldn’t help but relive the “incident” and write about it once again, and tell the complete story of Afleet Alex, after seeing one of the items that is currently being auctioned off at Lelands by the estate of the late memorabilia collector Julie Albright. That item is a shoe worn by Afleet Alex in the Preakness. To me that is no ordinary shoe. I can only think of it as one of the shoes whose imprint can still be seen in its own way embedded deep in the sandy loam of Pimlico Racetrack. Yes, it is a romanticized way of looking at it, but in my often romantic way of viewing Thoroughbred racing I see a shoe that helped lift Afleet Alex up off the ground and into racing lore.

Most of us know the story and have vivid recollections of that unforgettable moment that even today seems frozen in time.

Afleet Alex, racing far back in 10th, had made a huge move on the turn to quickly close in on the leaders and was about to collar the front-running Withers Stakes winner Scrappy T. at the head of the stretch when jockey Ramon Dominguez went to a roundhouse left-handed whip on Scrappy T., causing the colt to veer sharply to his right directly into the path of Afleet Alex.

It was as if everyone could see it coming and held their breath, anticipating the catastrophe that would ensue if Afleet Alex fell with 12 horses barreling down on him at 30 miles an hour and only a split second to avoid him.

But let’s freeze this image for now and go back to the beginning of this amazing story to see how it all unfolded.

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, the colt’s breeder John Silvertand’s then 9-year-old daughter, Lauren, fed the foal milk every day out of a Coors Lite bottle. A photo of Lauren feeding Alex eventually made its way onto the colt’s website and into other publications.

Silvertand eventually lost the horse in a coin toss to John Devers following a foal-sharing agreement. Devers then sold the colt privately to Joseph Allen for $150,000. When young Alex was being broken and ready to be put in training, the same advisers who told Allen to buy him told him to get rid of him. By now, he was considered to be an ugly duckling with little promise and not much pedigree. So, Allen consigned him to the Fasig-Tipton Timonium sale as a 2-year-old.

Enter Chuck Zacney, who soon would become a major part of the story. Zacney had met trainer Tim Ritchey through his brother and one of his best friends. Zacney had followed Ritchey’s career and his background as an equestrian rider who nearly made the U.S. Olympic team and often bet on Ritchey’s horses. He called him and asked if he would buy a horse for him and the new partnership he was forming (called Cash is King Stable), whose members were from the Philadelphia/Delaware Valley area.

Ritchey had a full stable at the time and wasn’t taking on any new clients, but he liked Zacney and hit it off with him, so he agreed to look for a horse for him. 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 a son of Northern Afleet out of Maggy Hawk, consigned as agent by Robert Scanlon.

Ritchey found the colt to be extremely athletic, intelligent, and laid-back. He 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 this colt just stood there as calm as can be. That really impressed Ritchey, so he had the vet look at his X-rays and do all the vet work, and the colt 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.

Afleet Alex turned into one of the top 2-year-olds in the country, winning the Sanford Stakes by 5 ¼ lengths and scoring an eventful victory in the Hopeful Stakes after ducking out badly in the stretch, but still somehow rallying to get up in the final strides, winning by a half-length. That was followed by close second-place finishes in the Champagne and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

He began his 3-year-old campaign by displaying his speed and versatility, winning the six-furlong Mountain Valley Stakes at Oaklawn in a swift 1:09 2/5. A severe lung infection suffered in a sixth-place finish in Rebel Stakes appeared to compromise his chances of making the Arkansas Derby, but he bounced back to romp in Oaklawn’s premier event by eight lengths, making him one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby.

Many blamed Rose for his third-place finish at Churchill Downs, beaten one length by 50-1 longshot Giacomo, by pushing him too hard in the stretch of the of the Arkansas Derby when he clearly had the race won. But what no one knew was that Alex had come out of the Kentucky Derby with another lung infection, this one minor. It was never disclosed because Ritchey and Zacney did not want to use that same excuse again. The infection cleared quickly and Alex bounced back and was 100% healthy for the Preakness, just as he was for the Arkansas Derby.

That brings us back to the incident that turned Afleet Alex into a hero. You could sense something ominous was about to happen as Scrappy T. ducked out in front of Alex. It was as if you were watching a car blow its right front tire at the Indy 500 and spinning perilously out of control in front of oncoming traffic.

I was near the winner’s circle watching on the big screen, videotaping the race for immediate use afterward in writing my recap for the Blood-Horse. All you could hear playing it back was me yelling, “Holy S—t!” when the frightening incident occurred.

Afleet Alex clipped the heels of Scrappy T. and stumbled so badly while going at full speed he went down to his knees with his head actually hitting the track, kicking up dirt. Rose saw the ground coming up quickly and prepared for the worst. He pulled back on the reins while reaching for a hunk of the colt’s mane and held on for dear life. Somehow, Alex was able to miraculously pick himself up off the ground, gather himself, and change leads as if nothing had happened. He then calmly drew off with fluid strides to score a resounding 4 3/4-length victory, as a stunned crowd watched in disbelief.

It all happened so quickly, yet the horrific image of Afleet Alex nearly falling will forever be seen in my mind in slow motion, as it was often shown that night and the following day on local and national news and sports telecasts around the country to increase its impact. If depicted in a movie or a documentary for effect, the incident would be preceded with only the loud rhythmic cadence of a beating heart as a warning of the near-carnage that was about to ensue. It was only the incredible athleticism of Afleet Alex that prevented one of the worst tragedies in racing history. Watching it now, even 15 years later, brings a feeling a dread and uneasiness.

But this was not the only event that defined Afleet Alex’s career. There are so many human interest stories associated with the colt, the main one being his connection to Alex’s Lemonade Stand. Alex’s majority owner Chuck 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 had decided to open a lemonade stand in her front yard in order to raise money for cancer research. Word spread around the globe and in no time donations reached more than $2 million.

When Zacney learned of the lemonade stand fund-raising efforts, 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 decided to donate a portion of Afleet Alex’s winnings. In August of 2004 when Afleet Alex was a 2-year-old, Alex Scott lost her battle with cancer at age 8, but her lemonade stand lived on. It collected $11,000 at the Kentucky Derby and $17,000 at the Preakness. All of Afleet Alex’s merchandising material was emblazoned with a lemon, signifying its support of the fund, and a portion of the proceeds continued to be donated to Alex’s Lemonade Stand.

Following the Preakness, Rose couldn’t help but think there may have been outside forces that helped him and Afleet Alex avoid disaster, “I think my heart stopped,” he said. “I have no idea how I stayed on. The only reason I did was either Alex somehow just sprung back up or little Alex Scott kept me on. I was basically hanging on in fear.”

Another who felt that divine forces were at work was Zacney’s wife, Carol. For her, it didn’t sink in until she was able to watch the replay while heading back to the stakes barn. Even with the happy ending, she dreaded what was to come. When she saw Alex almost go down on the TV monitor, 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. And after seeing what almost happened, I have to believe she was there with him today, because that was a miracle.”

I will never forget the scene following the Preakness. With all the connections of Afleet Alex being interviewed in an infield tent behind the winner’s circle, a rainbow appeared as if to give the moment an ethereal effect. One of those outside the tent to witness it was breeder John Silvertand.

More than two years earlier, 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,” as he put it, in order to fully enjoy the Preakness experience.

As the colt’s fame grew, so did the story of Lauren feeding the foal colostrum in a beer bottle. Before the Kentucky Derby, Silvertand and his wife, Carolyn, were contacted by Nevada Governor 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.

Silvertand stood outside the tent away from all the excitement, looked at the rainbow and savored the moment. “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, Florida. 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.

His CEA (cancer screening) counts had been going down, but they had started to go back up again. So he was about to go for a series of tests the week after the Preakness to see if the cancer had returned.

“But whatever happens,” he said,“ 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, 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. There are so many wonderful things in this world we will never get to see, and I’m just so glad to be here.”

Sadly, Silvertand, like little Alex Scott, would lose his battle with cancer on Jan. 7, 2007 at age 62.

Even with a jaw-dropping Preakness victory under his belt, Afleet Alex still had to prove himself one more time in the Belmont Stakes. Once again, he showed he was far from your typical equine star, especially continuing with his unique regimen of training twice a day; once early, usually about 5:30, for a jog and then returning to the track around 8:30 for a stiff gallop. One sweltering morning the week of the Belmont, temperatures reached into the 90s by 8:30, and 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 strong open 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 was not exactly a robust horse who would take your breath away. Even after maturing into a top-class colt, there were some who still saw that ugly duckling.

When I covered the 2005 Kentucky Derby, the first morning at Churchill Downs I was with Wayne Lukas outside his barn. When a nondescript-looking horse walked by wearing a Derby saddlecloth with the name Afleet Alex on it, Lukas commented, “That little muskrat is Afleet Alex?” He couldn’t believe that was the same horse who had just romped by eight lengths in the Arkansas Derby.

One of the trainers who at first had second-guessed Alex and 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 stronger the second time around.

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 with a smirk on his face, “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, pushing him so far in such intense heat and humidity.

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.”

Afleet Alex would romp again in the Belmont Stakes, crushing his field by seven lengths. He was now on the verge of superstardom, heading to the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic, as Silvertand had hoped.

But superstardom is often elusive, as I learned firsthand one afternoon in late July on opening day at Saratoga. I drove to the New Jersey Equine Clinic to pick up my daughter Mandy, who was pre-vet at Rutgers University at the time and working summers at the clinic as a surgical technician, which was a fancy way of saying she cleaned the blood off the walls following surgery.

As I pulled up to the front door, I was surprised to see Tim Ritchey get out of his car. What was he doing here on opening day at Saratoga? He was just as surprised to see me and told me he didn’t have time to talk, but would be out in a few minutes. Mandy came out, but I never did see Tim. When I asked Mandy if she knew why Tim Ritchey was there, she said, “You know I can’t say anything about that.” I jokingly replied, “I understand that and you don’t have to tell me anything…unless of course it has to do with Afleet Alex.”

Well, it did, as I found out when I got home and received a phone call telling me that Alex had suffered a hairline condylar fracture of the left cannon bone and would not run in the Haskell Invitational. Because of the secrecy surrounding the injury, the identification marker on the colt’s stall read simply “Big Al.” Mandy had kept the secret well.

Following the surgery I spoke to surgeon Patty Hogan, who was amazed at the strength and density of Afleet Alex’s bone and what a throwback he was to the tough, sound horses of the past. Unfortunately, such an injury can happen to even the soundest of horses.

“When I drilled into his bone, it was unusually hard,” she said. “I asked our head surgery technician, ‘Is this a new drill bit or a dull one?’ “When I’m drilling the bone, I usually have to take the bit out twice to let it cool off. But in Alex’s case I had to take it out five times. That’s how hard his bone is.”

Perhaps it was those strong bones that helped lift him off the ground at Pimlico when it looked for sure as if he were headed for disaster, stumbling so badly while running at full speed coming out of a turn.

Afleet Alex never did make it back to the races and was retired later that year. John Silvertand never saw his dream fulfilled in the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic, but at least he saw Alex go out a winner.

Now, 15 years later, it has taken a single horseshoe from the Preakness for all the memories to come flooding back. Memories of a special Triple Crown; memories of a special group of people and their stories, which helped write one of the great chapters in racing history; and most of all, memories of a special horse, the likes of which I know I will never see again.

My memories of Afleet Alex will always conclude with one final scene. It was the morning following the Preakness. Alex was out grazing behind the stakes barn as Jeremy Rose sat on a bench on the other side of the fence holding a mint. Alex walked over to him and put his head on the jockey’s shoulder.  Rose unwrapped the mint and gave it to the horse and then reached up and cradled Alex’s head in his arm. The day before, both had helped lift the other out of the abyss, and all I could think of watching this scene on the morning after was was that gratitude comes in many forms.

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