America's latest superhorse, Afleet Alex, has emerged from his brush from disaster in winning a sensational Preakness Stakes with nothing more than a patch of missing hair on a scraped left ankle and is on course for the third leg of the US Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes in 18 days' time.
The recovery by the three-year-old and rider Jeremy Rose from their all-but-fall on the home turn would have been a great escape in the Grand National; in the heat of the final stages of a Flat race it was verging on miraculous. Not for nothing did Rose swear his mount was from the planet Krypton.
The technical term "clipped heels" is an almost trite explanation of every Flat jockey's nightmare: when his mount's front legs get taken out from under him by the flying hind feet of the rival ahead. As Rose and Afleet Alex unwound into the Pimlico straight on Saturday night, suddenly in their path was the veering Scrappy T's backside. There was a clashing of horseshoes and, to a collective yelp of horror from the 115,000 crowd, Afleet Alex went sprawling. At nearly 40 miles an hour he did the undignified splits, limbs flailing and straining, as he scrabbled to keep his feet.
With an astonishing display of athleticism and determination from both, he and Rose (a former college wrestling champion) stayed upright and won by five lengths. The jockey came in smiling and the horse spitting out dirt.
Yesterday, trainer Tim Ritchey was at the same auction sale where he picked Afleet Alex from the catalogue for $75,000 a year ago. "What concerned me was the chance of muscle injuries, because he was contorted in a way that horses aren't meant to be. But he walked out perfect the morning after the race. We'll be monitoring him closely but the plan is to ship him to Belmont on Friday."
It would almost have been easier for Afleet Alex to have gone down, but then survival has always been part of his story, one that those yearning to sell racing to a broader public on this side of the Atlantic would kill for. Once again, after Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, a folk hero is tugging at the nation's heartstrings.
For a start, the little bay colt of humble Florida-bred origins was rejected by his dam and in her absence he clung to life with the help of a nine-year-old girl called Lauren, daughter of his breeder John Silvertand. For the 12 days before a foster-mare could be found, she fed the hungry foal milk from a Coors Light beer bottle. Silvertand himself is fighting terminal cancer and believes the horse's exploits have helped prolong his life.
Afleet Alex is the first horse owned by a five-strong syndicate headed by Chuck Zacney, a Pennsylvania-based businessman with strong links to the medical community. Part of Afleet Alex's earnings (now more than £2m) go to paediatric cancer research in honour of Alexandra Scott, who lost her battle with the disease at the age of eight last August.
Before her death, little Alex set up a lemonade stall near her home to raise funds for the hospital where she was treated and Afleet Alex now has a lemon symbol incorporated into his racing silks.
Delaware-based Ritchey, 53, had never previously had a horse good enough for the Triple Crown series, but Afleet Alex's runner-up spot in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile put him right in the mix. And though he could finish only third, as favourite, in the Kentucky Derby, he put the record straight about his talent and charisma in Maryland.
Ritchey admits he was able to enjoy it all only after the event. "That problem at the head of the stretch took some of the emotion out of me on the day," he said, "because of my concern for the horse." He pointed to his charge's temperament as well as his agility. "I've never seen him get upset. He has never shied or spooked from anything he's been exposed to. He is mister laid-back." * Richard Quinn has opted to partner David Elsworth-trained The Geezer, runner-up to Motivator in the Dante Stakes, in the Derby, ahead of the John Dunlop pair Kong and Unfurled.Reuse content