08/19/2004 12:00AM

Afleet Alex center stage in Hopeful


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Afleet Alex proved that he was not simply a mid-Atlantic-based wonder when he shipped here from Delaware Park on July 29 and set a stakes record, winning the Grade 2 Sanford Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths.

On Saturday, Afleet Alex returns to Saratoga with the opportunity to prove he is the best 2-year-old on the East Coast when he takes on the Florida shipper Devils Disciple and five others in the Grade 1, $250,000 at seven furlongs. The Hopeful goes as race 9 on a 10-race card that includes the Alabama. Both races will be shown live on ESPN in a 90-minute broadcast from 5-6:30 p.m. Eastern.

As impressive as Afleet Alex was winning his first two starts by a combined 23 1/4 lengths, he soared to new heights when he rallied four wide from off the pace and ran away from 10 rivals in the Sanford. His final time of 1:09.32 was the fastest of 80 Sanfords run at six furlongs.

That Afleet Alex, a son of Northern Afleet, ran so well while coming from off the pace is what trainer Tim Ritchey was most pleased about.

"That's what we've been trying to do with him,'' Ritchey said. "In order to get him to go a distance of ground, the whole goal was to get him to relax and not be a one-sided horse.''

Three of Afleet Alex's six rivals in the Hopeful come out of the Sanford, including Flamenco and Consolidator, the second- and third-place finishers. It is Devils Disciple, however, who many people figure will give Afleet Alex the stiffest challenge.

Devils Disciple has gone 3 for 4 at Calder, including a 9 1/4-length victory in the Dear Murray Stakes in which he earned a 103 Beyer Speed Figure, the highest figure earned by any 2-year-old this year.

Trainer Joe Waunsch said Devils Disciple improved greatly since being put on the lead in his races.

He looms one of the speed horses in this field, and having drawn the rail he most likely will be sent by new rider Cornelio Velasquez. On Thursday, Devils Disciple blew out three furlongs under Velasquez in 34.56 seconds over the main track.

"The more I look at it, the more I see a two-horse race,'' Waunsch said. "I couldn't be happier going into the race.''

Western Expression, who drew post 2, is another who figures to show speed. Trainer Phil Serpe said he missed 12 days of training with this colt leading up to the Sanford. Serpe said things have gone smoother for Western Expression leading up to this race.

Flamenco wasn't going to beat Afleet Alex in the Sanford, but trainer Todd Pletcher felt he may have been closer had Jerry Bailey been able to find room earlier than he did.

"While we were waiting for room, Afleet Alex was sweeping on the outside and got first run on us,'' Pletcher said. "If Afleet Alex runs that same kind of race he ran in the other, it'll be a tall order for everybody."

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas thought Consolidator wasn't completely focused when he rallied belatedly to be third in the Sanford. Lukas is adding blinkers to Consolidator's equipment, and the outside draw in the seven-horse field may be beneficial.

Storm Surge and Wild Nature, who finished one-two in an allowance race here on Aug. 4, complete the field.

The field

Hopeful Stakes
Purse: $250,000; 7 furlongs; Grade 1

1Devils DiscipleC. Velasquez3-1
2Winning ExpressionE. Prado8-1
3FlamencoJ. Bailey4-1
4Wild NatureR. Migliore15-1
5Storm SurgeR. Albarado15-1
6Afleet AlexJ. Rose8-5
7ConsolidatorP. Day9-2

* All starters carry 122 pounds
* Odds by Dan Illman
* Television: Saturday, 5-6:30 p.m.. (Eastern), ESPN