05/23/2005 12:00AM

Afleet Alex goes from gasps to glory


BALTIMORE - Afleet Alex always had proven that he was one of the best of the current crop of 3-year-olds. On Saturday, he proved he was an acrobat, too.

In a gutsy effort that displayed incredible athleticism of both horse and rider, Afleet Alex and jockey Jeremy Rose overcame a terrifying incident at the top of the stretch in which Afleet Alex nearly went down, then somehow righted himself and determinedly rallied to capture the 130th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.

Afleet Alex and Rose came close to being a tragic story in this Preakness. As the field came out of the final turn, the leader, Scrappy T, veered sharply to his right after being whipped powerfully by his jockey, Ramon Dominguez. Scrappy T moved out several paths, right into the line of Afleet Alex, who was moving boldly for the lead.

Afleet Alex clipped the heels of Scrappy T, bobbled badly, and nearly went to his knees. Rose grabbed hold of the colt's mane. Afleet Alex somehow remained on his feet, Rose somehow managed to hang on, and then both set sail after Scrappy T.

"He's just that athletic, and I was just that scared," Rose said on NBC's telecast. "He's just an amazing horse."

The performance recalled the gutsy victory by Alysheba in the 1987 Kentucky Derby, when he nearly fell at midstretch after Bet Twice moved into his path. Chris McCarron rode Alysheba.

Dominguez wound up and hit Scrappy T with all his might, just as the horse was about to switch leads at the top of the stretch, an awkward point in a horse's stride. Scrappy T, moving to get away from the punishment, veered out. Dominguez looked back, and saw Afleet Alex nearly fall.

"I'm glad nothing bad happened," Dominguez said. "I knew Afleet Alex almost went down. I'm sorry for the incident."

Afleet Alex ($8.60) had been moving strongly on the far turn, and continued right on with his run after nearly going down. Despite nearly falling less than a quarter-mile from the finish, amazingly he still beat Scrappy T by 4 3/4 lengths. There was no disqualification because Afleet Alex, the fouled horse, finished in front of Scrappy T, the horse who committed the foul.

Giacomo, the Kentucky Derby winner, finished third, five lengths behind Scrappy T. His loss means that the Triple Crown, which has not been swept since 1978 by Affirmed, will continue to go unclaimed. The current drought is the longest in Triple Crown history.

Had Giacomo swept the Triple Crown, he would have earned a $5 million bonus from Triple Crown sponsor Visa for owners Jerry and Ann Moss.

Six of the previous eight winners of the Derby had also captured the Preakness. This year marks the first time since 2001 that a horse will not be seeking a Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes, which will be run on June 11.

Afleet Alex completed 1 3/16 miles on a fast main track in 1:55.04. He earned a first prize of $650,000 from a gross purse of $1 million. He has now earned $2,165,800.

Giacomo was 50-1 when he won the Derby. So unlikely was that upset that nine horses whom Giacomo defeated in the Derby returned to face him again in the Preakness. Afleet Alex, who was third in the Derby, was sent off the 3-1 favorite on Saturday. Giacomo was the third choice at 6-1, behind High Fly, who was 5-1.

The start of this Preakness was clean. As the field thundered past the stands for the first time, Rose made the first of several brilliant tactical moves. Afleet Alex broke from the 12 post, but Rose was able to immediately angle him toward the rail to save ground. And he stayed there until Afleet Alex began his charge toward the lead on the far turn.

Afleet Alex has been the most consistent of this crop of 3-year-olds. In addition to his third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, he won the Arkansas Derby. Last year, at age 2, he won the Hopeful Stakes and Sanford Stakes at Saratoga, and was second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Rose has been aboard for all of Afleet Alex's races, except one. His connections cast about to replace him after the Arkansas Derby, but were unable to find someone they thought was better, and stuck with Rose. On Saturday, they found out it was the right decision.

The Preakness was the seventh victory in 11 lifetime starts for Afleet Alex, who was purchased one year ago at Timonium for $75,000 by trainer Tim Ritchey on behalf of the Cash Is King partnership, whose five partners all live in the Philadelphia area. The managing partner of Cash Is King is Chuck Zacney.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee