06/14/2005 11:00PM

Afleet Alex great for the game


PHILADELPHIA - The jockey is looking for somebody to tattoo the words "Afleet Alex" on his arm. The trainer is probably going to be sought out for seminars on two-a-days. The owners are looking for the next party. The horse just keeps on training.

Such is life at the center of the horse racing universe after Afleet Alex completely dominated the final two legs of the Triple Crown. The only real mystery of this Triple Crown is why the colt did not roll to the wire many lengths in front at Churchill Downs.

The answer probably falls into the "that's horse racing" category. Everything else is pretty obvious.

The fastest Belmont Stakes final quarter-mile since Little Current in 1974 highlighted Afleet Alex's 12th race in just under a year. When you consider that the 5-year-old Ghostzapper just retired with 11 lifetime starts, you begin to understand just what the $75,000 colt has already accomplished.

Alex came out of the Triple Crown better than he went in. That simply does not happen anymore. It is a tribute to Ritchey, who had a plan and never wavered.

"I had a conversation with Ron Turcotte that was pretty interesting," Ritchey said. "He said Secretariat galloped three miles many days. I know how those older trainers trained. I've been a student of the game.

"I've always thought if I got this opportunity I'm not going to have a horse that's going to run a mile and a half that's only going to train a mile and a half. It logically doesn't make sense."

Jockey Jeremy Rose and Ritchey may have been newcomers to the Triple Crown scene. But they did not act like it. By the end, Rose was so relaxed that some people were wondering if he was ever going to ask Alex to run in the Belmont. The jockey, however, knew exactly what he had. And rode accordingly.

Alex was the first horse the five owners bought together. They let their trainer make all the decisions except the time and place of the parties. That was the province of Director of Entertainment Joe Lerro.

"I'll be sitting on the beach next summer wondering, 'Did this really happen?' " Lerro said.

The partners have parlayed that $75,000 investment in May 2004 to $2,665,800 in Afleet Alex's earnings alone. And, in him, they have a stallion prospect that could be worth $35 million.

"You know you have a lottery ticket, but you're living it every day," managing partner Chuck Zacney said. "We literally hit the lottery last year. We're just living it out now. It is just a matter of what number it is going to end on."

They are not ready to cash out. They want to play the game some more.

"We don't want the story to end here," Zacney said.

The Haskell, the Travers, the Breeders' Cup Classic, and 2006 are out there in the distance. There is nothing like the Triple Crown in this sport so the Alex team may never feel this high again. It will not stop them from trying.

"It's been like living on the edge, wanting it to be over but then not wanting it to end," Zacney's wife, Carol, said.

The Afleet Alex story is on pause. The play button will be pushed again in early August. The Triple Crown was fast forward with no chance to relax. By the time it was over, everybody had to be exhausted. Except, of course, the horse.

Zacney was a player long before he became an owner. He is a realist. On Saturday night, he talked about the Belmont field. He knew it wasn't much. And said so.

What really good horses do, however, is make mediocre horses look bad. That is precisely what Afleet Alex did in the Preakness and Belmont.

Only a few things kept Afleet Alex from being 12 for 12 and a Triple Crown winner: two 2004 rides Rose would like to have back (seconds in the Champagne and Breeders' Cup Juvenile), a loss caused by a lung infection, and an unexplainable length defeat in the Derby.

Whatever might have been, his resume is more than good enough. Really, it is a resume (top class 2-year-old, top class 3-year-old, plans to race as a 4-year-old) that suggests strongly that we have horse that can take the game on a ride back to the future.