05/26/2005 12:00AM

Afleet Alex a hard-hitting throwback


NEW YORK - Afleet Alex's spectacular recovery from a scary stumble at the top of the stretch in the Preakness has become the defining moment of his career, but it would be a shame if he were celebrated exclusively as the horse who almost fell down. His authoritative Preakness victory was important and satisfying in deeper if less dramatic ways.

The idea of what constitutes an outstanding American racehorse has changed radically over the last generation, and not particularly for the better. Consistency, durability, and versatility have come to be regarded as quaint virtues from grandfather's era, less important than a few dazzling weeks in the spotlight ending with a lucrative financial transaction involving commercial breeders.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the almost complete disconnect between 2-year-old and 3-year-old form and achievement. In the 1970's, the best 3-year-olds had been the best 2-year-olds, showing their dominance going short in juvenile fixtures such as the Hopeful and Champagne, then successfully stretching out to dominate the classics. Riva Ridge, Secretariat, Foolish Pleasure, Seattle Slew, and Spectacular Bid all finished first in the Champagne and returned to win the Derby, and Secretariat, Foolish Pleasure, and Affirmed won the Hopeful.

More recently, it has become practically a given that it's just too much to ask the modern racehorse to be competitive at the highest levels of both 2-year-old and 3-year-old racing. Exceptions such as Point Given seem more exceptional with each passing year. Before this year, we had three consecutive Derby-Preakness winners in War Emblem, Funny Cide, and Smarty Jones who among them did not even compete in a graded stakes as 2-year-olds. You had to go back to Summer Squall in 1989 to find a Hopeful winner who returned to win a Triple Crown race - until Afleet Alex.

The list of Grade 1 races that Afleet Alex has competed in is remarkable in and of itself: the Hopeful, Champagne, Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness. He has won or been right there in all of them, and is a combined 2 1/4 lengths from having won all five, having lost the Champagne by a half-length, the Juvenile by three-quarters, and the Derby by a length. In an era when horses' campaigns are craftily managed to find the likeliest venues to showcase them in narrow fields of specialization, Afleet Alex has run time after time in the biggest races against the best horses over different tracks and distances.

He has some things in common with Point Given, but the colt he seems most reminiscent of is Chief's Crown 20 years ago. In 1984 and 1985, Chief's Crown ran in an astounding 14 Grade 1 races in 14 months, finishing first in the Hopeful, Cowdin, Norfolk BC Juvenile, Flamingo, Blue Grass, Travers, and Marlboro and running second or third as the favorite in all three Triple Crown races. Like Afleet Alex, Chief's Crown was a determined, scrappy colt who would settle in off the pace and then put his head down and make a sustained run. Both were fallible and sometimes came up short in key spots, but they always showed up and gave it their best, which was very, very good.

Perhaps Afleet Alex's success will encourage a return to the kind of campaigning that used to give greater continuity and depth to the game. People used to follow 2-year-old racing more closely when there seemed to be some chance that they were watching future stars instead of merely precocious sprinters, and the Triple Crown was a more satisfying experience when the principals were not horses who emerged from obscurity a month or two before the race.

None of this makes Afleet Alex any kind of a cinch in the Belmont. While he's by far the most consistent and accomplished 3-year-old in the land, the Belmont distance is not necessarily complimentary to a horse with his running style. Chief's Crown made what looked like a winning move after a mile in the Belmont but flattened out late as Creme Fraiche and Stephan's Odyssey went by him. Afleet Alex will probably be overbet, and you're allowed to take a shot against him without having to feel disloyal or disrespectful.

It's kind of a no-lose situation. If you can come up with a clever and lucrative alternative, good for you. And if the best, most tested, and most admirable horse beats you, how mad can you really be?