06/13/2005 12:00AM

Afleet Alex shows emergence of greatness


ELMONT, N.Y. - Greatness does not require infallibility as a qualification. Secretariat wasn't infallible, but in the opinion of many, he was the greatest racehorse who ever lived. Greatness also does not always have to be in evidence from the start. Seabiscuit, for example, required 18 starts to win his first race. Greatness comes in all shapes and forms, and it could very well be that we are all witnessing the emergence of greatness in Afleet Alex.

By virtue of his overwhelming victory in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, Afleet Alex became only the seventh horse ever to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes after hitting the board but not winning the first leg of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby. In this regard, he follows Bimelech in 1940, Capot in 1949, Native Dancer in 1953, Nashua in 1955, Damascus in 1967, and Risen Star in 1988. But Afleet Alex is really more comparable to the group before Risen Star, because like Bimelech, Capot, Native Dancer, Nashua, and Damascus, Afleet Alex was a serious 2-year-old. Only tough trips cost him victories in the Champagne and Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and by extension a divisional championship. Like Bimelech, Native Dancer, and Nashua, Afleet Alex completed the Preakness-Belmont Stakes double after winning the Hopeful Stakes at 2. With no disrespect meant toward Bimelech - who is a member of the Hall of Fame, along with Native Dancer, Nashua, and Damascus - Native Dancer and Nashua are on everyone's list of all-time greatest racehorses. And now, at this corresponding point in his career, Afleet Alex's accomplishments demand he be placed right alongside these greats.

While it is true that the Belmont field Afleet Alex obliterated Saturday was not the toughest ever - after all, the maiden Nolan's Cat finished third after going about eight wide on the far turn - Afleet Alex did everything a potential great should. He was uncompromised by a modest early pace. He won by a lot of lengths (seven, to be precise), leaving absolutely no doubt to his superiority. And he finished powerfully. Afleet Alex went his final quarter-mile in 24.50 seconds, which is strong in most circumstances, and especially so in a 1 1/2-mile race on dirt.

Anyone commenting on this Belmont would be remiss if he did not mention that Tim Ritchey, the trainer of Afleet Alex, deserves a world of credit. All the two-a-day training sessions, and the uncanny sense to know when to curtail them, were designed by Ritchey to have Afleet Alex at his strongest at the end of the Triple Crown campaign. Indeed, Afleet Alex never looked stronger than when he powered away through the stretch on Saturday, although the big trouble he encountered at the top of the stretch in the Preakness prevented him from demonstrating really how strong he was in that race. In any event, Ritchey really knows his horse.

Along the same lines, I watched the Belmont like Joe Fan, downstairs, under a television, alongside a seasoned racetrack acquaintance named Wayne. As the field neared the stretch and Afleet Alex began uncorking his run, Wayne yelled out, "Anyone who thinks this kid can't ride doesn't know what he's talking about." This kid was Afleet Alex's jockey, Jeremy Rose, and as flawless as Rose's ride was in the Derby, and as acrobatic as his ride was in the Preakness, Rose's ride in the Belmont might have been his best ever. Rose saved ground to the far turn, where he deftly picked his way between horses before swinging to the outside for the stretch run. All the while, Rose waited, and waited, and waited some more before finally setting Afleet Alex down turning for home. By doing so, Afleet Alex was really asked to run for only a quarter of a mile, and that will enable him to recover from the Belmont all the faster.

Lost in the Fog not quite there yet

The other 3-year-old who generated oohs and aahs Saturday was Lost in the Fog, who stretched his undefeated streak to seven in the Riva Ridge Breeders' Cup Stakes. I wrote after he won the Swale Stakes earlier this year that Lost in the Fog might turn out to be a top-class sprinter/miler, and I still believe it. But even after his win in the Riva Ridge, I believe any talk about him being one of the best sprinters in the country at any age is premature.

The Riva Ridge should be analyzed in the following context: From the first dirt race at Belmont Park last Wednesday up until the time the Belmont main track was sealed the race before the Belmont Stakes, there were 20 races run on the dirt. Nineteen of them were won by horses who were running either first or second from the first call in the result charts. On Saturday alone, there were four dirt races before the Riva Ridge, and the first horse under the wire in all of them led at every call. So, while some may talk about how Lost in the Fog was hurt by being forced to go early in the Riva Ridge from his inside post, his early position - on the lead - was without question the place to be.

In the meantime, Egg Head rallied from fourth, and four wide, to severely challenge Lost in the Fog in the stretch before finishing second, beaten1 1/4 lengths. Those interested in race analysis beyond level one know that a strong case can be made that Egg Head ran every bit as well as Lost in the Fog did Saturday.

Hey, maybe Egg Head is one of the best sprinters in the country at any age, too.