03/03/2005 1:00AM

Afleet Alex's surprise start

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Afleet Alex is being pointed to the Rebel and Arkansas Derby after the Mountain Valley.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Afleet Alex will make his 3-year-old debut a little earlier than many anticipated. In a move that will give Afleet Alex three before the Kentucky Derby, trainer Tim Ritchey on Thursday entered the colt in Saturday's $50,000 Mountain Valley at Oaklawn Park.

The six-furlong race for 3-year-olds drew a field of six, with , a Grade 1 winner around one turn, set to break from post 5 under Jeremy Rose.

Ritchey confirmed John Velazquez will be aboard Afleet Alex later this month when he starts in the Grade 3, $250,000 Rebel Stakes here on March 19. The $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 16 will be Afleet Alex's final stop before the Kentucky Derby.

Ritchey's entry of Afleet Alex was played close to the vest on Thursday.

"I had it in the back of my mind for the last month and a half," he said. "That way we'll have three races before the Derby, which is what I kind of had planned all along. I just didn't have him ready for the Southwest. So, he'll run Saturday and, hopefully, I'll be able to get permission from the stewards to let him gallop out seven-eighths."

Aside from the benefit of a third prep race, history played a role in Ritchey's decision to run Afleet Alex in the Mountain Valley.

"I was at the Fasig-Tipton sale in Miami [this week], and a good friend of mine, Billy Turner, who trained Seattle Slew, was there," said Ritchey. "I was talking to him and he actually did the same thing with Seattle Slew. He ran him short, then he ran two long races before the Derby, so that kind of pushed me a little bit to do what we're going to do, too, because I have total respect for him. I think he's one of the finest horsemen I've ever met."

Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown in 1977.

Afleet Alex has had two strong works since finishing a troubled second in the $1.5 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile on Oct. 30. He went four furlongs in 47 seconds on Feb. 16, and six furlongs in a bullet 1:13.80 on Feb. 25. His last drill was accomplished with ease, and he came back bouncing from it.

"A race is obviously better than a work because he's competitive, and he'll get more out of it," said Ritchey.

Afleet Alex won his maiden and an entry-level allowance over 5 1/2 furlongs last summer, then went on to win the Grade 2 Sanford at six furlongs at Saratoga in July. One start later, he won the Grade 1 Hopeful over seven furlongs on Aug. 21.

Afleet Alex finished a troubled second to Proud Accolade in the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont Park. He then had a wide trip in the Breeders' Cup.

He was runner-up as 2004 2-year-old champion behind Declan's Moon and races for Cash Is King LLC.

Ritchey expects Afleet Alex to make his bid late in the Mountain Valley.

The rest of the field, with riders is: Dr. Meatball, Calvin Borel; Rocky River, Terry Thompson; Razor, Roman Chapa; Sir Laff Alot, John McKee; and Smoke Smoke Smoke, Seth Martinez.