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Updated on 09/17/2011 10:11PM
After one flop, Afleet Alex a mystery
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The twists and turns along the trail to the Kentucky Derby can give you motion sickness, but few horses have been through as many whipsaw curves as Afleet Alex this spring.
Just four weeks ago, in the March 18 edition of Daily Racing Form, Afleet Alex was the pro-tem favorite for the May 7 Derby, at odds of 6-1. He had won four times in six starts at age 2, finished second in his two losses, and came out for his 2005 debut with a powerhouse performance in the Mountain Valley Stakes on March 5, winning comfortably while earning a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 106.
But on the afternoon of March 19, Afleet Alex stopped badly halfway through the Rebel Stakes and finished last, earning the worst Beyer Speed Figure of his career, a 74. Afleet Alex's stock has plummeted so far that he is rarely, if ever, mentioned as one of the top candidates for the Derby; he is the co-ninth choice on the current line, at odds of 20-1. What a difference a race makes.
Which Afleet Alex will show up Saturday in the Grade 2, $1 million here at Oaklawn Park? Chuck Zacney, the managing partner of the Cash Is King partnership, which owns Afleet Alex, said Wednesday that he was "quietly confident that he's back," based on the two works that Afleet Alex has turned in since the Rebel. Oaklawn's linemaker, Russell Ramstad, apparently shares the sentiment. He made Afleet Alex the 2-1 favorite when 10 3-year-olds were entered Wednesday in the Arkansas Derby.
But Afleet Alex will be trying 1 1/8 miles for the first time, is 0 for 2 around two turns, and is coming off the worst performance of his career. He has worn front leg wraps in both his races this year; he did not wear them last year. And his trainer, Tim Ritchey, has turned surly this week. On Wednesday, Ritchey said he was not doing any interviews and did not attend the post-position draw for the Arkansas Derby.
"I'm not really interested in talking," Ritchey said at his barn Wednesday morning. "I've been misquoted so many times. I'm just going to train my horse and run my horse. After the race, then I'll talk."
Zacney, 43, is the managing partner of Cash Is King, which comprises four friends from the Philadelphia area. Zacney, who owns a medical billing company named Thesirrus Group, said Cash Is King now has 14 horses, including a broodmare. Zacney said he and his partners have seen their emotions see-saw this year with Afleet Alex.
"We were excited coming off last year because he had four wins and two seconds," Zacney said. "Then in the Mountain Valley he runs a 106 Beyer and ties the stakes record. We were thrilled to death.
"He comes back in the Rebel, he's 3-5, and we get caught by surprise," Zacney said of Afleet Alex's last-place finish. "We were not expecting that at all. I went back to the barn after the race, and when we scoped him, he has this milky mucus come out. He had a lung infection. He was clogged up. We felt somewhat better, knowing there was a reason for his race. He was on antibiotics for seven days, and he's had two good works, so we think we're back on track. We're hoping he comes back in the Arkansas Derby and that sets the stage for May 7."
Jockey Jeremy Rose is being reunited with Afleet Alex after John Velazquez rode him for the first time in the Rebel. Rose rode Afleet Alex in all six of his starts last year, but it was announced at the beginning of the year that Velazquez would ride Afleet Alex in his Derby preps. When Ritchey decided to go in the Mountain Valley, Rose retained the mount that day, but it was understood Velazquez would be aboard for the Rebel.
For Saturday, Velazquez has opted to remain with his main client, trainer Todd Pletcher, and ride Bandini in the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Because of that, Rose is back aboard Afleet Alex for the Arkansas Derby.
"It's amazing the feel he and Alex have together," Zacney said of Rose. "He's on him for his works and his gallops. If you want someone who knows Afleet Alex and knows Oaklawn, you look at Jeremy."
Afleet Alex drew post 6 in the Arkansas Derby. Greater Good, who has won the Southwest Stakes and Rebel already this meet, drew the far outside post.
"It's all right," said Bob Holthus, who trains Greater Good. "He's going to be back off the pace anyway. He gets to load last, too. It doesn't matter."
From the rail out, the Arkansas Derby field is Batson Challenge, Andromeda's Hero, Canteen, Rush Bay, Flower Alley, Afleet Alex, Wild Desert, Real Dandy, Cat Shaker, and Greater Good.
Afleet Alex, Andromeda's Hero, Cat Shaker, Flower Alley, and Greater Good carry 122 pounds. The rest carry 118 pounds. Cat Shaker, who won the Rushaway Stakes at Turfway Park in his last start, was supplemented to the Arkansas Derby for $50,000.
In other Derby developments:
* Seven horses were entered Wednesday in the Blue Grass, including Derby Watch members Bandini, Closing Argument, Consolidator, High Limit, and Sun King.
* The Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass are two of the four races in the Premier Pick 4, a $1 minimum wager that also includes the Instant Racing Breeders' Cup at Oaklawn and the Commonwealth Breeders' Cup at Keeneland.
WHO'S HOT: Bellamy Road made quite the impression with his victory in the Wood Memorial. Because of that overpowering performance, he is now the 4-1 favorite on the future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, after being 30-1 one week ago. Greeley's Galaxy, who won the Illinois Derby, is down to 15-1 after being 40-1 one week ago. There are five newcomers to the Derby Watch top 25 list this week, including Buzzards Bay, the winner of the Santa Anita Derby, who comes in at 30-1. Andromeda's Hero, General John B, and Mr Sword are 60-1 on Watchmaker's line, and Cat Shaker is 80-1.
WHO'S NOT: The filly Sweet Catomine had the biggest fall since the Roman Empire, going from the co-third choice one week ago to being off the list, with controversy swirling about the way her owner and trainer conducted themselves surrounding the Santa Anita Derby. Also dropped from the list were Don't Get Mad, Galloping Grocer, Naughty New Yorker, and Pavo. Going Wild, 15-1 last week, is now 50-1 following his last-place finish in the Wood. Giacomo, who was fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, is now 40-1 after being 20-1 one week ago.
ON THE BUBBLE: Spanish Chestnut was dropped from the list following his poor performance in the Lanes End Stakes, but he could return to the list if he rebounds with a top effort Saturday in the Blue Grass Stakes.