06/07/2005 11:00PM

Big fan of Alex will be riding a rival

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John Velazquez jumped off Afleet Alex in April. Now he's on Pinpoint.

ELMONT, N.Y. - John Velazquez thought Christmas had come early when his agent, Angel Cordero Jr., told him in mid-December that he was committed to ride Afleet Alex as a 3-year-old. Unfortunately, it turned out to be more like April Fool's Day.

Had circumstances been different, Velazquez - and not Jeremy Rose - would be at the center of the hoopla surrounding Afleet Alex, the Preakness winner and favorite for Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

Instead, Velazquez, coming off an Eclipse Award-winning season, has been a nonfactor in the first two races of this year's Triple Crown. Velazquez rode Bandini to a 19th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. He watched the Preakness from a hotel room in Baltimore.

"I can't think about the past now," said Velazquez, who will ride longshot Pinpoint in Saturday's Belmont. "We made a good decision, and bad ones. It wasn't meant to be. From the beginning we chose the right horse, we just couldn't ride him."

Velazquez, 33, is the first-call rider for trainer Todd Pletcher, who nominated twice as many horses (34) to the Triple Crown series as any other trainer. It seemed unlikely that Velazquez would be available to ride Afleet Alex. But by the end of December, most of Pletcher's Triple Crown prospects had yet to win a maiden race.

"It's a lot to ask for ones that are maidens in January to get to the Derby and win the Derby, so we were looking for something that was already running and consistent," Velazquez said. "When I got the call from Angel that said we could ride that horse, I said, 'That's a great deal.' "

Velazquez rode Afleet Alex for just one race. It happened to be the colt's worst race, as he finished last in the Grade 3 Rebel Stakes on March 19. Velazquez said he thought something was amiss when the horse took a deep breath leaving the half-mile pole. From there, Afleet Alex had very little run.

Velazquez got off the horse and told trainer Tim Ritchey, "I didn't like the way he was breathing and the way he was holding his breath."

Afleet Alex was found to have a lung infection, and Velazquez said he told Cordero to "make sure you let [Ritchey] know I want to go back and ride the horse" in the Arkansas Derby.

Velazquez had to back out of that commitment when the Pletcher-trained Bandini was forced to miss the April 2 Florida Derby and was instead pointed to the Blue Grass, the same day as the Arkansas Derby.

"What am I going to do, jump off Bandini for a guy that's going to give me everything he has for one horse?" Velazquez said.

Chuck Zacney, one of the owners of Afleet Alex, understood.

"If I'm him, I got to make that choice," Zacney said. "Next year when we have two horses in the Kentucky Derby, we're hoping Johnny rides the other one. I still think Johnny is a top jockey, but for Alex, Jeremy's the man."

When Bandini romped to a six-length victory in the Blue Grass Stakes, Velazquez felt good about his chances to win his first Kentucky Derby. Still, he feared Afleet Alex.

"I loved my horse and I thought the horse was doing great," Velazquez said. "Everybody who asked me if I wasn't riding Bandini who would I love to ride, it was Afleet Alex. He's the best horse in the race in my belief. He danced every dance as a 2-year-old and he was there all the time. Almost every horse who went to the Derby was a late-developing horse - they had to overcome a lot."

Afleet Alex ran third in the Derby, beaten one length by Giacomo. After Bandini finished 19th in the Derby, he was found to have an ankle chip that had to be surgically removed.

Velazquez did not have a mount for the Preakness. Though he was rooting for his friend Mike Smith to pilot Giacomo to a Preakness victory, Velazquez still thought Afleet Alex "was the best horse in the race."

Entering Saturday's Belmont Stakes, everybody knows Afleet Alex is the horse to beat. He has five stakes wins, as many as the other 10 horses in the field combined. Velazquez will be aboard Pinpoint, one of three Nick Zito-trained horses and a winner of his last three races.

"I still believe [Afleet Alex] is the toughest horse in the race," Velazquez said. "I think I picked up a very nice horse with a good trainer behind him; that helps a lot."

Velazquez said he has no regrets and believes Jeremy Rose has a bright future beyond Afleet Alex.

"I had no doubt in my mind the kid could get the job done," Velazquez said. "He reminds me of myself when I was up and coming, riding good horses here and there; not a lot of good horses, but when you get your opportunity, he makes the best of that opportunity."