05/23/2005 12:00AM

Brush with disaster one for the books

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BALTIMORE - To say that Afleet Alex was about a week the best in Saturday's Preakness Stakes would be accurate, but somehow it still doesn't seem to do the colt justice. So, perhaps this will: Afleet Alex was so much the best that it made anyone who picked or bet against him (like me) feel mighty stupid. That is about the highest compliment a handicapper can pay to a horse who beats him.

The incident at the top of the stretch of Preakness 130 is already assured of a prominent spot in Triple Crown lore. The most obvious comparison was to the Alysheba-Bet Twice Kentucky Derby of 1987, when Bet Twice swerved out into Alysheba in upper stretch, causing Alysheba, the eventual winner, to clip heels and nearly fall. But Saturday's incident was worse.

You need not have watched a lot of races to know that Afleet Alex was going to win by a double-digit margin. Not with the way this Preakness set up and with the way he moved around the far turn like he was shot out of a cannon. Likewise, you don't need a lot of racing experience to realize that it was amazing Afleet Alex didn't fall when the leader, Scrappy T, came out sharply in front of him, causing him to clip heels and stumble badly. Although, the more races you have seen, the more you know what a miracle it was. Ninety-five times out of 100, a horse who stumbles that badly would have fallen, especially at that point in the race, when horses are still turning and lead changes are about to come into play. And you needn't have been around racing forever to realize that this potential disaster did not have to happen.

Most racing fans know that jockeys are not supposed to hit horses who are drifting out left-handed, and they are not supposed to hit horses who are lugging in right-handed, because doing so exacerbates the situation. It follows, then, that a jockey should not hit a horse making a left turn into the stretch left-handed, because that makes it even more difficult for the horse to stay in his lane and not drift out. Maybe what Scrappy T's connections said after the race, that their gelding was looking all over the place, is true. But even if it is, that does not explain why, turning into the stretch, jockey Ramon Dominguez reached back and hit Scrappy T as hard as he could left-handed. It was an uncharacteristically poor, or aggressive, choice by a terrific rider who is a lot better than what he showed on Saturday.

Fortunately, Afleet Alex kept his feet and his rider, Jeremy Rose, kept his seat, because if they had gone down, the outcome of this Preakness would have been 100 times more unsatisfying than even the weakly run Kentucky Derby was two weeks earlier. Scrappy T, who finished five lengths clear for second, would have been disqualified. That would have meant that Kentucky Derby upsetter Giacomo, who was never involved at any point except clunking up for third money, and who was beaten almost 10 lengths, would have been placed first on disqualification. Giacomo going for a Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes under these circumstances would have been stomach-turning.

In any event, Afleet Alex deserves a world of credit for finding a way to go on to score by nearly five lengths Saturday, and to still run fast enough to earn a Beyer Speed Figure of 112, which on its own shows that the Preakness was as legitimate a race as the Derby was flukey. And Afleet Alex's trainer, Tim Ritchey, deserves a lot of credit for developing a horse who is a throwback to a time when good horses proved they were good horses by racing frequently. In a day when most horsemen go for less and fresh with the best, Afleet Alex is a classic in that he raced in stakes early and late at 2, and looks to do the same at 3. With no Triple Crown on the line, there is really no incentive for any horse to run in the Belmont Stakes on June 11. In fact, a lot of horsemen would be afraid of the Belmont's 1 1/2 miles and of the subsequent effect such a long race would have on their horses. Not Ritchey. The best race for 3-year-olds coming up next is the Belmont, and because it is, Ritchey plans on being there with Afleet Alex. Good for them.

A few other Preakness impressions:

- After seeing two-thirds of the 2005 Triple Crown, it looks like I overvalued the strength of the 3-year-olds who came out of Gulfstream Park, but may have still been correct about the Southern California 3-year-olds being subpar. Many California partisans proclaimed the Derby result as sweet vindication for their horses. But this year's Derby was no race to base judgments on, and the 3-year-olds out of both California and Florida flopped Saturday.

- Some of the wackiest odds of the year occur in the Triple Crown races. How Spanish Chestnut wasn't the longest shot on the board in the Derby is a marvel. But the prices in the Preakness on Malibu Moonshine (24-1), Going Wild (26-1), and especially Hal's Image (23-1) were even more baffling in how low they were.

- Speaking of Going Wild, the 41-length drubbing he took in the Wood Memorial didn't do it. Neither did his 16 1/4-length loss in the Lexington, or the 28 3/4-length beating he took in the Derby. It took the 42-length loss he took in the Preakness to convince trainer D. Wayne Lukas that Going Wild may not belong with the company he has been keeping. And they say people in racing are slow to change.