10/05/2004 11:00PM

Champagne key race for Afleet Alex

Afleet Alex, winning the Hopeful at Saratoga in August, may go on to the BC Juvenile if he runs well in the Champagne.

Trainer Tim Ritchey has taken it one race at a time with every horse he trains. So when he says he's not sure whether Afleet Alex will run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on Oct. 30 at Lone Star Park, he is not being difficult.

"Depends on how he races in the Champagne and how he comes out of it," Ritchey said. "Everything hinges on that. I just have to do what's best for my horse. If he comes out of the race very well, it is a possibility to go to the Breeders' Cup."

Afleet Alex, unbeaten in four starts, is the main attraction on a weekend when three prep races will be run to help determine the field for the $1.5 million Juvenile. Afleet Alex heads a seven-horse field expected for the Grade 1, $500,000 Champagne, a one-turn, 1 1/16-mile race at Belmont Park. Also this weekend are the $500,000 Lane's End Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland and the $250,000 Grey Breeders' Cup at Woodbine on Monday. Those races are 1 1/16 miles, but run around two turns.

Afleet Alex, a son of Northern Afleet, was dominant winning a pair of races at Delaware Park. He validated those races by winning the Sanford at Saratoga by 5 1/2 lengths in a stakes-record time of 1:09.32. In the Grade 1 Hopeful, Afleet Alex had an eventful trip and seemed hopelessly beaten at the eighth pole, only to re-rally and win by a neck over the highly regarded Devils Disciple.

The Champagne will be the first test for Afleet Alex beyond seven furlongs. After watching Afleet Alex work a mile at Delaware Park in 1:37.66 on Sept. 22 - in which Afleet Alex got his last quarter-mile in 22.71 seconds - Ritchey doesn't see the distance as a problem.

"There's not a doubt in my mind about that," Ritchey said.

Afleet Alex had two more solid workouts after that, and Ritchey believes Afleet Alex is coming to the Champagne "absolutely great."

Ritchey said that if he and owner Chuck Zackney decide to run Afleet Alex in the Breeders' Cup, he would ship to Dallas in plenty of time to get at least one work over the track.

The Champagne is coming up a compelling race. Heading the list of challegners are Proud Accolade, who is 2 for 2 for trainer Todd Pletcher; the impressive maiden winner Sun King, trained by four-time Champagne-winning trainer Nick Zito; and Belmont Futurity winner Park Avenue Ball.

"Proud Accolade I think is the horse to beat," Ritchey said. "He's a very nice horse; whether he can go a mile and a sixteenth, I don't know - he's got a sprint pedigree. His two races were very, very good races to me."

Sun King, a son of Charismatic, defeated Patriot Act by a half-length in a Sept. 17 maiden race at Belmont. The usually conservative connections of Patriot Act - owner Will Farish and trainer Neil Howard - think enough of Patriot Act to run him in the Breeders' Futurity as a maiden.

"I think Sun King is a nice horse, and if it had been a half-length the other way we'd be going without even hedging," Howard said. "Looking at the horse, he's worked well since the race, so we thought we'd give it a shot."

Among the 11 runners expected for the Breeders' Futurity are Bellamy Road, Diamond Isle, and Scipion, the top three finishers from the Grade 3 Cradle Stakes at River Downs on Sept. 6.

Three Hour Nap, winner of the Arlington-Washington Futurity, will likely be entered in the Breeders' Futurity. Trainer Hugh Robertson said he does not plan on running Three Hour Nap in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, however.

Wallstreet Scandal, who finished second in the Belmont Futurity, is likely headed to Canada for the Grey Stakes, trainer Rick Violette said. Violette believes the race would be much easier for his horse than the Champagne.

Pletcher said another of his 2-year-olds, Flamenco, would not be considered for the Breeders' Cup. Flamenco suffered from fever, missed some training time, and will not run in the Champagne. He will most likely make his next start in the Cowdin at Belmont on Oct. 17.

Trainer Bob Baffert reported that Roman Ruler came out of his victory in last weekend's Norfolk in good shape, and "all systems are go" for the Juvenile. The Baffert-trained Fusaichi Rock Star, however, is unlikely to start in the Champagne.

Juvenile contenders
2-year-old colts & geldings, 1 1/16 miles. Purse: $1.5 million.

1Roman RulerB. Baffert2-1
Was shaky in the Norfolk, so I'm waiting for another listed to step up
2Afleet AlexT. Ritchey5-1
He could become the one with a strong Champagne performance
3Sun KingN. Zito12-1
Won a maiden race that was stronger than a lot of stakes; dangerous
4Bellamy RoadM. Dickinson12-1
The only knock is he hasn't run fast yet, but that will come in time
5Proud AccoladeT. Pletcher6-1
Romped in his first two; his Champagne effort will tell the story
6Patriot ActN. Howard20-1
Maiden has a good chance to get first win in the Lane's End Futurity
7OratorioA. O'Brien12-1
A three time stakes winner, and the barn must always be respected
8Park Avenue BallJ. Ryerson15-1
Clearly best in the Futurity, but against the clock, that race was soft
9Diamond IsleK. McPeek30-1
Chased Bellamy Road home in the Cradle; must really raise his game
10ScipionP. Biancone20-1
I believe he is terribly overrated, but he does have a license to improve

- The top 10 contenders for each of the eight Breeders' Cup races are ranked by Mike Watchmaker, who set the odds and wrote the comments. Actual Breeders' Cup fields will have up to 14 starters.