Updated on 09/17/2011 9:37PM

A cool and collected colt

Afleet Alex routs his Belmont rivals. His trainer, Tim Ritchey, likened the horse's competitive mental approach to quarterback Joe Montana's.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Now that the 2005 Triple Crown has ended, and Afleet Alex has emerged as the lone survivor of racing's own network reality show, what more can be said about the little bay colt who wins his races by a country mile?

Horsemen have lined up in praise of Afleet Alex, citing his coldly efficient stride, his acrobatic grace, and his quick-twitch reaction time that not only keeps him on his feet, but ignites a bang-zoom acceleration that puts races away in the blink of an eye.

Still, there are a lot of fast horses, built for the game and poetry in motion, who could not even warm up Afleet Alex. There must be more to the package, and there is, perhaps best explained by a Hall of Famer from another discipline named Lawrence Peter Berra - Yogi to his fans and friends - who once made the observation that "baseball is 90 percent physical - the other half is mental."

Don't worry about the math. It adds up, and especially in horse racing, where the very best Thoroughbreds seem to possess an indefinable spark of intelligence that separates them clearly from the herd.

These are rare individuals who do not surrender to their natural instincts of fear and flight. They are curious, social creatures who process information with the court sense of a point guard. They rise above the tumult, self-confident but never arrogant. In a Thoroughbred world full of anxious, scenery-chewing James Deans, their patron saint is Steve McQueen.

Consider what was thrown at Afleet Alex over the past several months. Displaced from his Delaware training grounds, he thrived at Oaklawn Park until a virus took its toll. He was smart enough to go easy on himself in the Rebel Stakes - with a horseman's help from John Velazquez in the saddle - and was back on his game for the Arkansas Derby.

The Triple Crown tears down its participants in three merciless acts. From the round-the-clock crowds at the Kentucky Derby, to the fishbowl stabling at the Preakness, to the suddenly deserted expanses of Belmont Park, young horses are systematically deprived of the routines on which they usually thrive.

Triple Crown race days alone are enough to crumble the strongest Thoroughbred psyche, beginning with the walkover in front of the shirtless drunks on the Churchill Downs clubhouse turn. Then there is the free-form saddling experience on the Pimlico turf in front of even drunker shirtless infield drunks, followed by the coliseum-style amphitheater in the Belmont paddock and a high-wire walk though a grandstand sound tunnel lined with cheering New York fans.

This year's Belmont Stakes added one more flourish to the counterintuitive treatment of highly strung horses. The Belmont starters were required to conform to the new New York Racing Association practice of a six-hour quarantine before racing, at a backstretch location marked by a red sign on the high cyclone fence that reads "Monitoring Stalls." In better days, one of the barns was home to the horses of the retired Hall of Famer Scotty Schulhofer, from which issued Belmont Stakes winners Lemon Drop Kid and Colonial Affair. Now, the locals dub the barns Stalag 13.

Once again, Afleet Alex was not fazed. He played with his jolly-ball, watched other horses fret and grumble, nibbled his hay, and passed the time.

Tim Ritchey takes no credit for the laid-back demeanor that has served Afleet Alex so well. Late last Saturday evening, as Ritchey and his son, Ben, finally said good-night to the colt and called it a day, the trainer paused just long enough to marvel once again at his Preakness and Belmont winner.

"I've been around horses since I was two years old - I'm 54 now - and I rode some real quiet ponies when I was a kid," Ritchey said. "I have never, ever seen this horse even look twice, shy, or spook at anything. Ever. And he's been through some things. He amazes me.

"Horses like that - and there aren't many - they have something special," Ritchey went on, warming to the theme. "Like some human athletes. Joe Montana, for instance. The guy never got upset about anything. Fourth and five? 'Okay, so whatta we gotta do? Let's do it.'

"It's an intangible quality," Ritchey added, "and this horse had it when I first saw him at the sale. It was in a tent area, with rubber mats, where he was walking back and forth. Not far away - about here to that car - there were two or three horses just going nuts. Rearing, striking, kicking. He stopped and he stood, and just looked over at them, like he was thinking, 'You idiots. What are you doing? There's no point.' And he was a 2-year-old!"

For Ritchey, Afleet Alex has been that way ever since, affording his trainer the luxury to concentrate on the physical and nutritional side of conditioning. Imagine the joy of handling a horse with such inner peace, living in a world without equine anxiety or false alarms.

"Look at the Preakness," Ritchey added. "How fast do you think his reflexes were to pick those legs up? If he needs to do something or go somewhere, he's gone. Right now. He just knows what he's capable of, so nothing upsets him.

"Going through the entire Triple Crown, I thought I'd be under a lot of pressure and be real nervous at times," Ritchey added. "With this horse, though, I've never felt the stress, the nerves. It was his self-confidence that passed over to me, and it was a perfect match."