12/01/2005 12:00AM

Good-bye, Afleet Alex

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After being bumped and stumbling to his knees, Afleet Alex makes a remarkable recovery under Jeremy Rose to win the Preakness by more than four lengths.

, winner of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes and the likely champion in the 3-year-old division, has been retired from racing due to the degeneration of bone in his left foreleg, doctors said. The injury is believed to be what caused the hairline fracture Afleet Alex suffered in the summer.

According to Dr. Patty Hogan, who performed surgery on Afleet Alex in July, Afleet Alex has developed avascular necrosis, a loss of blood supply to the area at the bottom of the cannon bone. Thus, the bone becomes more brittle and less able to withstand the rigors of racing. It is similar to the injury suffered by multiple-sports star

Bo Jackson, who was forced to retire from baseball and football in the 1990's due to a degeneration of his hip bone.

In the case of Afleet Alex, the injury is "in the spot where condylar fractures begin," Hogan said from her office at the New Jersey Equine Clinic. "I think he would have another one."

Afleet Alex was found to have a hairline condylar fracture of the cannon bone in his left foreleg in late July and had a screw inserted into that bone on July 27. Miraculously, Afleet Alex returned to training by early September, giving his trainer, Tim Ritchey, hope that he could return to the races this fall. Afleet Alex returned to the work tab on Sept. 30, working five furlongs in 59.85 seconds. Seven days later, he came back with another sharp move of four furlongs in 46.02 seconds.

However, by the end of October, Ritchey had pulled the plug on getting Afleet Alex back to the races in 2005. On Nov. 23, the day before Afleet Alex was to ship to Gulfstream Park, Ritchey sent Afleet Alex to Hogan's clinic where radiographs revealed this latest injury.

"It's become a brittle piece of bone instead of a nice elastic spongy type that would withstand pressure," Hogan said.

Afleet Alex is stabled at Gulfstream Park in south Florida with 14 other Ritchey-trained horses and will remain there until stud plans are finalized.

"He's been good to us, we're going to try and be good to him; find the ideal situation for him to be successful at stud," Ritchey said Thursday from Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, where he also has a string of horses. "I always thought it was the best thing for the horse, the best thing for the owners, the best thing for racing if he could have come back at 4. I still feel too many of these horses are being retired too early."

Afleet Alex, a son of Northern Afleet out of the Hawkster mare Maggy Hawk, won 8 of 12 career starts and earned $2,765,800 for the Cash Is King Stable, a partnership headed by Chuck Zacney and four of his friends from the Philadelphia area.

Afleet Alex was purchased for $75,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-year-olds in training sale at Timonium.

After a successful 2-year-old season in which he won the Grade 1 Hopeful and Grade 2 Sanford Stakes at Saratoga, Afleet Alex earned national prominence this spring with his performance in the Triple Crown series. After finishing third, beaten one length by Giacomo in the Kentucky Derby, Afleet Alex won the Preakness by 4 3/4 lengths despite being dropped to his knees after receiving a hard bump from Scrappy T at the top of the stretch. Three weeks later, Afleet Alex romped to a seven-length victory in the Belmont Stakes, and ran the fastest final quarter-mile - 24.50 seconds - since Arts and Letters in 1969.

Afleet Alex also became the focal point of a campaign to raise money for juvenile cancer.

"The ride of a lifetime," Zacney said about this past year. "It was very, very special."

Regarding stallions plans, Zacney said there "is nothing in the hopper."

"We were getting offers from Alex from day one," he said. "But we planned to race him as a 4-year-old. Unfortunately, we have to start the process. I would say the last couple of hours we received some positive phone calls. We'll probably start the process next week."

Ritchey and Hogan believe this current injury may have actually started as a result of the bump in the Preakness. Ritchey does not believe the injury came as a result of the fact Afleet Alex often trained twice a day, even after his surgery.

"I really don't think so," Ritchey said. "The bone density he had was very, very good. My own belief is the injury that he sustained started with that Preakness. If he had a clean trip in the Preakness, we would have been able to run him through his 3-year-old year and through his 4-year-old year."

In addition to the Preakness and Belmont, Afleet Alex won the Mountain Valley Stakes and Arkansas Derby at 3.

"The Preakness, everybody who saw it - even the people who watched the highlights of it - it's something they'll never forget," Ritchey said. "I told my two sons that even after I'm dead and buried, as long as they're alive they'll probably see that highlight every time they go to see a Preakness."