05/22/2005 11:00PM

'The immaculate recovery'

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Jockey Jeremy Rose guided Afleet Alex to a 4 3/4-length win after the colt stumbled on the final turn.

BALTIMORE - For the past three years, and six of the previous eight years, the Triple Crown was on the line in the Belmont Stakes. It is the most compelling story line in racing. Although there will not be a Triple Crown bid in this year's Belmont, on June 11, the race still should generate tremendous interest, because it will mark the first start for Afleet Alex since his remarkable victory in the Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico, and could provide a rubber match between Afleet Alex and Giacomo, the Kentucky Derby winner.

Afleet Alex has been the talk of the sports world since his dance with disaster in the Preakness. Even sports fans who have only a passing interest in racing had to be captivated by the colt's courageous performance. Afleet Alex might not yet have reached the popular level of Funny Cide or Smarty Jones during the spring of their 3-year-old campaigns, but he's not far away now.

"Hopefully people gained respect for the Thoroughbred," said Tim Ritchey, the trainer of Afleet Alex. "To see a 1,000-pound horse make the move he made, there's not a lot of human athletes who could recover from that and go on and win a race."

Except for a minor scrape on the back of his left front ankle, Afleet Alex appeared to have emerged unscathed from the Preakness.

"He's lucky," said Ritchey. "He just took the skin off. I don't think it'll be a problem."

Afleet Alex nearly fell at the top of the stretch in the Preakness when Scrappy T veered suddenly into his path, causing Afleet Alex to clip heels and stumble badly. Ritchey theorizes that in Afleet Alex's wild scramble to keep his feet, Afleet Alex nicked his left front leg with the hoof of his left rear leg.

Ritchey, a native of Pittsburgh and a passionate Steelers fan, said Afleet Alex's recovery in the race was miraculous, and likened it to Franco Harris catching a last-ditch pass for a touchdown in a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders on Dec. 23, 1972.

"That was the immaculate reception," Ritchey said. "What should we call this, the immaculate recovery?"

Ritchey said Afleet Alex would remain at Pimlico for the next several days before heading straight to Belmont Park to prepare for the Belmont Stakes. Point Given, in 2001, is the last horse to win the Preakness and Belmont after losing the Derby.

"I'm hoping for less drama, and the same result," Ritchey said. "I had planned to ship on Wednesday, but I'll wait an extra day or two and probably go on Friday. I want to monitor him for muscle injuries. Right now, he's fine, but his body was contorted in a way it wasn't meant to be."

Afleet Alex got a Beyer Speed Figure of 112 and, despite the harrowing incident, won the Preakness by 4 3/4 lengths.

"It should have been 10," said Jeremy Rose, who rode Afleet Alex. "We were rolling."

Rose said the left front leg of Afleet Alex caught the right rear leg of Scrappy T when Scrappy T veered out.

"My first thought was I was going to get run over," Rose said. "I thought for sure I was going down. Fear makes you very, very tall. I was going to hang on."

Rose said that just before the incident, he had thrown a new cross with his reins, and in doing so had grabbed a fistful of Afleet Alex's mane.

"It would have been more difficult to stay on if I hadn't done that," Rose said. "I popped up out of the stirrups, but I got back in when he came back up underneath me."

After first realizing that Afleet Alex had not gone down, Joe Lerro, one of the owners of Afleet Alex, said he figured there was no way Afleet Alex could re-rally in time.

"I started looking to see who was third, because I figured if Alex held second, he would win on a disqualification," Lerro said.

"Jeremy's a former wrestler. I think he used every move he's ever learned," said Chuck Zacney, the manager of the five-person Cash Is King syndicate, which owns Afleet Alex.

Both Rose and Ritchey said it was the athleticism of Afleet Alex that prevented a horrific accident.

"I've never seen a horse overcome that and win a race," Ritchey said. "It was like being in a car wreck and waiting for a car to hit you. Here it comes. Then he got up, and it was like he focused and said, 'Let's go.' To gather himself and go on was phenomenal."

Had Afleet Alex fallen, Scrappy T undoubtedly would have been disqualified. Giacomo, who finished third in the Preakness, would have been moved up to first, and there would have been the queasy specter of a horse going for the Triple Crown as the result of a tragic accident. Bill Passmore, a former jockey who is one of Pimlico's stewards, said that Ramon Dominguez, who rode Scrappy T, would be interviewed by the stewards at Pimlico on Wednesday - the next day Pimlico has racing - to see if any disciplinary action would be taken against Dominguez.

Asked what he thought of Dominguez's ride, Ritchey said, "My father told me if you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything."

Giacomo flew back to California on Sunday. His trainer, John Shirreffs, on Monday said Giacomo would be pointed toward the Belmont.

"If everything goes well, that's what we'll do," Shirreffs said. "He shipped home very well. I thought he'd look a little dehydrated, because the plane stopped in Louisville on the way home, but he looks well. He's taking it all in stride."

Shirreffs said Giacomo would train at Hollywood Park for the next two weeks and would go to New York as close to the Belmont Stakes as possible.

Thunder Gulch, in 1995, is the last horse to win the Derby and Belmont but lose the Preakness.

There were maximum fields of 20 in the Derby and 14 in the Preakness, but the Belmont field should be considerably smaller. Others considered definite for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont are Andromeda's Hero and Buzzards Bay, who ran in the Derby and bypassed the Preakness, as well as Southern Africa, the winner of the Lone Star Derby.

Pinpoint, who won the Sir Barton Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico with a Beyer Speed Figure of 87, is possible for the race, as are Scrappy T, A. P. Arrow, and Watchmon. The Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park on Saturday, which is headed by Chekhov, also could produce Belmont Stakes runners.

- additional reporting by David Grening