06/12/2005 11:00PM

Long run leads to top

Jockey Jeremy Rose and Afleet Alex enjoy some downtime at Belmont Park a day after their Belmont victory. "He's made out of steel," Rose said.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Tim Ritchey put himself on the chopping block earlier this year when he decided to train Afleet Alex as much as twice a day for as many as five miles. It is a schedule few trainers would dare to undertake, even if in their hearts they thought it was right, because unorthodox methods invite backbiting in the insular world of Thoroughbred racing.

From Oaklawn Park to Churchill Downs, Pimlico Race Course to Belmont Park, Afleet Alex's training regimen never failed to spark debate. While no trainer would criticize Ritchey - after all, his method was working - few were willing to say they would try it.

But the combination of a confident trainer and a willing colt produced in Afleet Alex a horse who not only got through all three Triple Crown races, but also progressed remarkably. He turned in memorable performances in the Preakness Stakes and, on Saturday, in the after running third in the Kentucky Derby.

And there's more to come for the colt who has become the most popular horse in racing.

Afleet Alex came out of the Belmont well, Ritchey said, and will be pointed to a series of races this summer and fall, first against 3-year-olds and then against older horses in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 29 back at Belmont Park. With Ghostzapper, the reigning Horse of the Year, having been retired on Monday, Afleet Alex is now the front-runner for Horse of the Year, although he could still face the likes of the Dubai World Cup winner, Roses in May, in the Classic.

Afleet Alex will first be pointed to the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Aug. 7, Ritchey said. After that, and before the Breeders' Cup, the Aug. 27 Travers at Saratoga and the Oct. 1 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs are "races on our radar screen," Ritchey said.

Ritchey said Sunday that Afleet Alex "had his ears up and was right at the front of the stall to greet me this morning." He said Afleet Alex would remain at Belmont Park for at least the next four or five days, and then would either remain at Belmont Park a while longer or head to Monmouth Park. He will not join Ritchey's main string at Delaware Park. There has been an outbreak of strangles at Delaware, so shipping into there is not an option.

"He'll relax, but for him relaxing still means galloping a mile and a half," Ritchey said. "You can't completely stop with a horse like this. It's not healthy. He won't do anything strenuous."

Ritchey said he believed the extensive training he did with Afleet Alex helped get him through a harrowing Preakness, and aided in his recovery during the demands of the Kentucky Derby prep races and subsequent Triple Crown.

"If you don't have that kind of bottom, you don't get through this with a happy and healthy horse at the end of it," Ritchey said.

Jeremy Rose, the regular rider for Afleet Alex, called him "a beast, a freak of nature."

"He's made out of steel," Rose said. "He's an amazing animal."

Ritchey emphasized that Afleet Alex will race next year at age 4, unless something unforeseen happens to his health. If any financial interest is sold in the immediate future, he said, it would be for breeding only. The current ownership group, the Cash Is King Stable managed by Chuck Zacney, would control Afleet Alex's racing career through the end of 2006.

"He's going to run as a 4-year-old. Period, end of story," Ritchey said. "We've had about 15 farms call. One condition that will be in any contract is that we will sell the breeding rights, but he will run as a 4-year-old as long as he is healthy and sound. It's the right thing to do. The owners are having the time of their life, and I am too."

In addition to Zacney, the owners of Afleet Alex are Bob Brittingham, Joe Judge, Joe Lerro, and Jen Reeves. Lerro, the most demonstrative of the quintet, was seen on an isolated camera on NBC's telecast Saturday bouncing like a pogo stick during the stretch run of the Belmont, then falling into the arms of Ritchey and Zacney.

Giacomo, who won the Derby and was third in the Preakness, faded to finish seventh in the Belmont after taking the lead with a quarter-mile remaining. His jockey, Mike Smith, said immediately after the Belmont that he believed Giacomo had displaced his palate during the race. But John Shirreffs, who trains Giacomo, was not certain the colt had a breathing problem.

Smith, according to Shirreffs, said "he made some noise."

However, Shirreffs said, "I scoped him and the vet couldn't get him to displace to check him out. I personally can't say he displaced. Mike could be right.

"I think he was too close to the pace," Shirreffs added. "For a mile and a half, the pace was pretty solid."

Giacomo returned to Shirreffs's barn at Hollywood Park on Sunday. Shirreffs said Giacomo will be given a break of seven to 10 days before resuming training. The Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park on July 9 is "a possibility," Shirreffs said, but more likely is the Del Mar Derby, on turf, on Sept. 5.

Andromeda's Hero, who finished second in the Belmont, gave trainer Nick Zito his best finish from 11 runners in this year's Triple Crown races. Andromeda's Hero will be pointed for major races of the summer, Zito said. He said he would "find somebody" for the Haskell from among his many 3-year-olds, but that he had no specific runners in mind yet for the Haskell or the Travers.

Zito's 3-year-olds include High Fly, Indy Storm, Noble Causeway, Pinpoint, Sun King, and Bellamy Road, the Derby favorite, who recently had a splint to his left front ankle pin-fired.

"We're looking to have a great fall with him," Zito said.

Third just fine for Romans

The connections of Nolan's Cat felt a sense of vindication after running third in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. Nolan's Cat, owned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey and trained by Dale Romans, was running in the Belmont despite being a maiden, having lost all five of his previous starts.

After running last for the first mile of the Belmont, Nolan's Cat rallied to be third, 13 3/4 lengths behind Afleet Alex, but 2 1/4 lengths ahead of the fourth-place finisher, Indy Storm.

"He ran as good as he could," said Romans, who anticipated a stronger pace. "The winner's just a super horse. I was real proud of him. He ran like I thought he would. I think it's a shame that some things happened to him early in his career or he would have been a contender through the whole thing."

Romans said Nolan's Cat had "little nagging injuries as a 2-year-old, then he got hung up in quarantine in Florida. I think with more experience he's going to become a real good horse."

Nolan's Cat returned to Churchill Downs on Sunday. Romans has plenty of options for a next start, including a maiden race.

Reverberate cut tongue clear through

Reverberate, the Peter Pan runner-up who finished 10th in the Belmont, cut his tongue in three spots, trainer Sal Russo reported.

Blood could be seen trickling from Reverberate's mouth just before he entered the gate. Then, when he stumbled leaving the gate, Reverberate bit his tongue in two places, and created a hole "you could put your finger through," Russo said.

Russo said the tongue injuries will heal quickly, but added that Reverberate would be given a freshening and be pointed to the Saratoga meet.

"I'm not disappointed in him, he's a pretty nice colt," Russo said. "He's no Afleet Alex, that's for sure. Not yet."

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen and David Grening