05/24/2005 12:00AM

No one mocking marathon man now

"A lot of people probably thought I was crazy, but I think it helped immensely, especially in this race." - Trainer Tim Ritchey on Afleet Alex's training schedule

Round and round Afleet Alex has gone this year, logging more miles than a long-distance trucker. He has trained upward of five miles some mornings, combining jogs with gallops, oftentimes twice a day. It is an unorthodox regimen, considering that almost all horses routinely gallop no more than a mile and a half per day. But in light of what happened in the Preakness Stakes last Saturday, when Afleet Alex remarkably recovered after stumbling badly when he clipped heels with Scrappy T, it might very well have saved his life, and that of jockey Jeremy Rose.

"Fitness makes a big difference," said Tim Ritchey, who trains Afleet Alex and devised the demanding training schedule. "I think it helped out. He probably could have overcome it on his own. But the fact is he's so fit and has so many miles, it helped him to overcome that and even go on and win the race."

Ritchey came up with his training plan for Afleet Alex earlier this year, while training the colt at Oaklawn Park. It is a luxury that can be afforded with few horses, since there is precious little time each morning to shoehorn a trainer's string of horses into the time allotted for training hours. Trainers of large strings of horses have them roll off the assembly line each morning, and though the specifics for each horse certainly can vary, they are all variations on a theme.

Ritchey had a full barn of horses at Oaklawn, but he carved out time each morning to make sure Afleet Alex got the mileage Ritchey thought necessary. The first indication that Afleet Alex was much fitter than anyone could have imagined occurred in his first start this year, when he won the Mountain Valley Stakes off just two timed workouts.

Afleet Alex ran poorly in his next start, the Rebel Stakes, from which he emerged with a lung infection. Again, though, his fitness level served him well, because Afleet Alex came back three weeks later and was a runaway winner of the Arkansas Derby.

In the Kentucky Derby, Afleet Alex finished third, behind longshots Giacomo and Closing Argument. It wasn't for lack of fitness, because Afleet Alex had trained far more than any horse in this year's Derby. On the day, he was simply third best.

"He never got a chance to put in that three-eighths of a mile run that he can," Ritchey said.

In the Preakness, though, Afleet Alex moved around the far turn like a rocket. After saving ground for the first six furlongs, he briefly had to await room with three furlongs to go. But once he found room, "he was really rolling," Ritchey said.

Then suddenly, as Afleet Alex was about to grab the lead, Scrappy T veered right into his path, causing a frightening stumble.

"The horse has to do it," Rose said. "Otherwise, you hit the ground."

"The horse has to maintain his balance, and the rider has to maintain his balance on top of the horse," Ritchey said. "There was a lot of luck. I think we were meant to win the race, even though there was a stumbling block, and that was a stumbling block.

"A lot of people probably thought I was crazy," Ritchey said, referring to his training schedule for Afleet Alex, "but I think it helped immensely, especially in this race."

Ritchey also has been unwavering in his belief that a horse must train as much as possible over the track at which he will race. Afleet Alex was one of the first to ship to Churchill Downs for the Derby, was the first Preakness horse to arrive at Pimlico, and is scheduled to head to Belmont Park more than two weeks before the June 11 Belmont Stakes.

Ritchey has 40 horses in training at Delaware Park, where he is based. Counting horses being prepped in Ocala, Fla., and Pennsylvania, he said he is responsible for about 60 horses.

"I was up to 80 at one time, but that was too many," he said. "I couldn't keep track of every one."

Ritchey is planning on having 10 or 15 horses at Saratoga this summer, including Afleet Alex.

"This should help my career, and Jeremy's career," Ritchey said.

This is Ritchey's first go-round in the Triple Crown. So too for John Shirreffs, the trainer of Giacomo. In fact, the trainers of the first three finishers in the Derby and Preakness - including Robbie Bailes (Scrappy T) and Kiaran McLaughlin (Closing Argument) - are all competing in the Triple Crown for the first time.

"There's hundreds of trainers at big tracks and small tracks who can train a horse to win a Triple Crown race," Ritchey said. "They just need the horse. You don't have to be a D. Wayne Lukas or a Bob Baffert. They start with 50 or 100 2-year-olds. I have four or five. It was proven with Giacomo, and the other first-time trainers. If you have the horse, you can get there."

And in Afleet Alex, Ritchey certainly has the horse.

"Horses make trainers' careers, and make jockeys' careers. I'm lucky to have him," he said.