10/11/2005 11:00PM

One thing Alex couldn't do

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The drama surrounding Afleet Alex has ended, and now, mercifully, the pressure is off Tim Ritchey to bring the colt back in time for the Breeders' Cup Classic.

In many respects, the goal was unreasonable, even with Ritchey's old-school approach to conditioning that has served Afleet Alex so well. But racing fans have come to expect remarkable strokes of artistry from the little bay colt. For most horses, making the Classic after ankle surgery in June would have been unthinkable. For Afleet Alex, it was well within the realm of possibility.

If Afleet Alex had made it to the Classic, and actually won the thing, it would have been an unforgettable moment, immediately burned into history and celebrated in song. Sportswriters covering the event would have exhausted their superlatives. Tom Durkin would have gone apoplectic. They could have used just about any word to describe the achievement - except for one: unprecedented.

Twenty years ago, in the 1985 Breeders' Cup held for the one and only time at Aqueduct, the 3-year-old colt Proud Truth and his trainer, John Veitch, pulled off a Classic coup that looks better and better with age.

Bred and owned by John Galbreath, Proud Truth was a rough-and-tumble veteran of the 3-year-old wars, winner of the Peter Pan, Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby, and, at least for a while, the Flamingo Stakes (there was a DQ, then a racing board reversal, then weeping and gnashing of teeth - but that's another story). The short version is simple. Proud Truth was one tough sucker.

After finishing fifth in the Kentucky Derby behind Spend a Buck, Proud Truth skipped the Preakness and prepped for the Belmont Stakes by winning the Peter Pan, on May 26. Veitch, who now serves as a Kentucky state steward, picked up the tale from there.

"Two days after the Peter Pan, I decided to go back to the track with him," Veitch began. "But as soon as we put the rider up, he was uncomfortable in his right front leg. We took some X-rays, and he had a saucer fracture in his cannon bone."

The shape of such a fracture is pretty well described by its name. Proscribed treatments include pin-firing, surgical insertion of a screw, or drilling, which promotes more rapid bone growth. Veitch and his veterinarians - William Reed and Chuck Allen - decided to drill.

"There were three almost microscopic holes, drilled into the cortex of the bone, and he had to be given general anesthetic," Veitch said. "After that, we had to give him 90 days of recovery."

Proud Truth made the trip to Saratoga that summer with the rest of the Veitch stable.

"By the last week of August, it was time to begin tack-walking and jogging," Veitch said. "But then he took a couple of bad steps. We X-rayed, and found a cap of calcium growth on top of where the fracture was. Chuck told me to give him a day, then scrub that spot with firing paint for two or three days and walk him under tack. Damned if it didn't work."

At that point, Veitch had about 60 days to get his horse ready for the Breeders' Cup, a horse he described as "totally unfit."

"He was an ideal horse to train, though," Veitch said. "He'd do anything you'd ask of him. He was a big, robust horse, and durable. I also had horses I could train him with, other horses owned by Mr. Galbreath, and I could train him twice a day."

Sound familiar? Tim Ritchey raised eyebrows earlier this year with his two-a-day training routine for Afleet Alex. But it was nothing new. Veitch learned his lessons from his father, Hall of Famer Sylvester Veitch, who was a contemporary of such training icons as Ben Jones, James Fitzsimmons, and Preston Burch.

So Proud Truth got his traditional open gallops and speed works around the Belmont oval each morning, usually under exercise rider Charlie Rose. Then, in the afternoons, Veitch would tack him up and send him out for a jog on the sandy horse paths of the Belmont backstretch.

"I had a fantastic groom rubbing him, by the name of Jesse Spotts, who was as good a horseman as I'll ever be," Veitch said. "He could tell me everything - how much hay he was eating, how quickly he was eating his grain, his disposition, his mood changes. He monitored the horse perfectly.

"And we had to, because we couldn't afford to miss a day," Veitch added. "I was on an almost hour-to-hour schedule in terms of getting him fit enough. I had the advantage of knowing how good he was when he was at the top of his game. And I had three great assets: Charlie Rose, Jesse Spotts, and the horse."

Proud Truth returned to the races on Oct. 7 at Belmont in a seven-furlong allowance and won by three-quarters of a length. Then, on Oct. 26, he won the nine-furlong Discovery Handicap by a neck. One week later, on Nov. 2, the comeback was complete, when Proud Truth defeated Gate Dancer by a head in the second running of the 10-furlong Breeders' Cup Classic.

"As far as I'm concerned, that was the best job of training I ever did," Veitch said. "To do something in your chosen profession that really shows that you know what you're doing is really gratifying. Especially because it worked."