06/23/2005 11:00PM

At peace in eye of the storm

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Afleet Alex, with trainer Tim Ritchey, is scheduled to run next in the Haskell, Travers, and Super Derby.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Business will never be "usual" for Tim Ritchey again, at least not as long as he is remembered as the man behind Afleet Alex. But even the most powerful media tides ebb and flow, and so it was on Friday morning, 13 days after the Belmont Stakes, that Ritchey finally made it as late as 10 o'clock before someone rang for the latest word on America's favorite racehorse.

"Nobody called," Ritchey said. "I was really worried."

The trainer delivered those lines with self-mocking sarcasm, fully aware that no one would give him a second glance if Afleet Alex could actually speak for himself. As for the inordinate amount of attention that accompanies a reigning 3-year-old star, Ritchey fell back on the well-adjusted attitude, "I'd rather have it this way than no calls at all."

"The horse is the superstar," he said. "Anyone who doesn't think that is not in touch with reality."

Afleet Alex, stabled at Belmont Park, remains in a quiet trough of routine activity as time passes before Ritchey begins to ramp things up for the $1 million Haskell Invitational on Aug. 7. After spending the last week at his Delaware Park headquarters, Ritchey was back at Belmont on Friday morning to put Afleet Alex through some modest exercise, designed more for fresh air than serious conditioning.

"I've let down on him a little bit to recoup from the Triple Crown races," he said. "I'm sure he lost a little bit of weight, but he's putting that right back on again. For the rigorous races he's gone through and the campaign he's had, he's held his weight very well.

"I'm not going to change a whole lot with his training. He's pretty much had an easy two weeks, so he'll continue to train on his two-a-day routine. He thrives on it, and he does extremely well being out of his stall for long periods of time."

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Ritchey has been handling his full barn just down the road at Delaware Park. Among other things, he has been busy breaking in a new exercise rider who answers to the name of Ben Ritchey, the trainer's 25-year-old son.

"He's been getting on six or seven every day," Ritchey said. "A couple of them are colts who are a little on the rough side. He shows a lot of patience with them and doesn't get upset, which is what I've tried to do. And he's kind of fearless, which is kind of a trait he gets from me. I would always get on anything and everything. I think once he gets a lot more miles and more experience, he'll be a good rider."

Ritchey and his fellow Delaware horsemen have been worried in recent weeks about the condition of the main racing surface. Racing was canceled there Monday after local riders deemed the track too dicey to complete last Sunday's program. Action resumed Tuesday after management hired Ken Brown, a disciple of the widely respected track superintendent John Passero.

"There was an immediate difference in the track," Ritchey said. "It has improved significantly."

This Sunday marks one year to the day that Ritchey unveiled the 2-year-old Afleet Alex in a 5 1/2-furlong maiden race at Delaware Park. On June 26, 2004, the little colt romped by 11 1/4 lengths in his debut, then in his next start won a Delaware allowance race by 11. After that, Ritchey and Afleet Alex traveled to Saratoga to win both the Sanford Stakes and the Hopeful, and the rest, as they say, is history. . . in progress.

"I'd just bought him a little while before that, and basically he was training great," Ritchey said of that first race. "At the time, I had a couple other 2-year-olds that looked promising as well. As you know in this game, some work out and some don't."

Ritchey will celebrate the anniversary at Delaware by trying to win a $49,000 allowance race with Separato, a 4-year-old son of Belmont winner Victory Gallop who is owned by the Cash Is King partnership of Afleet Alex fame. Both trainer and owners missed Separato's last race, a near-miss in the June 11 Brandywine Handicap at Delaware, because of a prior commitment to a network television appearance with another horse on Long Island. Three hours before the Belmont Stakes was run, Ritchey was watching the Brandywine on Belmont's satellite system.

"He's never quite run back to his race at Philadelphia Park, where he came from about 20 out of it and blew by everybody," Ritchey said of Separato's five-length victory in the 2004 Presidents Cup. "But he's starting to show that kind of form again."

In the meantime, while Afleet Alex is scheduled for regular action in the coming months in the Haskell, the Travers, and the Super Derby, Ritchey will be just as busy with the next wave of young talent.

"I'm starting with my 2-year-olds now, a whole lot of very nice ones, and I'm just now bringing them into the track," Ritchey said. "If one of these can turn out half as good as Alex, obviously I'd be satisfied."

A reasonable goal, but in this case, half as good might be shooting a little high.