01/19/2005 12:00AM

Ritchey: Afleet Alex has room to improve

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Afleet Alex has the best credentials of any 3-year-old to come into the Oaklawn Park meet in years. He is already a Grade 1 winner, and is also a finalist for 2-year-old champion of 2004. It's an exciting spot for trainer Tim Ritchey, and a memorable spring seems in the offing.

Afleet Alex is considered a top candidate for the Kentucky Derby, and is now at Oaklawn preparing for his seasonal debut. He is returning from a freshening and is "50-50" to make the $100,000 Southwest on Feb. 19, said Ritchey. Afleet Alex's main meet objectives are the Grade 3, $250,000 Rebel on March 19, and the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 16.

"We're looking for a strong year as long as he stays healthy," said Ritchey.

Ritchey chose the Oaklawn route for Hopeful winner Afleet Alex because he liked how the distances of the 3-year-old route stakes progress and the timing between them. Ritchey returned to Oaklawn for the first time in about four years last season, and this meet has brought 39 head to Hot Springs.

He is based most of the year at Delaware Park, where he is a five-time title winner. Ritchey, 53, was a top-rated equestrian before he turned to racing. He trained with the U.S. Olympic team for the 1972 Munich games, and also spent time as a steeplechase rider. Afleet Alex gave him the first Grade 1 win of his career in the Hopeful.

Afleet Alex, a winner of 4 of 6 starts, last raced Oct. 30 in the $1.5 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile, finishing a troubled second, three-quarters of a length behind Wilko. Ritchey is confident Afleet Alex will move forward at 3.

"He's a May foal," said Ritchey. "He was running against horses four or five months older last year."

Afleet Alex has established class, speed, and distance influences on both sides of his pedigree. Ritchey said Afleet Alex has "widened" some over the winter, and described the colt as well balanced and athletic with a long stride.

Afleet Alex arrived at Oaklawn on Dec. 1, and in the last two weeks has resumed jogging after a winter vacation. A date for his first work back has not been set, and a final call on the Southwest will be made after he begins working, said Ritchey.

John Velazquez has been booked to ride Afleet Alex.

Holthus has good one in Greater Good

Trainer Bob Holthus always brings some exciting 3-year-old colts to Oaklawn as evidenced by his record seven wins in the track's Mountain Valley Stakes. This year he has Greater Good, winner of the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and the Grade 3 Kentucky Cup Juvenile.

Greater Good seems to have the potential to give Holthus his first Arkansas Derby win since Proper Reality in 1988.

"Proper Reality had only run one time [prior to Oaklawn]," said Holthus. "This horse has won two graded stakes going two turns. He has more background."

New policy concerns claims and EPO

As part of a temporary rule passed by the Arkansas Racing Commission, owners who claim a horse this meet have the option to test the horse for Erythropoieten, or EPO, antibodies. If the horse comes back positive, the new owner can revoke the claim, said Eric Jackson, general manager of Oaklawn. Owners must check a box on the claim slip and incur the cost for the test, which is $100.

There are variations of the policy in place in New York and Indiana. Testing for EPO antibodies is automatic on all horses in New York, for example, but if a claimed horse is found to be positive, the new owner has the option to return the claimed horse.

EPO is a natural hormone, but there is a synthetic form, and it is considered a performance enhancer. EPO produces an increase in red blood cells, which increases oxygen flow and improves endurance. But increased blood cells can lead to a thickening of the blood, which can cause stress on the heart and lead to cardiac failure.

Expansion done for Instant Racing

The Instant Racing room on the first floor of the grandstand was expanded by some 2,000 square feet during the downtime, and will have close to 250 machines in place by Friday, said Jackson.

Last year, the meet opened with about 150 machines. The expansion cost $125,000, and there could be more changes to the room in the future, said Jackson.

"We are talking with architects and designers on how we can come up with a facility that better presents live racing, simulcast racing and [Instant Racing] in a seamless fashion," said Jackson. "We don't have any definite plans, just a lot of ideas."

Jackson said the growth of the Instant Racing room has infringed a bit on the space used by simulcast players, and correcting that is driving talks with architects.

Instant Racing, a parimutuel game that plays like a slot machine, is expected to contribute about $1.5 million to purses this meet. Last year, Oaklawn handled $75 million on the machines. In addition to Arkansas, they are in use in Wyoming.

* Oaklawn will again slash the price on its corned-beef sandwiches to 50 cents and sodas to 10 cents opening weekend as part of a promotion with the Arkansas HBPA.

At a glance: Oaklawn Park

* RACING SCHEDULE: 55 days; Friday through April 16; racing on Friday through Sunday basis through Feb. 13, then Wednesday through Sunday for the remainder of the meet; There is a special Monday card on Feb. 21, and no racing on Easter, March 27

* POST TIME: 1:30 p.m. Central on weekdays and Sundays; 1 p.m. on Saturdays, opening weekend (Fri.-Sun.), Feb. 6, and Feb. 21; noon on April 16

* ADMISSIONS: $2, general

* PARKING: $2

* SIMULCASTING: Daily

* LOCATION: 2705 Central Avenue, Hot Springs, Ark., 71902

* PHONE: (501) 623-4411

* INTERNET: www.oaklawn.com