10/05/2005 12:00AM

Ritchey, Alex tiptoe toward Classic

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PHILADELPHIA - After last Saturday's dominating wins by Rock Hard Ten and Borrego, and with Saint Liam waiting in the wings, the Oct. 29 Breeders' Cup Classic is beginning to look exactly like the championship race it has always been meant to be. Still, the 2005 running needs one thing to go from a really good horse race to an event. It needs Afleet Alex.

Everybody inside horse racing knows Rock Hard Ten, Borrego, and Saint Liam. But Afleet Alex transcends the sport. Everybody knows the Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner. The Classic needs him. The sport needs him. Against all odds, it is starting to look like everybody might very well get what they want and need.

Shortly after the colt's surgery in late July for that hairline leg fracture, trainer Tim Ritchey said he thought he could get the colt back to the races this year. Naturally, he was greeted with skepticism. Really, who could blame the skeptics?

It seemed crazy. What horse could undergo surgery in late July and race against the best horses in the world in late October? It seemed impossible.

Ritchey insisted it was not. Remember this is the man who decided to get Alex ready for the Triple Crown grind by sending the colt to the track twice a day, galloping so many miles that by the time the Belmont rolled around, Alex may have been the most fit animal in horse racing history. Ritchey insisted all those miles would have a residual benefit, that Alex would maintain some of that fitness even as he was confined to his stall right after the operation.

Still, the calendar appeared a difficult opponent. Stall rest, walking, X-rays, jogging, X-rays, galloping, X-rays. Workout, workout, prep race, Classic. Everything would have to go perfectly. So far, it has.

If Alex works to Ritchey's satisfaction Friday, the trainer is going to select that prep race, most likely the about seven-furlong Perryville Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 14. If he likes what he sees there, he is going to point Alex for the Classic.

Those are some "ifs," but not nearly as many as existed in early August at Saratoga when Ritchey brought Alex to the Spa to get some rest and relaxation. Then, the whole idea seemed preposterous. Ritchey, however, never thought so. He insisted the fracture was tiny, that it had been caught in time, that he knew Alex and knew this was possible.

The same skeptics that were around this spring have not gone anywhere. What Ritchey did with Alex's training then was certainly unconventional. Thus, many wondered if he knew what he was doing. The proof was in the results. What Ritchey is doing now is every bit as unconventional. Many wonder if he knows what he is doing. The proof will be in the results.

Even if Ritchey gets Alex back to the races, will this be the same Alex who nearly fell and won the Preakness going away? The Alex who ran the final quarter-mile of the Belmont as if the first 10 furlongs had never happened? To win the Classic, Alex might have to be even better than he was in the spring.

I have covered the Triple Crown for 20 years. The night of the Belmont, I told Ritchey I have never seen a horse look stronger at the end of the grind than Alex. It was a tribute to the colt and his trainer.

Ritchey's plan for the Triple Crown began on Dec. 1, 2004. There were a few detours along the way, but it pretty much played out the way Ritchey had planned.

This, of course, is different. The trainer had to formulate a far different plan into a compressed time period. No doubt, he has called several audibles, but, three weeks out, Alex has a chance.

The Classic is not the Triple Crown. It is just one race, not a series of three races in five weeks. A trainer needs to get his horse to peak only for that one race on that one day.

So, can Ritchey do it? Can Alex do it?

The Preakness and Belmont strongly suggest this trainer and this colt are not to be underestimated. That they are this far along this quickly is a hint. The answers are coming soon enough.