03/18/2008 11:00PM

Ritchey sees parallels with War Pass

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Trained by Tim Ritchey, Afleet Alex came close to a Crown sweep.

Tim Ritchey settled in to watch the Tampa Bay Derby last Saturday, and as the race unfolded, he had a chilling flashback to three years ago. Same weekend, seven weeks out from the Kentucky Derby. Same setup, an odds-on favorite against a handful of seemingly overmatched rivals going 1 1/16 miles in the second of three scheduled preps for the Derby. And the same shocking result, a last-place finish.

"I was thinking about Afleet Alex in the Rebel when I watched War Pass," Ritchey said.

Ritchey thinks about Afleet Alex a lot. He was the best horse Ritchey has trained, a colt who came within a length of sweeping the Triple Crown in 2005, the year in which he won the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old colt. Three years ago last weekend, though, Afleet Alex had a bump on the road to the Derby. He was sent off as the 3-5 favorite against five rivals in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, but stopped and finished last, beaten 12 1/2 lengths.

Last Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs, War Pass turned in an eerily similar effort. Sent off as the 1-20 favorite against six others in the Tampa Bay Derby, he faded to finish last, beaten by 23 1/4 lengths.

For Afleet Alex, the Rebel turned out to be just a small blemish, a pimple. He came back four weeks later and roared to an eight-length victory in the Arkansas Derby, then finished a close third in the Kentucky Derby before an acrobatic victory in the Preakness Stakes and a runaway in the Belmont Stakes.

Can more parallels be drawn with War Pass? Not quite yet. Ritchey found out what was wrong with Afleet Alex soon after the race, while Nick Zito, who trains War Pass, is still trying to come up with a concrete answer for why last year's champion 2-year-old colt suffered his first loss. War Pass - who went back to the track to train on Wednesday at the Palm Meadows training center in Florida - has yet to prove he can handle significant early pressure from a quick rival, whereas Afleet Alex had a more tractable style.

But three years ago this week, conventional wisdom held that Afleet Alex was no longer a viable Derby candidate, just as skepticism now engulfs War Pass.

"My horse, as soon as we got back to the barn and stuck a scope in him, we knew he had a lung infection," Ritchey said this week from Oaklawn Park. "We scoped him a couple of days before that race, and everything was fine. I do that before every stakes race, just to make sure, because you're looking at putting up a lot of money just to run in a stakes race.

"He never had a temperature, never missed an oat. There wasn't any indication he'd run a race like that."

Ritchey said the problem was quickly diagnosed.

"Fifteen or 20 minutes after the race, we stuck a scope in him, and white gunk was already coming out of his nose," Ritchey said. "We knew right away what the problem was and knew it was fixable. We just hit him with a series of antibiotics for seven days."

Zito has said War Pass's lungs were clean after the race when examined with an endoscope, and that X-rays revealed no changes. At this point, Zito's best guesses are that War Pass perhaps did not like getting jostled early, did not like being behind horses early, did not like the racetrack, or some combination thereof.

War Pass is scheduled to make his next start in the Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 5.

"There was some reason for a race like that," Ritchey opined. "With my horse, it was pretty cut and dried. The good thing for us, and for War Pass, is that the race was far enough away from the Derby that there's time to regroup."

Ritchey said that Afleet Alex normally would walk for about three or four days after a race, but that after the Rebel, he walked for an additional three or four days.

"He didn't gallop, he didn't train," Ritchey said. "I didn't want to stress him in any way. It wasn't the plan we wanted, but we were forced to do it to get a healthy horse.

"When I was watching the race last Saturday, I said, 'I bet that horse has a lung infection.' It was spooky. He was struggling. He didn't run his race at all. There's always a reason. I was fortunate. We found out in less than half an hour. It's not always that easy."

In other Derby developments Wednesday:

* The Breeders' Cup has its "Win and You're In" program, and the Kentucky Derby will have a similar scenario Saturday. The Grade 2, $500,000 Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park offers $300,000 to the winning horse, which is plenty of cash to get into the field for the May 3 Derby at Churchill Downs should the field have more than the maximum of 20 runners. If more than 20 horses enter the Derby, graded stakes earnings is the tie-breaker, so a victory in the Lane's End is tantamount to an automatic berth in the race.

A field of 12 was entered Wednesday in the 1 1/8-mile Lane's End. Not one horse in the field is currently on the top 25 of Derby Watch. Halo Najib, at 7-2, is the morning-line favorite of Turfway's Mike Battaglia.

* The unbeaten Big Brown, preparing for the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby on March 29, worked five furlongs in 1:00.40 at Palm Meadows for trainer Richard Dutrow Jr.

* Sham Stakes winner Colonel John worked five furlongs in 59.60 seconds at Santa Anita for trainer Eoin Harty. Colonel John is scheduled to have his final Derby prep in the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 5.

* Bill Mott's trio of Derby Watch runners - Court Vision (50 seconds), Majestic Warrior (49.40), and Z Humor (49.20) - all worked a half-mile at the Payson Park training center in Florida.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee and Mike Welsch


The winners of three stakes last weekend all have moved onto the Derby Watch top 25. Sierra Sunset, who captured the Rebel Stakes, is 30-1 on the Kentucky Derby future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form’s national handicapper. Watchmaker pegged Big Truck, the Tampa Bay Derby winner, at 40-1, and Liberty Bull, who took the WinStar Derby, at 50-1. Georgie Boy, the San Felipe winner, saw his price drop to 15-1 from last week’s 20-1. Pyro remains at 7-2 on Watchmaker’s line, but he is now the favorite after being the second choice to War Pass in previous weeks.


Anak Nakal and Shediak were dropped from the list after poor performances last week in the Rebel and San Felipe, respectively. Smooth Air also was dropped, though he did nothing wrong. As the final horse on the list a week ago, Smooth Air got squeezed out this week because there simply wasn’t room for him. War Pass, favored by Watchmaker since the 2008 Derby Watch first appeared more than a month ago, ran last in the Tampa Bay Derby, but only dropped to the second choice on Watchmaker’s line. He is now 6-1 after being favored at 3-1 a week ago.


Both Tampa Bay Derby runner-up Atoned and Rebel runner-up Kings Silver Son just missed the cut, as did weekly groomsman Hey Byrn. There are no horses in the top 25 running Saturday in the Lane’s End Stakes at Turfway Park, but Turf War already has enough graded-stakes cash to run in the Derby, so he would move onto the list if he turns in an effort that puts him on the road to Louisville.