04/24/2005 11:00PM

Ritchey training outside the box with Afleet Alex

Afleet Alex (left), with regular jockey Jeremy Rose up, takes a light jog alongside trainer Tim Ritchey on Monday morning at Churchill Downs.

The training regimen of top Kentucky Derby candidate Afleet Alex is unlike that of most horses in North America.

And so are the results.

Afleet Alex, who has more graded earnings than any other 3-year-old racing, trains twice a day in a routine that has been followed three to four times a week since January. Trainer Tim Ritchey, who devised the plan over the winter, divides Afleet Alex's training into two sessions. He has him jog when the track first opens, then brings him back later in the morning for a gallop. Most horses go to the track once a day, but Ritchey's approach, which he doesn't use with other horses in his stable, is custom made to balance fitness with contentment for Afleet Alex.

The philosophy is influenced by Ritchey's background in three-day eventing and steeplechasing, areas of equine sport in which horses often spend much time outside of their stalls. The training program used for Afleet Alex was born in the downtime following his second-place finish in the $1.5 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"When we backed up on him a little bit over the winter, to break some of the boredom I walked him four and five times a day at 20, 30 minutes an interval, and he just seemed to enjoy being out of his stall," said Ritchey, who will be running a horse in the Kentucky Derby for the first time. "Actually, sometimes he would just stand there and he really didn't want to go back into his stall."

As the time approached for Afleet Alex to resume training, Ritchey, 53, decided he would toy with a philosophy he used years ago with a horse named General G.

"I'd take him out and train him very lightly early, then come back and do more with him, and he excelled at the endurance races, a mile and a quarter, a mile and a half," he said.

And so the theory was tested on Afleet Alex, a fiercely intelligent horse. On a typical morning, he will jog two miles, then return to the barn and cool out. About two hours later, he returns to the track, warms up, then gallops anywhere between one and two miles. Ritchey likened the approach to the one used by some runners preparing for events like the Olympics.

"Human athletes, they'll get up and go out for an easy run, come back and maybe have breakfast or whatever, then they'll go back and warm up and do more of a serious workout a little later," he said. "So it's the same kind of thing. He just enjoyed it so much, being out and doing something and breaking up the boredom and the monotony, that I just have continued to do it with him."

Barclay Tagg, a former steeplechase jockey who trained Funny Cide to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2003, did not use those training tactics with Funny Cide, but said there are a lot of benefits in the program used by Ritchey.

"If it suits the horse, he's doing the right thing, and it obviously suits the horse," said Tagg. "It's a type of interval training. You get them a lot fitter that way, and these horses need the ultimate fitness for something like the Triple Crown races. They're very grueling."

Ritchey said he does get some double takes in the mornings with Afleet Alex, who is currently training at Churchill Downs.

"I get a lot of looks when he goes out for the second time," he said. "But I think it's the best thing for the horse. There are going to be people who criticize what you're doing, but you know, winning solves everything. He's obviously done well with this kind of regimen."

Afleet Alex cemented his position as one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby earlier this month with an eight-length romp in the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby. He also is the only horse to earn two of the top six Beyer Speed Figures for his age group this year, achieved from just three starts in 2005.

In his first, he won the $50,000 Mountain Valley, putting in just two works for the race and earning a Beyer of 106, which at the time was the top number earned by a 3-year-old in 2005. One start later, a lung infection led to a sixth-place finish in the Grade 3 Rebel, but he returned to the track triumphant in the Arkansas Derby, for which he earned a career-best Beyer of 108.

Chuck Zacney, managing partner of the Cash Is King syndicate, which owns Afleet Alex, said he has great confidence in the training route Ritchey has taken.

"It's really working out for Alex," said Zacney. "I give Tim all the credit in the world. He picked the horse out. He's been his baby, his project, and he loves Alex, and Alex is thriving because of it."

"The horse seems to relish it, so how can you knock it?" said Tagg.

Ritchey's playbook will be put to the ultimate test next month, when Afleet Alex meets the best of his generation in the Kentucky Derby.