Updated on 09/17/2011 10:28PM

Rose's ride earns place in history


BALTIMORE - For months, Jeremy Rose has been a marked man within the riding profession. Almost every top jockey, and every top jockey's agent, wanted to take his job as the rider of Afleet Alex, one of the nation's leading 3-year-olds. Rose did indeed lose the assignment on Afleet Alex earlier this winter, and almost lost it again as the Triple Crown campaign was about to begin.

But the 26-year-old not only kept the mount and won the Preakness Saturday; he did it with a flawless performance that included what was surely one of the most electrifying moments in the race's 130-year history.

As Afleet Alex launched his winning move on the final turn at Pimlico, accelerating past leader Scrappy T, the tired leader swerved into his path. Afleet Alex clipped his rival's heels and stumbled badly - his nose almost going into the dirt. But Rose managed to hold on, kept his balance, and got the colt back into gear in a stride or two. When he did, the Preakness was over. Afleet Alex drew away to score a 4 3/4-length victory over Scrappy T, a strong performance refuting the notion (widely held after Giacomo's Kentucky Derby victory) that the current generation of 3-year-olds is largely devoid of talent.

Rose's tactical excellence and his coolness under fire are the qualities one might expect from such riders as Jerry Bailey, Gary Stevens, or Edgar Prado - the pros who regularly excel at the upper echelon of the sport. But Jeremy Rose is a minor-leaguer - or at least he had been until this spring. Raised in Pennsylvania, he started riding in 1999 in the Mid-Atlantic region, mostly at the tracks in Maryland and Delaware, where he started riding Afleet Alex for trainer Tim Ritchey.

When Afleet Alex began to look like a high-class prospect, running in stakes, the knives came out. Rose was criticized (with some justification) after he finished second in both the Champagne Stakes and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and agents started besieging Ritchey with offers for their jockeys' services. With millions of dollars at stake in the upcoming 3-year-old classics, trainers and owners can't afford to be loyal to a rider who is less than the best. The Afleet Alex team replaced Rose with Eclipse Award-winning John Velazquez for a race at Oaklawn Park - the one race in which Afleet Alex delivered a clunker of a performance.

Rose regained the mount for the Arkansas Derby when Velazquez chose to ride another horse, and piloted Afleet Alex to an eight-length victory that established him as a top Kentucky Derby contender. The rumors swirled again that the trainer and owners would look for a big-name rider. But many of the big names (such as Bailey and Stevens) were not available, and Ritchey committed to Rose.

The history of the Triple Crown races is filled with instances where inexperienced riders cost horses a shot for glory. That's how Spectacular Bid missed sweeping the Triple Crown. But Rose rose to the occasion. His back-to-back performances in the Derby and Preakness put him into a new class: he is a major-leaguer.

In the 20-horse field at Churchill Downs, he navigated flawlessly through the heavy traffic, never getting into trouble, never losing his momentum for a stride. Perhaps he launched his move in that fast-pace race a little too soon, for Afleet Alex faltered in the final furlong to finish third behind the longshot Giacomo. "There wasn't a jock living today that could have ridden a better race," Ritchey said.

On Saturday at Pimlico, Rose outdid his Derby performance. This is a racetrack on which he has ridden hundreds of races, and he understands the importance of saving ground on the turns. So even though he was breaking from the disadvantageous post position No. 12, he made an effort to navigate toward the inside part of the racing strip.

He was 10th in the 14-horse field in the early running, with Giacomo outside him. As he started to rally, he saw Sun King in front of him, and when that rival moved off the rail, Rose shot inside of him. Then he saw Greeley's Galaxy in front of him, making a strong though abortive move to the lead. Rose followed him - and then slipped inside him, too. Now Afleet Alex was moving powerfully, with only Scrappy T in front of him. Rose made the logical tactical move and swung outside - just as Ramon Dominguez cracked the leader with his left hand and caused him to swerve.

After he had kept his balance and gone on to win the race, after he had begun to accept his post-race congratulations, Rose was finally able to reflect on what he had done by instinct. "Bumping another horse is not a big deal; clipping heels is a big deal," he explained to the media. "That's one of the worst things that can happen. I could easily have gone down."

Characteristically, he deflected praise from himself and onto Afleet Alex. Staying upright, he said, was 10 percent his own doing and "90 percent the horse."

"If he goes down," Rose said, "I don't have a chance."

But even if his modest assessment is correct, his 10 percent contribution earned him a lasting place in Preakness history.

© The Washington Post 2005