12/17/2004 12:00AM

Velazquez gets Afleet Alex

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John Velazquez, the leading candidate for the Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding rider, will replace Jeremy Rose aboard Kentucky Derby hopeful Afleet Alex, trainer Tim Ritchey confirmed Friday.

According to Ritchey, Velazquez has committed to ride Afleet Alex for his prep races in Arkansas this winter and the Triple Crown. Velazquez also is the regular rider of Proud Accolade, who defeated Afleet Alex in the Grade 1 Champagne and went into Saturday's Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity bidding for the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old.

"I made the change because I wanted to go to a more experienced rider who has ridden in the bigger races like John has," Ritchey said. "John is the leading rider in the country, and I'm glad to have him."

Rose rode Afleet Alex in all six of his starts, winning four, including the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga. But some questioned his ride in the Hopeful as well as his rides in the Champagne and Breeders' Cup Juvenile, races in which Afleet Alex finished second.

In the Hopeful, Rose hit Afleet Alex four times left handed and the colt drifted out dramatically before recovering to get up at the wire. In the Champagne, Rose had the horse on the inside and boxed in, giving Proud Accolade first run. In the Breeders' Cup, Rose rushed the horse up wide entering the first turn after a slow start.

"Rose was fine with it," Ritchey said. "He understands our decision. He's a very talented rider. Mileage is the only thing that gets you there. There is no doubt in my mind he will get to that level one day. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the horse, the owners, and me. The decision was made with the blessing of all."

Afleet Alex has not run since the BC Juvenile and has been at Oaklawn Park since early December. He has been mostly hand-walked twice a day for 30 minutes at a time. He is scheduled to go back to the track on a regular basis next Tuesday or Wednesday.

Ritchey said his goal is to make the Southwest Stakes on Feb. 19, "but it depends how he comes back off his lay-up." The Rebel Stakes on March 20 and the Arkansas Derby on April 16 are the other races Ritchey has targeted for Afleet Alex.