05/17/2006 11:00PM

Year later, Afleet Alex's team has split

Jeremy Rose (left) and Tim Ritchey were all smiles after Afleet Alex won last year's Belmont.

STANTON, Del. - Tim Ritchey still pops in the DVD of last year's Preakness from time to time. Jeremy Rose does not. It is not the only thing they differ on these days.

Last spring, Ritchey and Rose, the trainer and jockey, respectively, of Afleet Alex, were part of one of the most dramatic moments in Triple Crown lore. This year, they are simply apart.

After Rose and his agent, Kid Breeden, opted to ride some horses for trainer Nick Zito rather than Ritchey this winter in Florida, Ritchey no longer employs Rose, even though both are based at Delaware Park. Neither camp says the split is by their choice, but a reunion anytime soon seems unlikely.

"It sucks," Rose said in between races Tuesday at Delaware Park. "But he's been the one to make that call. I'd like to ride for him again, but from what he said in the Inquirer, it's not going to happen."

In an article last week in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Ritchey was quoted as saying "no" in response to a suggestion by Chuck Zacney, the head of the group that owned Afleet Alex and one of Ritchey's primary owners, that Rose would ride for him and Ritchey again.

Ritchey sent out mixed signals about working with Rose and Breeden again.

"I'd rather have [Rose] on my horses than anybody else, but they decided they wanted to go in a different direction, so I wish them luck," Ritchey said Tuesday at Delaware Park, shortly before giving Buddy Winnett Jr. a leg up on one of his horses.

Ritchey uses Winnett and Stewart Elliott - the rider of 2004 Triple Crown star Smarty Jones - on a regular basis.

Through the first month of the Delaware meet, Ritchey is the third-leading trainer with 9 wins from 39 starters. Rose, meanwhile, is the second-leading rider with 15 wins from 63 mounts.

Ritchey and Zacney had tried to replace Rose for Afleet Alex's 3-year-old season. After Afleet Alex had tough trips in both the Champagne and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in 2004, Ritchey reached out to John Velazquez for Alex's 3-year-old season. Due to a lung infection, Afleet Alex ran his worst race for Velazquez, who eventually gave up the mount to ride for his primary client, Todd Pletcher.

"They had no problem doing that, did they?" Rose said. "But if I go a different direction, then there's a problem. But what are you going to do?"

Since Rose began riding in 2000, Ritchey and Rose have made a formidable team. According to Daily Racing Form statistics, Rose has 319 of his 1,156 career victories (27.5 percent) on Ritchey-trained horses. The most memorable, of course, was last year's Preakness on Afleet Alex.

Coming off a one-length loss to 50-1 longshot Giacomo in the Kentucky Derby, Afleet Alex was sent off the 3-1 favorite in the Preakness. After lingering back in 10th place through the opening five furlongs, Afleet Alex got rolling entering the far turn, and by the quarter pole was poised to run by Scrappy T, who had overtaken High Limit for the lead.

Turning for home, Ramon Dominguez gave Scrappy T a hard smack on his left hindquarters, and the horse ducked out and came right into the path of Afleet Alex, who clipped heels with Scrappy T and stumbled badly. As quick as that happened was as quick as Afleet Alex picked himself and Rose back up, got into stride, and drew off to a spectacular 4 3/4-length victory.

Before the incident, Rose figured he was going to win "by as many as I wanted to."

"Actually," he said, "I figured I'd pass [Scrappy T] then start gearing him down and save him for the Belmont. Obviously, I didn't get a chance to do that."

After the incident, Rose thought he was going to get beat by one of the closers.

"I said, somebody's going to come from the back and beat me and that's really going to [tick] me off," Rose said.

Because the incident happened so fast, Rose was at the mercy of Alex's athleticism.

"There was no thinking involved," Ritchey said. "When it happens that fast, it was more thought on the horse's part; it was probably 90 percent horse, 10 percent rider. The horse kind of picked himself up, and if he doesn't stay up, obviously Jeremy isn't going to stay on him. But the horse kind of came up right underneath him again when Jeremy was kind of falling forward over the horse's shoulders. Give Jeremy credit for staying on, but the horse, that was a major part of it."

Afleet Alex went on to win the Belmont by seven lengths, leaving Rose to believe he should have been on a Triple Crown winner. Afleet Alex never ran again after the Belmont, when a fracture - which veterinarians believe may have started as a result of the Preakness incident - failed to heal properly.

Afleet Alex stands at stud at Gainesway Farm, and, according to Zacney, got 90 mares in foal during the breeding season.

Ritchey was unable to make it back to the Triple Crown series this year. A number of his top 2-year-olds got hurt, and Ritchey never even got to find out if they were worthy of running in the Derby or Preakness.

Rose, meanwhile, was hoping to find a top 3-year-old in the barn of Zito, who has won four classics including two Kentucky Derbies. Rose was high on Little Cliff, who finished fourth in a pair of stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, and Doc Cheney, whom Rose rode to a 10th-place finish in the Florida Derby. Little Cliff is running in Saturday's Sir Barton.

Rose will ride Hemingway's Key for Zito and George Steinbrenner in this year's Preakness. On paper, Hemingway's Key looks to be overmatched. After winning his first two career starts, he has gone winless in four graded stakes tries this year.

Still, Rose believes it's important to ride this race because Zito has been supportive of him. Rose will ride five races at Delaware Park and then take a 20-minute helicopter ride to Baltimore. A car will be waiting at Martin State Airport, about 15 miles from Pimlico, to take him to the track.

"It's the Preakness. You never know what could happen," Rose said. "In those big races, a lot of times it's one of the longer shots that wins. It's a prestigious race. Mr. Zito asked me to come ride it; they pulled a lot of strings for me to ride it."

Zito and Rose enjoyed success in Florida this year, winning 8 races from 48 starters and earning purses totaling $414,041.

"He's a quality kid," Zito said. "I like that, and the other thing I like is he's very athletic. A year ago proved it when Afleet Alex went down - he picked him up. I think he's going to be one of the top riders in the country. He's a few years behind the guys we know, but I think he can make it."