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'Afleet' keeps feet

After a frightening, lightning-quick incident on the final turn nearly knocked him off his feet, the nimble and powerful Afleet Alex rocketed to victory in the 130th Preakness Stakes before a record crowd of 115,318 yesterday at Pimlico Race Course.

Scrappy T, who was leading, suddenly cut in front of Afleet Alex, who was charging, and the horses clipped heels. Afleet Alex's front legs crumpled, and his nose nearly hit the ground. As jockey Jeremy Rose desperately hung on, Afleet Alex regained his balance and, amazingly, his momentum.He charged down the homestretch unchallenged for a 4 3/4 -length triumph that denied Giacomo, winner of the Kentucky Derby, a chance to win the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. Giacomo finished a distant third.

Scrappy T held on for second, meaning the first two finishers in Maryland's premier race are trained by Marylanders. Tim Ritchey, who lives in Elkton, trains Afleet Alex, and Robbie Bailes, who lives in Annapolis, trains Scrappy T. Neither horse is stabled in Maryland, however.

Ritchey marveled at Afleet Alex's athleticism.

"I've seen horses take bad steps in races and win," said Ritchey, who is based at Delaware Park. "I've never seen a horse stumble that badly and lose his momentum that much and come back and win a Grade I race like this one.

"It was an amazing performance. He did something that champions do today."

The incident occurred after Scrappy T, ridden by Ramon Dominguez, assumed the lead midway around the final turn. As he began turning for home, Afleet Alex roared up on the outside.

Dominguez said he felt Scrappy T tiring, so he wound up with his left arm and cracked the gelding viciously with his whip. Scrappy T immediately veered to the outside into the path of Afleet Alex.

"He just overreacted," Dominguez said. "It really completely caught me off guard. I had no control. I'm just glad I didn't come off and Jeremy didn't come off."

Rose said that Afleet Alex's left front foot collided with Scrappy T's right hind heel.

"I've kind of clipped heels where the horse stumbles a little bit," said Rose, who, like Ritchey, lives in Elkton. "But I mean, he was not eight inches from going down. That's the closest I've ever been without hitting the ground."

Rose said he grabbed onto Afleet Alex's mane and squeezed his legs together as tightly as he could.

"Mostly it was scary," Rose said. "The instinct is just to hang on and try to get my balance back. I had enough time to think about hitting the ground, and he popped back up. He's an amazing horse."

The rapid recovery from near disaster was reminiscent of the 1987 Kentucky Derby, when Alysheba clipped heels in the stretch and nearly fell. He recovered as quickly as Afleet Alex did and charged on to victory.

Giacomo, who won the Kentucky Derby at 50-1 odds, did not gain the respect of bettors and raced as the third favorite in the Preakness. He broke sluggishly and then had to rally from 11th.

Mike Smith, his jockey, said he didn't have as clean a trip as he'd had in the Derby. He got stuck behind Sun King around the far turn.

"All the doors that opened for me in the Kentucky Derby seemed to close on me today," Smith said. "When you're carrying 126 pounds, and you have to idle at the quarter pole, it's awfully hard to get that motor running again."

John Shirreffs, Giacomo's trainer, said he was pleased with the effort.

"He wins the Derby and comes back to run third in the Preakness," Shirreffs said. "I don't think there was any embarrassment in [that]. I think that says a lot about Giacomo."

Afleet Alex paid $8.60 to win as the 3-1 favorite. High Fly, who finished 10th, was the 5-1 second choice. Afleet Alex headed a $152.60 exacta with the 13-1 Scrappy T second, an $872 trifecta with the 6-1 Giacomo third and a $10,362.30 superfecta with Sun King fourth.

Afleet Alex completed the 1 3/16 miles in 1 minute, 55.04 seconds.

Rose said that Afleet Alex probably would have doubled his margin of victory if he hadn't stumbled.

"We were rolling," Rose said.

And they were.

Breaking from post 12, which had produced only two Preakness winners, Rose cut sharply toward the rail as soon as the speedier horses inside him had cleared. That avoided the possibility of being fanned wide around the first turn.

As High Limit and Going Wild battled for the lead, Afleet Alex raced along the rail down the backstretch and into the far turn. Scrappy T, who had been third, accelerated into the lead, and Rose steered Afleet Alex off the rail. They were poised for their outside assault when Scrappy T cut in front of them.

Joe Lerro, one of Afleet Alex's five Philadelphia-area owners, said he thought: "Oh my God, oh my God. ... Oh no, Oh no."

After saying that in the post-race interview tent, he glanced at Rose.

"I love you, by the way," Lerro said.

Before the race, fans chanted "Alex, Alex, Alex" as they had at the Kentucky Derby. The story of Afleet Alex and his human connections has made him a fan favorite. Ritchey and the owners have become supporters of Alex's Lemonade Stand, a fund-raiser for pediatric cancer research. Two lemonade stands operated at the Preakness.

"It's a great cause," Ritchey said. "I would love for every racetrack to have a lemonade stand on Belmont day."

Ritchey said that as long as Afleet Alex suffered no damage from his near fall, he would run the colt in the Belmont on June 11. Afleet Alex has won seven of 11 races and earned $2,165,800. His owners paid $75,000 for him last May at a horse auction in Timonium.

"What a ride," said Chuck Zacney, managing partner of the ownership group. "What a dream come true."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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