ELMONT, N.Y. - Jeremy Rose can't shake the questions about Belmont Park's unusual configuration, about the Belmont Stakes' demanding distance and about his inexperience in major races.
Rose, 26, who lives in Elkton, Md., has heard countless times that jockeys, even big-name jockeys, have lost the Belmont by moving too soon, by failing to coax their horses to relax or by succumbing to the pressure. Rose, who will ride Afleet Alex in the Belmont today at Belmont Park, seems unfazed.
His confidence borders on cockiness. That may serve him well on Long Island, within sight of Manhattan, where attitude rules the day.
When asked about the doubters who question his ability, Rose said: "Everybody's entitled to their opinion."
"We're going to wait until we're well into the stretch to make our move," Rose said. "If we're five, six lengths off the leader, nobody's going to out-kick Alex that last quarter mile."
Rose has heard a hundred times how Funny Cide two years ago and Smarty Jones last year came into the Belmont after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness - and lost. The difference, Rose said, is that Funny Cide and Smarty Jones didn't relax in the early going. That cost them in the end.
"Alex has no problem relaxing; he never has," Rose said. "He'll do what I want him to do instead of saying, 'Gotta go.' ... I have all the confidence in the world in my horse."
Rose said his life has changed in only one way since his triumphs aboard Afleet Alex. The demands for interviews have been overwhelming.
"It's been hectic," Rose said. "I enjoy it. But it's not the sort of thing I care that much about. If the media didn't want to talk to me tomorrow, that wouldn't bother me. ... And that might happen."
He smiled, acknowledging that his type of fame on one big horse could be of the 15-minute variety.
"I ride first," he said. "That other stuff's way down on the list of things I care about."
Blinkers help 'Africa'
Afleet Alex has won four graded stakes (the Grade I Preakness and Hopeful, the Grade II Arkansas Derby and Sanford). Giacomo has won one (the Grade I Kentucky Derby). Of the other nine horses in the Belmont, only one has won a graded stakes: Southern Africa, the Grade III Lone Star Derby.
Southern Africa is also the second-winningest horse in the race. His four victories trail only Afleet Alex's seven. Southern Africa is a son of Cape Town trained by Michael Puhich, 42, who has horses at Santa Anita Park and Arlington Park. This is his debut in a Triple Crown race.
Southern Africa began his career in Europe. Puhich took over his training in late summer.
After three mediocre races in major California stakes, Puhich fitted the colt with blinkers in February, and Southern Africa has won two of three since. His 1 1/4 -length score in the Lone Star Derby at 7-1 odds earned him a place in the Belmont.
Funny Cide on undercard
Despite the expected heat and humidity, Funny Cide is expected to compete in the $250,000 Brooklyn Handicap on the Belmont undercard. Funny Cide, winner of the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, has a respiratory ailment that's aggravated by heat and humidity.
Since the Preakness, Funny Cide has won three of 14 races.