ELMONT, N.Y. - The Triple Crown series, which began with such competitive promise five weeks ago, has come down to one horse and a thousand lemonade stands.
Of all the horses who ventured down the Triple Crown trail, Afleet Alex has established the best record and claimed the most hearts. He will be heavily favored today at Belmont Park to add the $1 million Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown, to his impressive resume.
The tireless colt has won five stakes races, as many as the other 10 Belmont horses combined. He was won four of eight graded stakes, while the rest of the field has won two of 16. And that includes Giacomo's upset victory in the Kentucky Derby.
Ridden and trained by Marylanders, Afleet Alex has transcended his sport. His story with its various human-interest angles has touched people who wouldn't know a furlong from a fetlock. The most compelling is the connection with a nonprofit charity for research of and new treatments for childhood cancer.
Alex's Lemonade Stand was born of a 4-year-old cancer victim's effort to raise money to help find a cure for cancer by operating a lemonade stand in her front yard. By the time Alex Scott died last summer at age 8, the lemonade stand had become a national movement. Nearly $2 million has been raised.
The human connections of Afleet Alex have embraced the cause, and Alex's Lemonade Stands dispensed cups of lemonade for donations at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Today, stands will operate at nearly 40 racetracks and about 1,000 other locations, as Afleet Alex tries to win the Belmont.
"I feel privileged to be able to speak for this cause and try to raise money for it," said Tim Ritchey, trainer of Afleet Alex. "Alex is a great horse. But there's more to life than horse racing."
The Belmont, however, is a horse race, so Ritchey is compelled to speak about it, too. For the first time since 2001, the Belmont does not feature a Triple Crown bid. Different horses won this year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and their showdown in the Belmont is the race's allure.
Giacomo won the Derby and finished third in the Preakness. Afleet Alex won the Preakness and finished third in the Derby. Giacomo gained little regard by winning the Derby at 50-1 odds, but Afleet Alex became a hero by winning the Preakness.
His astonishing recovery after clipping heels with Scrappy T around the final turn and his subsequent 4 3/4 -length victory garnered additional fans and awe-inspiring respect. The incident has already become part of racing's lore.
"It will probably be shown for the rest of our lifetimes," Ritchey said.
Ritchey bought Afleet Alex for $75,000 at the Timonium auction in May last year for a five-person partnership from the Philadelphia area known as Cash is King. Afleet Alex is the first racehorse three of the partners have owned. The colt has earned $2,165,800.
Ritchey's attraction to Afleet Alex was his athleticism. To the horse's natural ability Ritchey added an unusual regimen of two-a-day training sessions - a lengthy jog followed later by a lengthy gallop. Afleet Alex, who likes people and enjoys being out of his stall, flourished.
"He's by far the best athlete I've ever seen - human, horse, whatever," Ritchey said.
Afleet Alex and Giacomo are the only two horses from the Kentucky Derby and Preakness to compete in the Belmont. It's hard to imagine one of them not winning, because the drop-off in accomplishment by their nine challengers is immense.
Only three have won stakes races (Andromeda's Hero, Pinpoint, Southern Africa). And only one has won a graded stakes; Southern Africa captured the Grade III Lone Star Derby last month at Lone Star Park in Texas.
Three have won only two races, and three others have won only one race. And one has not won any races; Nolan's Cat is winless in five attempts.
Yet they've gathered at majestic Belmont Park for the "Test of the Champion," the grueling test of 1 1/2 miles - one time around Belmont's massive oval. None of the Belmont horses has run this far, and trainers never know whether their horse will be able to until they try.
John Shirreffs, trainer of Giacomo, said he believes his Kentucky Derby winner will relish the distance. Giacomo rallied from 18th in the Derby to win by a half length.
"He doesn't have a real big engine behind; he doesn't have a big kick," Shirreffs said. "He's steady, which is why I think the farther he goes, the stronger he gets."
Shirreffs said that Giacomo's shocking victory in the Kentucky Derby was a fairy tale. Jeremy Rose, jockey of Afleet Alex, said that his horse's history was a Cinderella story. The Belmont is the next chapter.