Preakness 2015:

How Afleet Alex, a little girl and a lemonade stand helped the fight against pediatric cancer

A little girl's idea, a racehorse and lemonade have helped raise $100 million-plus to fight pediatric cancer.

Alexandra Scott touched many hearts in the eight short years she lived. At 4, having battled cancer almost since birth, the Connecticut girl determined to fight it on another front.

In 2000, Alex set up a lemonade stand in her front yard to fund research for pediatric cancer, and to "help other kids like [doctors] helped me." That year, Alex's lemonade stand raised $2,000. The media took note, and donations poured in. By the time she died in 2004, Alex's stand had drummed up $1 million.

But her charity had lost its poster child.

"We wanted to continue Alex's work, but how would we keep people interested?" said Liz Scott, her mother. "Then [racehorse] Afleet Alex comes along and takes it to another whole level."

It was the horse's near-tragic ride and victory in the 2005 Preakness that forged the two Alexes as one.

Ten years later, the little girl's legacy lives on. With a staff of 30, Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation has raised more than $102 million to fight the disease. There are more than 7,000 lemonade stands in this country and in 12 others. There will be one at Saturday's Preakness, too, near the gift shop on the second floor at Pimlico Race Course.

Chuck Zacney, one of the owners of Afleet Alex, then a spirited 2-year-old, was among those moved to contribute in 2004.

"I read about this brave little girl who'd started a great charity, and decided we wanted to be a very small part of this," said Zacney, managing partner of Cash Is King Stable outside Philadelphia. "My son is named Alex and our horse was named Alex, so I felt a bond right away."

That bond got stronger at the 2005 Preakness.

Even now, recounting that victory sends shivers down the jockey's spine. Because Jeremy Rose, had his own mount fallen as feared, could have died that day, mangled by the pack of 1,200-pound thoroughbreds thundering behind them in the stretch.

But the bay colt beneath Rose would have none of that. Clipped on the heels by another horse, Afleet Alex stumbled, fell to his knees and nearly collapsed before somehow righting himself ... and winning the race. The Pimlico crowd, which had held its collective breath for a harrowing moment, exploded in cheers.

'I'm going down'

For Rose, time has not dulled recollections of that roller-coaster ride.

"When it all happened, I thought, 'I'm going down,' " he said. "For an instant, I had no horse underneath me — literally. Alex was on his knees, his back legs splayed apart, his nose 2 inches from the ground. You can't go down much further and still come back up. He honestly should have broke down."

Rose still can't explain how he escaped unscathed. But he has an idea. After the race, Rose pulled Liz Scott aside. There was something she should know.

"We were going down, and 'Little Alex' popped us up," he told her.

Scott was speechless.

"I got chills," she said.

For Scott and her husband, Jay, that Saturday at Old Hilltop had been "a magical day," she said. "People walked by the lemonade stand before the Preakness and just threw their Afleet Alex tickets in our bucket, like they expected him to win. But when that other horse [Scrappy T] clipped him, there was a second of silence, you know, when you think something bad is going to happen, before Alex bounced up and everyone went nuts."

Watching from the stands, Tim Richey, Afleet Alex's trainer, feared the worst.

"I thought, 'Catastrophe. They're going to get trampled,' " he said. "Rarely does it happen when the rider stays up, much less wins the race. I've never seen anything like it in sports; it was one in a million."

Afterward, amid the hoopla, Rose, the jockey, embraced his ride.

"I kissed his [butt]," he said. "If you've been run over by horses and broken 20 bones like me, you'd understand."

Exceeding expectations

Afleet Alex had surpassed his owners' wildest dreams. Zacney and his partners had purchased the horse, their first buy, at a Timonium auction in 2004 for $75,000, at the behest of Tim Richey, a trainer from Elkton.

"I had the colt penciled in for $150,000, so we got him for a bargain," Richey said. "He had a great walk to him and he just looked like an athlete."

Shipped to Delaware Park, Afleet Alex began training with Richey — and winning. On July 29, he took his third straight race, the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga (N.Y.). Three days later, Alexandra Scott, the youngster whose path he would cross, passed away.

Soon after, the horse's owners offered a percentage of his winnings to Alex's cause, and contributions took off. So did Afleet Alex's career. There was an Alex's Lemonade Stand at the Kentucky Derby, where the horse finished third, and others at the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, where he won both races.

"It was as if all of the stars were aligned," Zacney said. "If not for Afleet Alex's success, it would still have been a great story, but his winning two Triple Crown races put it over the top."

Late in 2005, Afleet Alex retired, having won eight of 12 starts for $2,765,800. Leg injuries suffered, most likely, in the Preakness ended his career. He stands at stud at Gainesway Farm (Ky.).

"He looks great," Zacney said of the horse, whom he visited last fall. "I gave him peppermints and took some pictures. Like most of us, he has put on a few pounds in the midsection."

Though she never met Afleet Alex, her daughter would have hugged him, Scott said: "Alex loved animals. Shortly before she died, we went to a horse show and walked through the stables."

What would Alex Scott think of her charity, which this year alone hopes to raise nearly $20 million?

"She'd be very, very grateful for all who've contributed, and proud of the difference it has made," her mother said. "Then Alex would say: 'We can do more.' "

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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