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Friday, December 02, 2005

Afleet No More

- I can’t say I’m at all surprised at the news of the retirement of Afleet Alex, but that's not borne of the usual skepticism we all have about the motives of owners who will send their horses off to the riches of the breeding shed at the first sign of a hangnail or a hemorrhoid. These owners truly wanted to bring their horse back, and had already passed on plenty of multi-million dollar offers and shipped him to Gulfstream to prepare for a winter campaign. I have no reason to doubt head Cash is King partner Chuck Zacney when he said "We were really looking forward to racing Alex next year and to showing just how great a horse he was.” [Bloodhorse]

Speculation is that the condition that caused his retirement stems from the incident during the Preakness in which he stumbled and almost fell at the top of the stretch. But that’s just a guess, and the Philadelphia Daily News’ Dick Jerardi poses some questions to ponder.

Was it there all along and just not detected? Did the postoperative training cause it? Was it the jolt in the Preakness, as Ritchey thinks? Was it inevitable because of the stress of racing?
Jerardi does not here pose the question of whether Tim Ritchey’s unorthodox training methods throughout and following the triple crown campaign contributed to the problem. However, we’ll never know the precise answer. Instead, many will understandably point to the current fragility of the breed and the stress of the triple crown grind, and some, like the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Bob Ford, will call for a change.
The Triple Crown series is supposed to be hard. It is supposed to be the great test of a racing champion. Back when horses were bred for endurance and raced heavily, it was still hard. Now, however, when breeding is all about speed rather than durability, when trainers are more inclined to dull pain rather than wait it out, when the richest prizes are still clustered within a brutal five-week period, now the series is a crippler that has to be altered.
……
One suggestion for altering the series is simple but would gain little hold among traditionalists: Make it for 4-year-olds instead of 3-year-olds.

What makes more sense would be lengthening the time between the races. That would offend many as well, but it would be more humane for the horses and it would extend the excitement of the Triple Crown chase over a longer period.
While many are designating the stumbling incident in the Preakness as Afleet Alex’s defining moment, I would disagree. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not minimizing what he did, but I’ve seen that before, in 1987, when Alysheba clipped the heels of Bet Twice at a similar point in the race and also stumbled before recovering to win the Derby. But I had never seen any horse not named Secretariat handle the mile and a half of the Belmont with such ease and aplomb. The way he took off and literally sprinted away from the field after Jeremy Rose seemingly simply pushed the Go button, making the “test of champions” seem like a morning breeze, is the image of Afleet Alex that will remain etched in my mind. Even Secretariat didn’t get that last quarter in :24 2/5 (the fact that he went the first six furlongs in 1:09 4/5 may have had something to do with that), the fastest since Arts and Letters in 1969. It was a truly remarkable effort, especially since it was his 3rd race in five weeks.

Unfortunately, it was also his last. It would have been something special to see if he could have topped that.

1 Comment:

Walter said...

...i had a future ticket on Alex @ 16/1 in the Derby, stood to make a lot of money if he won...really hurt me to see him lose by a length, then come back and destroy the Preakness and Belmont fields...Alex is the best example i can think of for something that's blatantly obvious: The Best Horse Doesn't Always Win The Derby...to me, THAT is what's wrong with the Kentucky Derby, and all the hype that surrounds it...it's just not a good barometer of talent...first off, you throw 20 horses in the gate, and you wind up with some INSANE traffic issues...some horses lose all chance, based on circumstances beyond their control...some get hung 10 wide on the first turn, some find themselves running in a telephone booth...if that isn't bad enough, throw 100,000 screaming people into the mix and now a lot of the animals are probably spooked...i once saw a quote from McCarron saying that when you turn into the stretch, you run into a "wall of noise" that causes many animals to duck in or shy away...nothing that can be done about the crowd i guess, but i certainly think it factors into the race...further, none of these animals (with the exception of Dubai' UAE Derby participants) have ever run 1 1/4 miles before...many horses, no matter how good they are, simply aren't going to fire their best shot at 1 1/4 miles...Afternoon Deelites jumps readily to mind...to this day, he remains one of the most talented horses i've ever seen, but you know what?...he was a sprinter/miler, and found himself competing in the Derby (and later in races like the Big Cap) simply because the money and glory are far, far greater in the longer races...it's this same type of mentality that finds Lost in the Fog completely excluded from the Daily Racing Form's list of Top Ten 3yo colts, while horses like Andromeda's Hero somehow make the cut...even a supremely talented animal such as Afleet Alex, who was coming off one of the most impressive performances in modern times, was passed over by "expert" Lauren Stich in her Belmont analysis, where she chose Andromeda's Hero, based on some theory that Afleet Alex's bloodlines were insufficient to pass the "Test of Champions", while Andromeda's Hero is an obvious champion based on who his mother and father are, and who his great-great grandfather was related to on his sister's cousin's side...sorry for the rant, but i just this whole Triple Crown thing is a bunch of nonsense and does prove anything...for instance, try asking someone not associated with racing who the best horse in the world is, and they're liable to say Giacomo...you see what i'm getting at?...meanwhile, horses Kona Gold or Lit De Justice can consistently destroy their competition at non-classic distances, and they're hardly given a second thought...i wish i had a nickle for every time i've seen or heard the phrase "just a sprinter", as if they're something wrong with that...i guess it's better to be High Fly or Giacomo than is to be Lost in the Fog or Afternoon Deelites...anyway, back to Afleet Alex, it's a real shame he's been retired, as i was looking forward to seeing him compete as a bigger, stronger, faster 4yo (oh yeah, did i mention that the Triple Crown horses generally get destroyed in the Breeders Cup?), but i guess star 3yo's being retired early is par for the course these days...the all-important chase for the Triple Crown comes first, and if their as-yet-not-completely-developed bodies can't handle it, well, too bad...there's always more 3yo's coming around next year...and the year after that...and the year after that...