The jockey played many sports when he was young: baseball, basketball, football, volleyball. And Jeremy Rose was good at them, but he was too damn small. He settled on wrestling and won 44 of 47 matches as a high school senior in central Pennsylvania, but even in that sport he was too tiny to continue in college, where the lowest weight class was 125 pounds. "Those guys are walking around at 140 pounds before they reduce," says Rose. "I was 100 pounds; I would have gotten killed." Seven years ago, at age 19, he moved his skills into a saddle and developed into a top-level thoroughbred race rider. Make no mistake, Rose is an athlete.
The horse isn't big either, not even 16 hands high at his withers and less than 1,000 pounds, and when he worked a demonstration quarter mile before being sold as a 2-year-old in the spring of 2004, he ran a rather ordinary 22 2/5 seconds. But trainer Tim Ritchey loved the way Afleet Alex bucked and reared up gracefully on his hind legs and was amazed when he not only butted a heavy rubber ball hung from the ceiling of his stall but also reached for it with his hooves and drove it into the straw on the floor. "The way he moved around was so impressive," says Ritchey. He doesn't gobble ground on the racetrack like his long-striding peers, but he scoots around corners and changes speeds like a Porsche on the Autobahn. Make no mistake, Afleet Alex is an athlete.
Last Saturday, at the top of the stretch during the 130th Preakness at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, jockey and horse blended their athletic gifts, turning a millisecond of blinding terror into an astounding recovery and victory in the second jewel of racing's Triple Crown. Together they stayed upright after Afleet Alex clipped heels with a veering Scrappy T and stumbled so badly that his nose was within a foot of the ground and Rose was desperately hanging on to his black mane.
While a record Preakness crowd of 115,318 gasped, Alex popped upright, almost immediately regained his stride, ran down Scrappy T and rolled to a 4 3/4-length victory, denying Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, who finished a respectable third, a shot at the Triple Crown. The victory not only validated Afleet Alex's status as the 3-1 Preakness favorite but also added sweet cheer to the story's heartwarming subplots: a group of five Funny Cide-esque owners sharing their first horse (purchased for a bargain $75,000), a breeder fighting terminal cancer who improbably lives on to watch Alex run and the memory of a little girl and her dream of curing that same disease.
In fading sunlight on the Pimlico infield, Liz Scott watched the trophy presentation with her husband, Jay, and two of their three sons, Patrick, 10, and Eddie, 6. Last Aug. 1 the Scotts' eight-year-old daughter, Alex, died after fighting neuroblastoma for most of her life. When she was four, Alex started selling lemonade from a handmade stand, promising to use the proceeds to help cure pediatric cancer. From those beginnings grew Alex's Lemonade Stand, a charity that has raised almost $2 million, including more than $100,000 through its association with Afleet Alex, whose owners donate a portion of his winnings.
"I'm incredibly excited," said Liz Scott. "And later on I'm sure I'm going to cry."
A few feet away 60-year-old John Silvertand was waved to the presentation stand by the owners of Afleet Alex. Silvertand, a former pilot in the Royal Air Force, was responsible for breeding Northern Afleet to his mare Maggy Hawk in 2001, producing the foal who would be named Afleet Alex. When Maggy Hawk couldn't produce milk, Silvertand and his daughter Lauren, now 12, kept Alex alive by feeding the colt formula from a beer bottle for 48 hours until a nurse mare could be shipped in.
Now Silvertand says it is Alex who keeps him alive, by winning races. In October 2002 Silvertand was given three months to live after being told he had cancer. "Planning ahead is a big part of not giving up," Silvertand, who has no financial stake in the colt, said before Afleet Alex's third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. "Alex has given me something to plan for."
The story started scarcely a year ago when Chuck Zacney, 43, who owns a medical billing company in suburban Philadelphia and had once owned horses with partners in Louisiana, started another partnership with four friends and the $100,000 they pooled and hired Ritchey to buy and train their horses. Afleet Alex was their first purchase, and he was brilliant from the start, winning four of six starts as a 2-year-old. "We got a $2 million offer [for] him," says Ritchey. "The owners didn't want to do it. That was fine with me. I waited my whole life for a horse like this."
Rose, 26 (though he could pass for 16), was on Alex's back for every start, including a runner-up finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall. After Rose rode Alex to a 3-year-old season-opening win in the Mountain Valley Stakes at Oaklawn Park, Ritchey and Zacney, looking for a rider with Triple Crown experience, switched to John Velazquez in the Rebel Stakes. Alex finished sixth, while fighting a lung infection, and when Velazquez chose to ride Bandini in the April 16 Blue Grass instead of Alex in the Arkansas Derby, Rose got another chance. Alex won by eight, but as the second betting choice in the Kentucky Derby, he tired in the final strides and was passed by Giacomo and Closing Argument.
"I hope they don't replace me," Rose told Liz Scott, with whom he had become close friends, after the Derby. "I want another chance. I know he can win the Preakness."
Ritchey says the mount was never in doubt. The same could not be said for the health of Rose and Alex on Saturday. After Rose deftly steered Alex from the 12 hole to a ground-saving trip near the rail up the backstretch, he swung wide coming off the final turn, flying past horses. Scrappy T, a 13-1 long shot, was holding the lead while jockey Ramon Dominguez tapped him on the right shoulder with his whip.
"I could feel him backing up on himself when he made the lead," Dominguez said of Scrappy T. "I wanted to keep his momentum, so I switched the stick and hit him lefthanded. He overreacted to the whip." Scrappy T bounced to his right when struck, directly in front of the streaking Alex, whose legs got tangled with Scrappy T's. But Rose stayed on and Alex stayed up. "Maybe it was little Alex reaching down and keeping me on," Rose said. "I was scared, and I hang on real good when I'm scared. And Alex, he's so athletic I think he could do a backflip if you asked him to."
Had Alex not recovered to win, Scrappy T would surely have been disqualified, but Alex made that a moot point. An hour after the race Rose, still dressed in racing silks, bounded into the jockeys' room and found Dominguez, walking from the shower with a towel around his waist.
"Ramon, what were you doing to me?" Rose shouted, laughing and shaking Dominguez's hand. "I saw you hit him left, and he jumped over, and I'm like, 'Aw, s---!'"
"I'm sorry," Dominguez said. "I had no idea he would do that. But it looked like your horse never missed a beat. Very impressive, man."
As darkness fell, Ritchey tucked Alex into his stall in Pimlico's ancient stakes barn. After such a traumatic near-miss several days must pass before Alex can be pronounced healthy and pointed to the Belmont Stakes. Fifty feet away in stall 40, which is reserved for the Derby winner, Giacomo munched on a hay bale hung from the wall. "The holes didn't open for me," said jockey Mike Smith. "I had a ton of horse at the finish." Owner Jerry Moss muses about bringing his late runner to New York.
There will again be no Triple Crown winner, and for the first time in four years, no Triple Crown attempt in the June 11 Belmont. There is one horse who rose from obscurity and 50-1 odds in Kentucky, and there is another horse who rose from his knees in Baltimore. An intriguing rubber match will have to suffice. ‚ñ†