For the second year in a row, a single, agonizing length separated a horse from the first Triple Crown since 1978. That's the margin by which Smarty Jones lost the 2004 Belmont Stakes to Birdstone, and last Saturday's Belmont winner, Afleet Alex, lost the Kentucky Derby on May 7 to long shot winner Giacomo (with longer shot Closing Argument also beating him to the wire for second). Alex's race at Churchill Downs was lost in dense Derby traffic, which forced jockey Jeremy Rose to pull up and restart his mount--"like a human being walking and then sprinting [again], which would make anybody tired," said trainer Tim Ritchey--and ultimately to drift into a dead path along the rail approaching the wire.
"If he had had any luck that day," rival jockey Jerry Bailey says of the Derby, "he would have won that race and we'd have a Triple Crown winner. He's a very tough little horse."
There have been only 11 Triple Crown winners in 130 years and none since Affirmed 27 years ago. In each of the last five Triple Crown series a horse has won two of the three races, which underscores the enormity of the task. Afleet Alex got his two thirds of greatness with a resounding, seven-length Belmont victory that left no doubt he is the best 3-year-old in training. "He won as a 2-year-old, he came out sprinting this year, and he hasn't missed a beat," says trainer Nick Zito, whose 11 starters in the three races combined all finished behind Alex.
If his place in Triple Crown lore was sealed by his miracle recovery after nearly falling in the Preakness and by his dominant Belmont win, Afleet Alex's place in racing history will be decided by what he does the rest of the year. Ritchey said Alex will race in the Aug. 7 Haskell at Monmouth and the Aug. 27 Travers at Saratoga, en route to the Breeders' Cup at Belmont on Oct. 29.
With Monday's retirement of 5-year-old reigning Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, whom Alex's connections were not keen to face, Afleet Alex will point to the Breeders' Cup Classic, with the Sprint and the Mile as backups. "Ghostzapper was the best of the best, and we were in the mix for No. 2," says Chuck Zacney, who heads Alex's five-person ownership group. "With him out the Classic is the No. 1 option for Alex."
Along the way to carving his legacy, Afleet Alex could face two significant challengers.
•Bellamy Road. The Zito-trained Kentucky Derby favorite, who generated breathless praise with his 17 1/2-length win in the Wood Memorial on April 9, is expected to be recovered from an injury to his left front leg and back in training by late this month. "The wish list is Saratoga," says Zito of the Travers, "but the ultimate goal is the Breeders' Cup Classic."
•Lost in the Fog. Unbeaten in seven lifetime sprint starts, including the Riva Ridge on the Belmont Stakes undercard, the muscular colt is being pointed toward the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Afleet Alex could face Lost in the Fog if Ritchey changes his mind about the Classic, and if Alex falters in any of his races, Lost in the Fog could challenge for the 3-year-old championship.
In which case there is always next year. Ritchey says the plan is to run Afleet Alex in '06, which would make him the first Triple Crown star--other than Funny Cide, who is a gelding--to race past age 3 since 1998 Derby and Preakness winner Real Quiet.