A Remarkable Run Afleet Alex wins Arkansas Derby by 8 lengths

Posted: April 17, 2005

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — They have been bringing them into the winner's circle at Oaklawn Park for 101 years, but yesterday had to be the first time a strip of grass inside a hedge shaped like a horseshoe was transformed into a raucous Northeast Philadelphia tap room.

"I love you guys!" screamed Joe Lerro, who grew up in the Northeast and owns a beer distributorship there. Lerro acted as head cheerleader for his fellow owners in that crowded winner's circle after yesterday's $1 million Arkansas Derby. "I love every one of you! Afleet Alex! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!"

Here we go again: A bunch of Philly owners with a little-known trainer and a freak of a horse are heading to the Kentucky Derby as contenders.

In front of a crowd of 71,010, Afleet Alex blew away the Arkansas Derby field yesterday - "exploded clear" reads the accurate official race summary - and won over Flower Alley by eight lengths, finishing the 1 1/8-mile course in 1 minute, 48.8 seconds.

This was the same race that got Smarty Jones to the Kentucky Derby last year, and this horse also has a story that goes on and on. The colt has a breeder with colon and liver cancer who was told he had three months to live back in 2002. The jockey wasn't even supposed to have the ride yesterday, until the hottest rider in the country shifted gears and went for another horse. For three of Afleet Alex's five owners, he is the first horse they have ever owned. But they've been around their share of racetracks. The one female co-owner said she could read the Daily Racing Form when she was 5 1/2.

Jockey Jeremy Rose, a 26-year-old Delaware Park regular who grew up in Bellefonte, Pa., outside State College, and has been on Afleet Alex for all but one of his races, said the colt he calls The Beast was at his most powerful yesterday. Rose heard the crowd roaring, but he said he wasn't sure if it was for his horse or if local favorite Greater Good, who had won the Rebel and Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, also was making a move.

It was all for Alex.

"He gets that speed - he has a kick that's unbelievable," said Rose, who described how Alex had been perfectly relaxed running fifth through the first half-mile. "He's never strong at the beginning; that's the way he races.

"When I kissed him [at the quarter pole], I figured it was over. I hit him twice and that was it. He accelerated again."

It was pointed out that just maybe Rose had hit him five times.

"Did I hit him that many?" Rose said. "Well, it's a million-dollar race. I was being nice."

Rose got the mount only after John Velazquez ended up on Bandini, who impressively won yesterday's other big Derby prep, the Blue Grass Stakes. Rose called the whole thing a "Cinderella story."

"I get back on Alex and win the [Oaklawn] jockey title on the same day," he said. "It's the biggest race I have won, and the biggest for Alex."

Behind Flower Alley, Andromeda's Hero was third, followed by Real Dandy, Greater Good, Canteen, Rush Bay, Wild Desert, Cat Shaker and Batson Challenge.

Trainer Tim Ritchey, out of Delaware Park, started training the cheapest of claimers years ago and has his first Triple Crown horse. He spotted the colt at a sale and told a new group of owners, put together by managing partner Chuck Zacney of Phoenixville, that they should spend $75,000 of their initial $100,000 investment on one horse who had never seen a racetrack. The first time Ritchey met with the group after the sale was made, the trainer mentioned the Kentucky Derby.

"I walked out of the dinner saying, 'Who is this guy?' " Lerro said.

A Kentucky Derby favorite when the year began, Afleet Alex dropped way down in Derby watch polls after last month's Rebel Stakes, when he finished last and was said to have a lung infection. Critics pointed out that last year's 2-year-old Eclipse runner-up still had never won a race around two turns. Asked about all that, and how satisfying this was, Ritchey said, "Very satisfying, just to silence the doubters."

Ritchey was asked whether Rose would get the Kentucky Derby mount. Don't assume that's a given, since Rose has never tackled a 20-horse field.

"We want to just enjoy the today, and enjoy the moment, and enjoy the thrill of victory," Ritchey said. "Everything will fall into place, just like they did with this race."

The shouting never died down after the race, right into the news conference.

"Wait until you see us later," Lerro told the crowd. "If you can find me, drinks are on me."

Rockport Harbor's run. It happened more than 10 hours before the race, but another Philadelphia horse didn't hurt his Kentucky Derby prospects yesterday. Just after the sun came up, with the press box full of friends of Rockport Harbor, the horse from Philadelphia Park galloped a "quasi-two-minute lick," going a mile in 1:41.6.

Rockport Harbor missed the Arkansas Derby with a blood clot. After his workout, trainer John Servis professed himself "tickled to death." What he saw from his horse was perfect, Servis said, "although I shouldn't say that. Every time I say that, something happens."

Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

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