As the warm May sun shone down on Lone Star Park, Thoroughbreds paraded before the grandstand, being guided by pony horses as their breaths came in sync with their stride and their bits jingled with each step. Spectators rushed to the windows to put in their final bets while others watched the horses warm up on the track. The racehorses loaded into the starting gate as their muscles quivered and after a tense moment, they leapt onto the track as their riders jostled for position. Legs working like pistons, the tenacious Thoroughbreds followed the path their riders generated for them, every ounce of their body striving to get them to the wire first. The splendor of the competitive Thoroughbreds, the fortitude of the determined jockeys, the cheer of the crowd, the thunder of hooves, and the adrenaline that swelled formed the excitement of the race. This exhilaration immediately became infectious to me, filling me with a fire that will never be extinguished. It was my first day at the races.
As if witnessing live races was not enough to further my love for horse racing that had caught fire when Smarty Jones had won the Kentucky Derby the previous year, I soon found myself gazing at the large screen attached to the toteboard, which displayed coverage of the one hundred thirtieth Preakness Stakes – the second leg of the Triple Crown. My vision centered upon a mahogany bay colt in green silks as he loaded into the gate at Old Hilltop – the third racehorse I had absolutely fallen in love with. His name was Afleet Alex, the horse that had led me to race my dog on my bicycle while I pretended that I was Afleet Alex and she was Giacomo. Though I am now a Giacomo fan, I made sure I defeated my dog every time.
I’d fallen in love with Afleet Alex prior to the 2005 Kentucky Derby when I’d heard of the colt’s association with Alex’s Lemonade Stand, a children’s cancer charity founded by Alex Scott, an eight-year-old girl who had lost her battle with cancer less than a year before. This, combined with the colt’s striking presence, caused Afleet Alex to be my next “racehorse love,” the two before him being Smarty Jones and Better Talk Now.
As my hands clung to the outer rail at Lone Star Park, I watched as Jeremy Rose and the son of Northern Afleet broke from the twelfth slot in the starting gate at Pimlico Racecourse. The pair glided closer to the inside in Cash is King Stables’ silks and found a position in mid-pack as the Thoroughbreds galloped in front of the grandstand for the first time in the mile and one-sixteenth race. Skimming the rail along the final turn, Afleet Alex quickened once he found room as the horses neared the end of the curve. The bay colt looked to be home-free, his breathtaking strides eating up ground effortlessly. Rose maneuvered Afleet Alex to the outside of Scrappy T, prepared to open up on the field with ease.
But suddenly, Scrappy T veered outward, coming into Afleet Alex’s path. With a gasp that was in unison with everyone else watching the race, I viewed the screen in horror as Afleet Alex went down to his knees. Astonishingly, Rose was not launched from the saddle and Afleet Alex did not collapse.
Rather, just the opposite occurred. With unbelievable resolve, Afleet Alex gathered himself and continued his impressive acceleration as if it had never been interrupted. Under strong urging from Rose, the three-year-old found more and drew away from Scrappy T. In miraculous fashion, Afleet Alex won the Preakness by 4 ¾ lengths.
In one of the most extraordinary recoveries ever in the history of horse racing, Afleet Alex showed me the incredible persistence a truly great racehorse possesses. His tremendous triumph in the Preakness brought a great conclusion to that fateful day for me and will forever be a Preakness Stakes I will never forget – a race that racing fans will always view as not only one of the best middle jewels of the Triple Crown ever contested, but also one of the most remarkable performances ever displayed by a Thoroughbred.
Afleet Alex would race only once more, capturing the Belmont Stakes (GI) in brilliant fashion as he coasted past his competitors with ease to score by 7 lengths. A hairline condylar fracture of the cannon bone of his left foreleg forced his retirement and although his sophomore campaign lacked longevity, it boasted enough excellence to earn him divisional championship honors.
Entering stud in 2006 at Gainesway Farm near Lexington, Kentucky, Afleet Alex has found solid success as a sire, producing the likes of the grade one winners Afleet Express and Dublin, as well as Breeders’ Cup winner Afleet Again and additional graded stakes winners Afleeting Lady, Bizzy Caroline, Called to Serve, Dancing Afleet, and Harissa.
In July of 2013, I had the chance to finally meet Afleet Alex. As soon as he stepped out into the bright sunshine, his blood bay coat gleaming in the light, I was mesmerized, my eyes locked on the champion. Later, as he stood in his stall, I allowed my fingers to tickle his nose before I stood, admiring him as he dozed off for an afternoon nap.
There are moments that you don’t appreciate until they are over, when you look back and realize how truly great they were. And then there are moments that are so special that you bask in the glory as they happen, taking it all in. As I stood outside Afleet Alex’s stall, my eyes locked on the horse that I had so dearly loved for so long, I relished the moment, reflecting on all the happiness he’d brought me. The bike races with my dog that I had to say a tearful goodbye to three years after Afleet Alex’s racing career ended. The time when my jaw literally dropped when Afleet Alex flew past his rivals in the Belmont. The high school speech I gave about him that my teacher told me was the best speech he’d ever heard. The endless amount of smiles Afleet Alex’s career had given me. Meeting Afleet Alex was a moment in which I achieved a dream; I had met a childhood hero.
Photo by Terri Cage