How good is Afleet Alex? Judging from his last three races - tremendous victories in the Arkansas Derby and the Preakness, and a gutsy third under pressure the entire trip in the Kentucky Derby - pretty damn good. He's extremely talented, and more than that, he's the most determined runner I've seen compete in some time.
But Nick Zito, trainer of Derby favorite Bellamy Road, noticed something long before most of us.
Last June, Zito ran a horse at Delaware Park, where he kept a small string. Zito's assistant, Tim Poole, arrived just before the race, and after stopping at the receiving barn, he drove to the horsemen's parking lot, located on the clubhouse turn. As Poole was getting out of his car, the horses from the previous race were pulling up on the turn. Just then, his phone rang. It was Zito, whose voice was bursting with excitement.
"Did you see that?" he bellowed.
"See what?" Poole asked, not knowing what he was talking about.
"That race, did you see it?" Zito said.
Poole, not knowing where this race had taken place, asked Zito what track he was referring to.
"Right there where you are," said Zito, who had just seen a first-time starter named Afleet Alex turn in a performance so impressive he knew immediately he had to have the horse. When Poole told him he had just arrived and hadn't seen the race, Zito told him to run in the racing office and watch the replay, and then go see racing secretary Sam Abbey and have him contact Afleet Alex's trainer, Tim Ritchey.
Zito's instructions to Poole were simple: "When you get a hold of Ritchey, tell him, 'Whatever you want for that horse just name your price'." ...
Later that day, Zito called Ritchey himself. "Nick asked if he was for sale," Ritchey recalled. "Then, he said again, 'Name your price.' But the owners (Cash is King Stable) had no interest in selling."
What was it about Afleet Alex's 11 1/4-length victory that got Zito so excited that he was willing to spend any amount for him?
"He was the only horse that's ever reminded me of Spectacular Bid," Zito said. "I remember when 'The Bid' broke his maiden, and it was so similar. I wanted to buy the horse for Bob LaPenta. I knew this was no ordinary horse; that's why I told Timmy to buy him at any price. Here I am offering a million dollars or more for a horse who had just broken his maiden at Delaware Park and they turned us down."
A comparison to the Bid - "the best horse who ever looked through a bridle" according to trainer Bud Delp, and the best I ever saw run - is not faint praise.
Alex is 6-5 in the morning line to win Saturday's Belmont. I'll be very surprised if those odds are available at post time.