by NICOLE SCHIVELEY
A wise person once said, “Sometimes you have to be knocked down lower than you’ve ever been in order to stand taller than you were before.”
We see it in sports, when athletes faced with seemingly insurmountable adversity overcome great obstacles against all odds. There was Reggie Miller scoring eight points in nine seconds to spark his Indiana Pacers’ amazing comeback against the New York Knicks. There were the Cleveland Indians erasing a 12-run deficit against the Seattle Mariners.
And in 2005, there was the miraculous recovery and triumph by Afleet Alex in the Preakness Stakes (G1).
That last one – as are all great sports comebacks – will be remembered for as long as anyone races horses.
His story began in 2002. Shortly after Afleet Alex’s entrance to the great wide world, his mother rejected him, leaving little Alex an orphan. Bottle fed until being placed with a nurse mare, the son of Northern Afleet became accustomed to human interaction and affection in ways most future racehorses do not.
Afleet Alex didn’t hail from racing royalty. He was, instead, purchased as a two-year-old for $75,000, a modest sum compared to other horses in the sale. This was the first racehorse purchased by his ownership group, the Cash Is King Stable formed by Chuck Zacney.
Clearly a remarkable athlete from the get-go, winning his first three starts by a combined 28 1/2 lengths, Afleet Alex continued to outrun his price tag. He won the Sanford (G2) and Hopeful (G1); placed in the Champagne (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1); and dominated the Arkansas Derby (G1), his final start before the 2005 Kentucky Derby (G1).
Along the way, Zacney and his Cash Is King partners learned of another Alex’s story – the both tragic and inspiring tale of Alex Scott, an eight-year-old girl who had recently lost her battle with cancer, but not before opening a lemonade stand, pledging to earn $1 million for childhood cancer research. Though Alex Scott’s time on Earth had sadly come to an end, her inspiration for lemonade stands everywhere continue to honor her and raise money for her cause.
Cash Is King began donating portions of Afleet Alex’s winnings to Alex’s Lemonade Stand anonymously before taking public the little girl’s story on racing’s grandest stage: the Triple Crown.
Because Afleet Alex was a fan favorite, it was the hope of many in the crowded stands of Churchill Downs that the little horse with the big heart would prevail in the Kentucky Derby. However, he would run out of gas late to finish a narrowly-beaten third.
It would be the last time he would lose a race.
Two weeks later, Afleet Alex entered the Preakness Stakes starting gate the 3-1 favorite, and he would go on to victory in one of the most memorable Middle Jewels in history.
Far back early, Afleet Alex would make up ground throughout the far turn, before launching his bid at the top of Pimlico’s stretch. As he began to accelerate, a weaving Scrappy T, who currently led the field, looked to decimate his chances when he veered outward, directly into the way of Afleet Alex.
The next few seconds, before a worldwide audience, passed in what could only be described as slow motion – complete with sinking feelings of desperation.
Afleet Alex dropped to his knees with nowhere to go, as Scrappy T entered his path with no warning. A moment in which all the world stood still, his connections froze – the plucky bay colt’s life flashing before their eyes.
In Thoroughbred racing, when incidents like this occur, races are lost, or horses and jockeys are sometimes injured. But on this day, Alex would not be denied. In one single motion, the horse whose heart would not quit, rose to his feet once more, to launch a furious run for home – his competition left lengths behind.
It was a feat unimaginable, not because Afleet Alex was underestimated, but because recovery was thought to be impossible. It was almost as if little Alex Scott, whose bravery and resilience would outlive her tired frame, reached down from the heavens to pluck up the little colt who ran in her honor, only to set him back down in a blaze of invincibility.
After his astounding Preakness Stakes victory, both Afleet Alex and the Alex he ran for, were front-page news the world over. Three weeks later, on the day he would run in the Belmont Stakes (G1), 30 racetracks would feature lemonade stands in Alex Scott’s honor, earning thousands of dollars more for the foundation she built.
And so it was only fitting, that once more, Afleet Alex stormed home in one sweeping move, to capture the Belmont before 62,000 people in the stands, as well as television audiences around the globe in a way that left fans and hardened racing veterans alike saying, “Man, that horse should have won the Triple Crown.”
But when thinking of Afleet Alex, his coming up just shy of a Triple Crown is not what is remembered most. It is, instead, his message of perseverance – his refusal to be broken, his unwavering will to conquer all – and lastly, his link to a little girl who shared his name, and the legacy she left behind.
Top photo: Afleet Alex wins the 2005 Preakness at Pimlico (c) Michael J. Marten / Horsephotos.com