All kinds of stuff going on in racing these days, none of which you'll read or hear anywhere else.
First of all, I gave Tim Ritchey a hollar last night. Ritchey, based at Delaware Park, is
the trainer of the unbeaten Afleet Alex, the best 2-year-old on the planet, and -- just
maybe -- the next Smarty Jones.
Like Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, a $70,000 purchase last May at Timonium, won his first two
starts at a mid-Atlantic track (in this case Delaware), and then shipped to New York to win
his first stake (in this case, the Sanford).
The last time I saw Ritchey was on the clockers' stand back in early April at Oaklawn Park. A
career .300 hitter, Ritchey was lamenting a relatively poor meet at Hot Springs, and was looking
forward to getting back to his home turf at Delaware. And, of course, a month later he planned
to check out some 2-year-olds at the Timonium Sales on York Avenue, down the street from
my favorite batting cages.
Timonium of course is where Ritchey would find Afleet Alex, and he would buy him for $70,000
on behalf of a retired suburban Philadelphia businessman. Sound familiar?
And now the parallels to Smarty Jones really gets interesting.
Ritchey plans to run Afleet Alex next in the Hopeful at Saratoga (where he will be 2-5), and
then in the Champagne at Belmont Park. Victories in those two races would make Alex
five-for-five, and earn him the 2-year-old championship by acclimation.
There will be no Breeders' Cup Juvenile for Afleet Alex.
Instead, Ritchey will give Afleet Alex a break, and then put him on a van to (you guessed it)
Hot Springs, Ark., and Oaklawn Park, where he will be pointed for the Southwest, Rebel and
Arkansas Derby (bonus or no bonus).
"That would be the plan even if it wasn't for Smarty Jones," Ritchey said. "I love Oaklawn
Park, and I love its 3-year-old series. I had told myself that if I was ever fortunate enough
to get a good 3-year-old, that's the way I'd go."
The parallels to Smarty Jones go further. Ritchey will ask Oaklawn racing secretary Pat Pope
for Smarty's barn, and he authorized this writer to put in the entry for Afleet Alex in the three
Oaklawn races, starting with the Southwest.
In case you forgot (and I already forgot), I called in the entry for Smarty Jones for the
Southwest, Rebel, Arkansas Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. That's five wins, and
the dirtiest second in racing history.
Aware of my track record, Ritchey told me: "John..you've got the job."
Afleet Alex is one talented young horse. Whether he can approach Smarty Jones' accomplishments
and poularity remains to be seen. But one thing is definite: as in 2004, the Road to the 2005
Triple Crown will go through downtown Hot Springs, Ark.
Speaking of Smarty Jones, permit me to let the reader in on a little secret:
Smarty's connections, upset about the backlash in the wake of the announcement last Monday
of Smarty's retirement, are having second thoughts. There is the possibility that they may
change their mind, and run Smarty next year.
The key here is if Smarty does or doesn't ship to Kentucky. The longer he remains with trainer
Servis in Barn 12 at Philadelphia Park, the better the chance that he will be unretired.
Trainer Servis even hinted as much the other day when he said, "you never know. Michael
Jordan came back."
Trainer Servis has been under extreme pressure the last couple of weeks. First his godson, the
youngest son of best friend Mark Reid, tragically drowned, and, second, there has been all
the anxiety caused by Smarty's foot problems, and controversy over his future.
Servis faced incredible pressure last spring at Oaklawn while preparing Smarty for the
make-or-break Arkansas Derby, and he -- and his staff -- handled that pressure well.
In the past six months, Servis has gone from obscure horse trainer to rock star. And, for a guy
who once lived in a trailer, stuffing newspapers under the door to keep the cold out, he now
has all the money and security he'll ever need.
But that doesn't mean a thing when your best friend's son dies at 17.
And no one was hurt more when word of Smarty's retirement came down.
Believe me. In the immortal words of one Y. Berra, this baby ain't over 'til it's over.
Finally, one other piece of racing gossip:
Normally, I don't deal with blind items, but in this case I must. I understand that a winner of a
major handicap race this summer came back dirty...and the whole mess was stonewalled. Perhaps
one day the story may come out, but -- for the time being -- nothing.
As for the Whitney Handicap tomorrow, what can I say? Trainer Frankel says Peace Rules is up
against it. There's too much speed in the race. He likes Perfect Drift. And trainer McLaughlin is
pessimistic about Seattle Fitz's chances because of his outside post.
My only prediction: the winner will be double-digits.
P.S.: On Monday, Skip Away will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at Saratoga, and I hope to
get up there for the occasion.
My only regret is that Sonny Hine won't be there.
I've never known a better man on the racetrack than Sonny Hine.