They are running the Hopeful Stakes for 2-year-olds late Saturday at Saratoga, and it promises
to be a memorable one because of the presence of Afleet Alex, potentially racing's next superstar.
And speaking of memorable, this marks the 25th anniversary of -- in my mind -- the most
memorable Hopeful in history.
As the days dwindle down, the memories begin to play tricks, but I'll try to recreate the 1979
Hopeful as best I can. For some reason, the '80 Racing Manuel omits the '79 Hopeful.
Like Afleet Alex, an unbeaten colt from out-of-town came into the '79 Hopeful as the favorite.
He was a little chestnut gelding out of Kentucky named Rockhill Native, his connections more
blue-collar than blue grass.
As such, Rockhill Native had a target on his back, and when the break came, Angel Cordero Jr.,
who was in his heyday as the King of Saratoga, went smack after the out-of-towner, and nearly
The no-name jock on Rockhill Native responded by going back at Cordero
(give him an A for guts), and nearly dropped Angel. Thereupon, Rockhill Native went about his
business, and blew the race open, winning by five lengths.
But hold all tickets. The race is not official.
Up went the "inquiry." Up went the "objection."
Sure enough, down came Rockhill Native. It was then, and remains to this day, the single worst
injustice I have seen on a New York racetrack.
It was home cookin' at its absolute worst.
The trainer and rider of Rockhill Native never again raced in New York.
Oh, yes. One more thing.
A horse named J P Brother, a 30-1 shot from trainer John Campo, was put up.
I'm sure it made no difference, but, back in those days, two years before Pleasant Colony, Campo
would spend his afternoons hanging out in the stewards' stand. The stand was (and is) an outdoor
platform located 20 feet to the right of the press box. You couldn't miss big John.
Ten years earlier was another memorable Hopeful.
As is my custom, I watch the Saratoga races from the roof atop the press box, and the '69 Hopeful
was one I can never forget. Seven horses came down to the wire lined up across the racetrack, and
when they hit the wire, it was absolutely impossible to call the winner. I watched with five people,
and they called five different winners.
Finally, after 20 minutes, they put up Irish Castle from the Phipps barn over Hagley and Pontifex.
Braulio Baeza. maybe the greatest jock of 'em all, rode the winner, and never cracked a smile. He
had it all the way.
What a history the Hopeful has!
In the '50s, the winners included Native Dancer, Nashua, Needles and First Landing. In the '60s,
the race was won by Buckpasser, Jaipur, Hail to Reason and Bold Lad.
In the '70s -- in addition to J P Brother -- the winners included some nice colts named Secretariat,
Affirmed, General Assembly and Foolish Pleasure. Among the winners in the '80s were
Summer Squall, Chief's Crown, Gulch and the ill-fated Timely Writer, and, in the '90s, the race was
won by Favorite Trick, Smoke Glacken and Dehere.
Who will win the '04 Hopeful?
If you believe the Beyers, it's a two-horse race between Devils Disciple (from Florida) and
Afleet Alex (from Delaware). The Devil put up a 103 Beyer winning a minor Calder stake by nine
lengths at 3-10, and Afleet Alex recorded a 101 winning the Sanford by five. None of the other
five colts in the race have reached the '90s.
Afleet Alex, if all goes well, will conclude his 2-year-old campaign in the Champagne at Belmont
Park. At the present time, Afleet Alex is the 7-1 co-favorite (with Roman Ruler) in the Breeders'
Cup Juvenile futures, but a word of advice: NO.
I spoke to Tim Ritchey, the trainer of Afleet Alex, the other day, and he told me that, under no
circumstances, will he go to the Breeders' Cup. The colt will get some time off, then ship to Oaklawn
Park in downtown Hot Springs, Ark., to prepare for the Triple Crown...obviously following in the
footsteps of one Smarty Jones.
As for Devils Disciple. he has two negatives concerning the Hopeful. One is the one-hole. And
two is the jockey change. I don't see where Rosemary Homeister Jr. did anything wrong.