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Feb 18, 2005

RACING TODAY

By: JOHN PIESEN


Life is tough. I awoke today to a beautiful Arkansas morning anxious

to get to Oaklawn Park to watch Afleet Alex have his first work of the season.

But then I heard the bad news. The hockey season is over. Before it ever
begun. I dont know how long it will take me to get over this disturbing

news. But I have no choice. Who knows when I"ll ever get to see

Vancouver vs. Edmonton again on my NHL ticket?

What"s really upsetting is that I saw an ESPN poll in which 47 per

 cent of those polled said they don"t care that there is no hockey this

season. How can these people be so callous?

Here"s something else I need to discuss before I get to Afleet Alex.

 I caught the end of Knicks-Charlotte on TV the other night, and I

 can"t believe what I just saw in the words of the late Jack Buck.

In case you missed it (I can"t understand why), some obscure Knick

 player nailed a three-pointer at the gun to win the game, and the

capacity crowd of 19 and change at the Garden went crazy-nuts.

OK. Here"s a Knicks" team, with the highest payroll in the league,

comfortably ensconsed in last place in the worst division in the

league...and they lucked out against an expansion team missing their

 best player.

Well, whoopie damn do. The Westminster"s moving out, and the dog

 show moves back in tonight.

Perhaps these 19,000 need to get a life.

At least they can move to Arkansas, and watch the streaking University

 of Arkansas varisty basketball team. The Hogs go into tonight"s grudge

 game at Alabama on a three-race winning streak, and the State of

 Arkansas is going crazy. The fact that the Razorbacks failed to cover

in those three games means nothing to these rabid fans.

To borrow a phrase from a certain football coach, "you play to win

 the game." Nothing about a cover. And that is, take it or leave it,

 the way it is in Arkansas.

Besides the Razorbacks, the State of Arkansas currently is the home of

 the two best 3-year-olds on the planet -- Rockport Harbor and

Afleet Alex. Or is it Afleet Alex and Rockport Harbor?

At this point I have no idea who is better. Rockport Harbor has been

 training lights-out here for a month for John Servis, and I have felt

 all along that he is unbeatable.

But that was before Afleet Alex had his first work of "05 this morning.

 I watched the work from the clockers" stand, and I couldn"t

 believe my eyes. This was Afleet Alex"s first work since the

Breeders" Cup, and he was spectacular.

Jockey Rose never moved a finger, and Alex went a half-mile in :47,

the second quarter in :22 3/5. He galloped out five-eighths in :59 3/5,

 which was faster than the 34 horses who actually worked five-eighths

 this morning went. When he got back to the barn, he wasn"t even blowing.

"Alex"s work sent chills down my spine," said his vet, a good guy

named Dr. Bill Hawk, who at night sells the best crawfish in town at

Smylie"s on Lake Hamilton. High praise indeed from anyone, much less a vet.

After the work, notebook in hand, I walked back to the barn to

question trainer Ritchey and jockey Rose. As you can imagine, they

were very happy. As I imagine the folks who grabbed 15-1 last weekend

in the Derby futures are.

Allow me to pass on their quotes:

Ritchey: "Alex did no more than ever does. He"s had lots of miles under

 him since we got to Oaklawn so he was ready to roll today. We just let

him use his natural speed. He"s a fast horse."

Ritchey had to excuse himself to train 37 other horses. On the other

 hand, jockey Rose had plenty of time on his hands to talk to this ink-stained

 wretch. Said Rose:

"We stalked the other horse (a maiden named Dancetilludrop) to the

head of the stretch. Then I dropped Alex"s head, and let him have some

 fun. I only rode him from the 16th pole to the wire. He has so many

gears. He could have gone :57 if I asked him. This horse is awesome.

He"s put on a lot of muscle tone since the Fall. He"s bigger and stronger."

Rose, as you may recall, rode Afleet Alex in all six of the colt"s races

 at 2 -- four wins, and troubled seconds in the Champagne and

Breeders" Cup Juvenile. Alex was a day and a half the best 2-year-old

last year, but he was robbed of the Eclipse Awards by turf writers who

 don"t know which end of the horse eats and which end, well, you know.

After the Breeders" Cup, the agents for every big-name rider in the land

burned Ritchey"s eardrums. And, sure enough. John Velazquez got the

mount for this year, starting with two races at Oaklawn -- the Rebel

and Arkansas Derby.

"Johnny has been on a lot of nice horses," Rose told me, "but this colt

will surprise him."

"Who knows? Someday maybe I"ll get to ride Alex again. But right

now, I"m just happy to work him. Most jockeys never get to work a horse

like this, much less ride one like him in a race. Like I said, he"s awesome."

And, as I said, I have no idea who"s the better horse -- Afleet Alex or

 Rockport Harbor? I"ll be counting the crawfish until the big day

(March 19) when they hook up in the Rebel. Chances are you won"t see a

 better 3-year-old race all year.

It"s easy to get to Oaklawn Park. Drive to Tennessee, and turn right. If

 you want to fly, you can get a direct flight from Newark to Little Rock,

45 minutes away. And get here in time for the Friday night seafood

buffet at the Arlington Hotel. And, on Saturday morning, don"t miss

John Piesen"s free seminar at the Longshot Saloon across Central Avenue.

It"s enough to make you all forget there"s no hockey.



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