Feb 18, 2005
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
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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