- Horse Racing - Curse of the great 2-year-old

Bill Finley
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Tuesday, August 24
Curse of the great 2-year-old

Having run his record to 4-for-4 while winning the first Grade I stakes of the year for 2-year-olds, the Hopeful, there's no denying that Afleet Alex is an exceptional horse, maybe one of the best to win the race in a long time. He has posted some impressive Beyer numbers, won two stakes at Saratoga and handled the best competition the division has to offer in the East. There's even a few parallels between him and Smarty Jones. Afleet Alex is a fast horse from a Mid-Atlantic track (Delaware Park) and is trained by a talented horsemen (Tim Ritchey) and ridden by a solid jockey (Jeremy Rose) who have never before has been given a chance with a horse with this much talent.

But come the first Saturday in May, 2005, you can rest assured that Afleet Alex will not duplicate Smarty Jones' Kentucky Derby victor. That's not necessarily a knock on the horse. It's just that he'll be attempting to do something that horses just can't seem to do anymore. You can't be at your best in mid-August and still at your best in early May.

They talk abut the Breeders' Cup Juvenile jinx, the supposed reason no Juvenile winner has gone on to win the Kentucky Derby. It's nothing compared to the difficulties Hopeful winners have had to overcome on their way to the spring classics.

The last Hopeful winner to go on and win the Kentucky Derby was Affirmed, the 1978 Triple crown winner. Since then, only eight have made the Derby and the race has produced only one winner of a Triple Crown race, 1989 Preakness winner Summer Squall.

Predictably, Hopeful winners have struggled even more so in the Triple Crown races in recent years. Only three have made the race since 1990 and none of them finished in the money.

When asked before the race whether or not he felt his horse could win the Hopeful and still develop into a major 3-year-old, Ritchey tried to say all the right things.

"That doesn't really concern me," he said. "I've just got to take every race as it comes along. And my horse relaxes quite well in the early part of a race which is an indication to me that he will go further. For now, I'm glad to be in one Grade I stakes, knowing the horse has a chance in it."

He ought to be more concerned. Chances are the 2005 Kentucky Derby winner hasn't started yet. If he has, it's likely that he hasn't done much of anything to attract any notice. Of the last five Kentucky Derby winners, none had made their first career start before Sept. 1. Going back a few years more, some eventual Derby winners had started by Hopeful Day, but none had come anywhere near reaching their peaks. They developed much further down the road and much closer to Kentucky Derby Day.

There was a time when that wasn't the case. Affirmed, Secretariat and Foolish Pleasure all parlayed Hopeful wins in the seventies in Kentucky Derby victories and 1978 Hopeful winner General Assembly finished second behind the mighty Spectacular Bid in the 1979 Kentucky Derby.

That wasn't that long ago, but the game has undergone a substantial transformation since. So many horses are bred for speed and to be precocious that they might just be sensational 2-year-olds who can excel only at shorter distances. And most will inevitably run too hard and too fast and fall by the wayside when the next wave of more late-developing horses come in, ready to dominate the spring races. By Northern Afleet, Afleet Alex's pedigree suggests his future is now not later.

"The early races benefit horses who develop early," said Jerry Brown, who produces the Thoro-Graph speed figures and has done extensive studies of the developmental histories of past Kentucky Derby winners. "The history of these precocious horses is that they don't develop. The early races take a toll on them. It would be like putting too much pressure on a 14-year-old kid's bones. They can't take it."

Brown also believes that since more and more top 2-year-olds are being held out until at least the fall, the competition in races like the Hopeful isn't nearly as strong as it used to be.

"People talk about jinxes, it's more a matter of the winner of these races not being all that good," he said. "At the time some of these races are run only five percent of the crop has even run yet. You don't need the same level of ability as you might in the 3-year-old year when 80 percent of the crop is out."

Ritchey says that his owner, Chuck Zacney, is not inclined to sell the colt, despite the serious offers that have been rolling in. That's his prerogative. He's no doubt having fun and he owns a very good horse. Still, he might want to reconsider. Afleet Alex is a hot property right now. Who's to say that's going to last. The Hopeful jinx is, after all, a bear.


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