LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Take ingredients from the Funny Cide epic. Mix in flavor from the Smarty Jones legend. Cook until drama and emotion swell to double the size. Then, maybe, you're approaching the saga of Afleet Alex.
The fleet, sleek thoroughbred will race as one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby tomorrow at Churchill Downs. He has won six of nine races while providing the backdrop for one of the day's most stirring stories in sports.
"America seems to like a sports star that overcomes adversity and goes on and becomes successful," says Tim Ritchey, Afleet Alex's trainer, who lives in Maryland.
When Afleet Alex was born May 9, 2002, at a farm in Florida, his mother, a mare named Maggy Hawk, refused to feed him. For nearly two weeks, until a nurse mare could be found, the abandoned colt relied on farm workers for sustenance. Among those keeping the scraggly colt alive was Laura Silvertand, then 9, who offered milk from a sterilized beer bottle.
Laura's father, John Silvertand, bred the colt by mating his mare Maggy Hawk with the Florida sire Northern Afleet. Silvertand, 60, a native of England, was diagnosed in late 2002 with colon cancer that had spread to his liver. The prognosis was grim: months to live.
Two and a half years later, Silvertand is still alive in large part, he says, because of Afleet Alex. He attended the colt's overpowering victory in the Arkansas Derby three weeks ago at Oaklawn Park, and he plans on being here tomorrow for Afleet Alex's run for the roses.
Afleet Alex's owners are a partnership of five fun-loving "knuckleheads," as one partner describes them, from the Philadelphia area. They put up $100,000 last year for Ritchey to buy them horses.
At the Timonium sale after last year's Preakness, Ritchey picked out an athletic 2-year-old colt. For a relatively modest $75,000, the partnership had its first horse. For three of the five, this was the first racehorse they'd ever owned.
They named him Afleet Alex, because his sire is Northern Afleet, and the partners have children named Alex, Alexandria and Alexandra. He has earned $1,315,800 for the aptly named, although originally tongue-in-cheek named, Cash is King stable.
Before ever learning about Silvertand's cancer, Chuck Zacney, managing partner of Cash is King, noticed a story in the Philadelphia media about a little girl who had cancer. Her name was Alexandra "Alex" Scott, and she'd been diagnosed with cancer two days before her first birthday.
When Alex was 4, she opened a lemonade stand in her front yard to raise money for childhood cancer research. By the time she died last summer at age 8, Alex's Lemonade Stand had attracted nationwide attention and become a foundation.
Cash is King with its previously named Afleet Alex became a generous donor to Alex's Lemonade Stand, which has raised more than $1.6 million. The Afleet Alex Web site (www.afleetalex.com) promotes it aggressively.
Zacney, 43, owns Sirrus Group, a regional medical-billing company in Norristown, Pa. He says he enjoys the comparisons between Cash is King and Sackatoga Stable, the group of high school buddies from upstate New York who own Funny Cide and traveled to his Triple Crown races in a yellow school bus.
"We believe in having a lot of fun," Zacney says. "To go to Saratoga, the Breeders' Cup and now the Kentucky Derby, it's been an unbelievable ride. We realize how lucky we are. It gives all owners and trainers out there a glimmer of hope that it could be them."
Joe Lerro, 44, is a partner in Cash is King. He lives in Langhorne, Pa., and owns a beer distributorship, a pizzeria and real estate. He stresses the group's affection for the "little guy" and boasts about wanting to spend time in the infield Derby day drinking beer with "our kind of people."
Lerro, who had never owned a horse before, recalls meeting Ritchey for the first time over dinner after Afleet Alex's second race. Up to then Zacney had dealt with Ritchey.
Afleet Alex had won his first two races at Delaware Park by 11 1/4 lengths and 12 lengths. Lerro thought that was great, but he wasn't ready for Ritchey's grandiose plans: Saratoga and the Breeders' Cup.
"I thought, `Who is this guy?'" Lerro says. "I thought he was crazy. I thought he was a fruitcake."
Ritchey led Cash is King to Saratoga, where Afleet Alex won the Grade II Hopeful and Grade I Sanford Stakes for his third and fourth consecutive victories. Afleet Alex lost for the first time in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park, finishing second, and closed out his 2-year-old season finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
This year he has won two of three races. His lone loss was blamed on a lung infection. He rebounded to win the Arkansas Derby with a spectacular eighth-length romp and reaffirm his status as one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby.