There were plenty of flashbacks as trainer Tim Ritchey watched Afleet Alex win the 130th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course yesterday.
Ritchey was reminded of his years as a steeplechase rider who was talented enough to nearly make the 1972 U.S. Olympic Equestrian team. Those memories came back when Afleet Alex clipped heels with Scrappy T and Ritchey saw his horse and jockey, Jeremy Rose, start going down.
"Unfortunately, most of the horses I rode went down like that," Ritchey said, half-joking, at the post-race news conference last night. "They're going faster than they are over fences. Jeremy, Alex and somebody else up there was with us."
Ritchey was reminded of last year, when his longtime friend and fellow journeyman trainer, John Servis, found even greater glory in Smarty Jones' wins at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness that ended with a failed bid for the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes.
"We both learned our trade at the smaller racetracks, with nickel-and-dime purses, and having to feed our families," said Ritchey, who had one previous horse in a Triple Crown race, Marciano, a seventh-place finisher at the 2001 Preakness. "John learned his lessons well, and thank God I got here as well."
And Ritchey was reminded of all the horses over his 31 years as a trainer, going back to the early 1970s, when a $1,200 claimer named Perfect Sleeper that Ritchey bought for $250 won a race at a small track in West Virginia. First place was worth $660.
"I thought I was on top of the world," said Ritchey, who also trained at tracks in Pennsylvania and Arkansas before settling at Delaware Park, where he now holds the single-season record for victories (87 in 2001).
Ritchey believes he would still be working in relative obscurity if not for Afleet Alex.
"You put your time in at the small tracks and you finally get an opportunity to find a horse of this ability," said Ritchey, who grew up in Pittsburgh and is now based in Elkton. "Believe me, it's the horse. Horses make trainers, trainers don't make horses. I don't care who tells you what. He's the star, and I was just fortunate to come across this horse."
Chuck Zacney, one of Afleet Alex's five owners, begged to differ.
"It all came together when we chose Tim as a trainer," Zacney said last night.
Ritchey, who has been the leading trainer at Delaware Park in five different years, admitted that winning the Preakness at this stage of his career was more satisfying than it might have been a few years ago.
"It's a little sweeter, the fact that it took me 30 years to get here," Ritchey said. "I've done it through a lot of cheap races and cheaper horses and a lot of hard times."
Ritchey knows his life will change, as Servis' did last year.
Asked about going to Timonium for this week's horse sales tomorrow and Tuesday, Ritchey understands that he might be something of a celebrity.
"I'm going to have to wear a mustache and a big hat," he said.