ELMONT, N.Y. - But for one agonizing length, Afleet Alex would have won the Triple Crown.
The powerful colt with the people's backing charged to a seven-length victory in the $1 million Belmont Stakes yesterday at Belmont Park. Andromeda's Hero finished second, and maiden Nolan's Cat rallied from last for third.
Three weeks earlier, Afleet Alex won the Preakness. Two weeks before that, he finished third in a roughly run Kentucky Derby - one length short of the winner as well as immortality.
Only 11 horses have swept the three races, known collectively as the Triple Crown. Afleet Alex could become one of the best horses not to sweep the coveted and elusive series.
"Obviously, he's the best 3-year-old in the country," said Jeremy Rose, 26, his jockey who lives in Elkton. "He should have won the Derby. I feel responsible for that."
Rose said that in the Derby he should have switched to his left hand when whipping Afleet Alex in deep stretch. Rose's right-handed whipping caused the colt to veer toward the rail, the deepest part of the track. He finished a length behind Giacomo and a half-length behind Closing Argument.
"It might have cost me second," Rose said. "It may have cost me the win."
Rose offered that self-criticism in the post-race interview room, a jubilant place temporarily silenced by his thoughts of what might have been. Tim Ritchey, Afleet Alex's trainer, who also lives in Elkton, quickly restored the mood.
"You can't look back," Ritchey said. "It wasn't meant to be. If somebody had told us in March we were going to win two legs of the Triple Crown, we'd have been ecstatic."
Concluded Chuck Zacney, managing partner of the five-member syndicate that owns Afleet Alex: "Two out of three ain't bad."
Afleet Alex entered the Belmont on the heels of an amazing performance in the Preakness. After tripping over Scrappy T, who swerved in front of him on the far turn at Pimlico, Afleet Alex nearly fell, remarkably recovered, regained his momentum and churned to a 4 3/4 -length win.
Dubbed the "miraculous recovery" by Ritchey, that performance endeared Afleet Alex to even more people. Already, the colt had a large following mainly because of his association with a charity for childhood cancer research.
The support poured in for Afleet Alex in the Belmont. Despite the presence of Giacomo, the Derby winner, Afleet Alex broke from Post 9 as the even-money favorite. He quickly relaxed and settled in eighth in the 11-horse field, as Pinpoint loped along in the lead.
Ritchey and Rose had stressed the need to wait - and wait some more - in the 1 1/2 -mile race around Belmont's long, sweeping turns. Around the far turn, Afleet Alex started passing horses, not because he was speeding up, but because they were slowing down.
He darted between a fading Pinpoint and a steady Andromeda's Hero. Then he zipped between Watchmon and Indy Storm. Rose steered Afleet Alex to the outside next to Giacomo, who had seized the lead.
With the same dynamic move that he'd made in the Preakness - but with no Scrappy T in his path - Afleet Alex swept past Giacomo and into the clear. With a quarter mile to go, the eyes of the 62,274 in attendance focused on the horse galloping away from the field, or, as Ritchey said, firing like a freight train.
Rose smacked him right-handed with his whip five times. Then he looked under his right arm. No one was close. Rose raised his right hand in celebration, smacked Afleet Alex once more and crossed the wire in 2 minutes, 28.75 seconds.
Afleet Alex ran the final quarter mile in 24.5 seconds, the fastest final quarter in the Belmont since Arts and Letters in 1969 - and even faster than Secretariat's 25 seconds in 1973.
"He just pretty much ran away from the field," Rose said. "And that was it."
Afleet Alex paid $4.30 to win. The exacta with Andromeda's Hero (11-1) second returned $44. The trifecta with Nolan's Cat (20-1) third paid $1,249. And the superfecta with Indy Storm (17-1) fourth paid $14,219.
For Nick Zito, who trains Andromeda's Hero as well as Indy Storm, this was his sixth second-place Belmont finish. Zito won his first Belmont last year with Birdstone.
This was Zito's best performance in this year's Triple Crown series. He saddled five in the Kentucky Derby, three in the Preakness and three in the Belmont - the third was Pinpoint, who finished last. Zito tied a trainers' record in each race for most starters.
Giacomo, winner of the Derby and third in the Preakness, faded to seventh as the 5-1 second choice. Mike Smith, his jockey, said the gray colt had trouble breathing from the start. Smith said Giacomo suffered a somewhat common throat obstruction known as a flipped palate.
"You could hear it," Smith said. "He made a roaring noise. I heard it into the gate, and it got louder during the race."
Ritchey praised Rose's ride and Afleet Alex's heart, but he also spoke of the Afleet Alex team's association with Alex's Lemonade Stand. Started by a 4-year-old girl with cancer, the fund-raiser for cancer research grew into a national charity. Yesterday, Alex's Lemonade Stands dispensed cups of lemonade for donations at nearly 40 racetracks and about 1,000 other locations.
A horse has won two of the three Triple Crown races - the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont - every year since 1994 except for 1996 and 2000:
Yr. Horse Races won '94 Tabasco Cat Preak., Belm.
'95 Thunder Gulch Derby, Belm.
'97 Silver Charm Derby, Preak.
'98 Real Quiet Derby, Preak.
'99 Charismatic Derby, Preak.
'01 Point Given Preak., Belm.
'02 War Emblem Derby, Preak.
'03 Funny Cide Derby, Preak.
'04 Smarty Jones Derby, Preak.
'05 Afleet Alex Preak., Belm.