`Afleet' retired

Injury to 2005 Preakness, Belmont winner attributed to incident during Pimlico classic


Afleet Alex nearly went down in this year's Preakness, but he recovered from the incident to win the race and then take the Belmont Stakes, too. Even his trainer sounded amazed.

"In the Preakness, his coordination was unbelievable," Tim Ritchey said. "I just couldn't believe he came out of that without any problem."

But new evidence shows Afleet Alex probably didn't emerge unscathed, Ritchey said yesterday, and the popular horse is being retired to stud.

Ritchey said it is his belief - and the educated guess of veterinarians - that an undiagnosed deep bone bruise, suffered when he clipped heels with Scrappy T coming out of the fourth turn at Pimlico Race Course, led to yesterday's announced retirement.

"Seeing what we see now, it was probably a bruise at the back of the cannon bone that developed into this wedge," Ritchey said. "It eventually led to the hairline condylar fracture of the left front cannon bone in July. ... It will take a long time to heal."

The retirement of Afleet Alex leaves Funny Cide, who is expected to compete as a 6-year-old in 2006, as the only active competitor among Preakness winners.

Funny Cide, a gelding, is also the only Triple Crown competitor who won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness since 1997 to compete after his fourth season.

"People describe things as `strong as a horse,'" said Chick Lang, former Pimlico general manager and a racing analyst and historian. "But a horse is really a very delicate animal. You're talking about 1,000 or 1,100 pounds being carried on those thin legs."

Trainer Ron Ellis, who handles Declan's Moon, the 2-year-old star who was an early Kentucky Derby favorite this year before being injured, said: "Almost all of the horses that compete at the classic level don't make it out of their 3-year-old year. Many of them get injured, and the ones who do well are usually good enough to retire to stud."

Afleet Alex won eight times in 12 starts and earned $2,765,800. He missed winning the Triple Crown by a length, finishing third in the Derby. His owners haven't yet determined where Afleet Alex will stand at stud.

The injuries do mount up. By the time Funny Cide reached the end of his 3-year-old season, he was nearly the only Triple Crown competitor still running.

"A horse at that level can burn bright, burn fast, burn out or have a long career," said Leo Nechamkin, whose 5-year-old, Grade II stakes winner Gators N Bears, retired two weeks ago.

"At that [classic] level, each race is very, very tough. You can't have a bad one, and to run any horse back in two or three weeks would knock out about every horse. They're big and they're fragile."

Few horses today follow in the footsteps of such major campaigners as War Admiral, Seabiscuit and Whirlaway.

"You hate to lose horses like Afleet Alex and Smarty Jones [also retired because of injury]," Lang said. "They show the little guy can still do it, and they excite the public. But when a horse wins the classics, breeders get to him real quick."

But to the credit of Cash Is King Stables, the owners had every intention of racing Afleet Alex next year.

"I think too many of these horses are retired too soon," Ritchey said. "But when it comes to injury and health, you have to do what's in his best interest.

"Everyone made a good effort to get him back to racing, but that's not to be. ... He will never be sound enough for us to take back to the racetrack and risk a catastrophic injury.

"The fact is he's moving on to another career," Ritchey said. "It's emotional, because it's a pleasure to see him in my barn. To be around greatness is a special thing . ... I'll look forward to one day having an opportunity to train some of his offspring. And if he passes on just a little bit of his intelligence, easygoing nature and athletic ability, it will be a good thing for the sport."


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