Charitable impact is Afleet Alex's biggest payoff

May 16, 2006|By RICK MAESE

In a small Mexican village right now, there are dozens of people walking around wearing T-shirts bearing the name of a horse.

In a small Pennsylvania town, there's a terminally ill man who counts the past year as a blessed gift, afforded to him by a horse.

And that horse? Just 12 months removed from one of the most amazing Preakness wins in the race's 130-year history, Afleet Alex is grazing on some of Kentucky's finest bluegrass, living the life young colts dream about. In just one year's time, we can already say this much: There has been no racehorse in recent memory whose impact and influence have stretched so far, so quickly.

"He transcended sports," says Bob Brittingham, one of the horse's owners. "You don't see too many horses or hear too many stories that reach out and touch people like `Alex.' "

The racing, that was just the start of it. Afleet Alex finished third at the Kentucky Derby but went on to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

No one retired off some newfound riches. Chuck Zacney, another of the owners, is still driving that 1997 Grand Prix with 140,000 miles on it. Tim Ritchey is still training horses, and Jeremy Rose is still riding them. But the horse is still close to many people, and that amazing ride from a year ago is never far from their thoughts.

Certainly John Silvertand won't soon forget. Silvertand is the Florida breeder whose daughter nursed Afleet Alex from a Coors Light bottle. Doctors diagnosed Silvertand with Stage 4 cancer. They told him to prepare for the worst. And then Afleet Alex came along.

"`Alex' was the best chemo drug that guy was on," Brittingham says of his friend.

Now, a year later, Silvertand has moved from Florida to Pennsylvania. He's still undergoing weekly chemotherapy treatments, still grateful for every sunrise he sees, unsure how many are still ahead of him.

"Every time I wake up and see that my name isn't in the obituaries of the morning paper, I know it's going to be a good day," he says.

Cancer was a recurring theme of Afleet Alex's impressive career. Liz Scott will return to Pimlico Race Course this weekend to run a pair of lemonade stands, continuing the work started by her daughter and bolstered by the colt.

Just before her first birthday, Alex Scott was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of childhood cancer. When she was 4, she set up a lemonade stand in her front yard, determined to make sure the nickels and dimes helped fund the fight against the disease that was slowly taking her life.

The small stand grew into a moderately successful charity. But when Alex died in August 2004, Alex's Lemonade Stand lost its voice and faced an uncertain future.

Afleet Alex and his owners latched on, tying the charity to the horse. Last year, Alex's Lemonade Stand brought in more than $4 million.

"I don't even think we can measure the impact Afleet Alex had," says Liz Scott, the young girl's mother.

The organization continues on. Earlier this month, it donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to hospitals across the country, including $170,000 to Johns Hopkins.

It isn't easy to talk about the loss of your daughter every day, but Scott knows there's a cause behind her tears. "The hardest thing for a parent is when you think that people will stop remembering," Scott says.

Ritchey, the horse's trainer, said he's more proud of the money the horse helped raise than he is the victories. "It made me a better person," he says. That doesn't mean Ritchey doesn't take time to appreciate his horse's win. Ritchey also saw as Afleet Alex somehow affected a village 2,500 miles away.

San Juan Palmira, Mexico, is located about two hours from Guadalajara. Ritchey's assistant trainer married a woman from the small village, and in the past few years more than a half dozen relatives have made the trek north to work in Ritchey's barns.

Plenty of money - and more than a couple T-shirts - gets shipped back to Mexico, making Afleet Alex the biggest sports star in a small Mexican town.

Just the other night Ritchey had some friends over for dinner and broke out the Preakness video.

As the gates at Pimlico open, you can see the horses shoot from the chutes and fly around the track. But around the final turn, Scrappy T bumps into Afleet Alex. That's when Ritchey slows the video to super-slow motion. "Watch this," he says. "You've got to see this."

Afleet Alex's knees nearly fold to the ground, his nose comes within a couple inches of the dirt and Rose is clinging to the horse's mane. Somehow, the horse keeps going, tears through the field and wins by 4 3/4 lengths.

"It's the most amazing thing I've scene in any sport," says Zacney, one of the owners.

It isn't easy for everyone to watch. As great as the win was, the owners believe the bump around that final turn triggered a series of problems that led to the horse's retirement in December.

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