Sports views

If only the horse could talk

Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2005

For the 27th straight year, thoroughbred racing will have to make do without a Triple Crown winner.

But look at the photo accompanying this story, and tune into the Belmont Stakes three weeks from now, anyway. Afleet Alex deserves that much. At the deepest point of his stumble, knees scraping the racetrack at the top of the stretch, the colt's nose is so close to disaster he could stick out his tongue and lap up a mouthful.

The picture may be worth a thousand words and more, but good luck prying even one out of a horse. That's why you won't be seeing Afleet Alex slide into the guest chair alongside David Letterman, Jon Stewart or anybody else on the demographically hip, late-night TV circuit whose audience racing so desperately covets.

Instead, it fell to his jockey, Jeremy Rose, to try and capture what happened a day earlier at the Preakness, the second gem in thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown.

''Four to 6 inches at 40 miles per hour,'' Rose marveled Sunday, ''and that's way too close for comfort.''

At such moments are legends made. So go ahead, name another athlete who gathered himself up from such a precarious position and went on to win the big one.

Kirk Gibson hobbling around the bases after that homer in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series? He didn't have to swing from his knees.

Willis Reed dragging a bum leg into the center circle for the jump ball against Wilt Chamberlain in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals? All he really contributed by the end was inspiration and a few minutes on the court.

But Tim Ritchey, who trains Afleet Alex and so loves the Pittsburgh Steelers that he sometimes wears one of their gray T-shirts under his suit and tie in the grandstand, came up with another name: Franco Harris, whose shoestring catch in a fateful 1972 playoff game against Oakland became one of sports iconic moments.

''The Steelers had the Immaculate Reception,'' Ritchey added. ''What do you call this? The Immaculate Recovery?''

Racing, though, already has one of those. It was provided by Alysheba, another four-legged athlete who 18 years earlier rebounded similarly from near-calamity and won the Kentucky Derby.

If Afleet Alex had won the Derby two weeks ago instead of finishing third, and then pulled off the ''Immaculate Recovery,'' there's no telling how big a story he would have been heading into the Belmont. Instead, the sport he represents with so much fire and grit will likely continue struggling for attention.

''That horse definitely caught the imagination of the public. It's all I heard people talking about,'' Ed Seigenfeld, executive vice president of Triple Crown Productions, said Sunday. ''But in terms of an audience, the fact is he won't do nearly as well without the possibility of winning all three on the line.''

There is an established TV ratings relationship about the Triple Crown: The audience for the Derby, in recent years, about eight million viewers, drops significantly by the time the Preakness is run. And barring a Preakness victory by the Derby winner, it drops again, and even more significantly, by the time the Belmont rolls around.

There hasn't been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, although horses have arrived in New York with a chance to grab one in six of the previous eight years. Those possibilities, along with a $5 million bonus offered by Triple Crown sponsor Visa to a single winner, have helped stem the audience slide. So have the remarkable back stories behind horses such as Smarty Jones last year, and Funny Cide the year before.

Afleet Alex has an equally compelling tale. His connections used the colt's Triple Crown campaign to publicize the story of 8-year-old cancer victim Alexandra Scott, and they've made generous donations to the charity established in her name. There's some of the same blue-collar, small-time-racetrack element in his origins that made Smarty Jones and Funny Cide seem like the people's champions.

''Do you want just the rich guys to win all the time?'' said Nick Zito, a two-time Derby winner who trains for the monied class. ''You don't want that. So this is beautiful, beautiful.''

Right now, though, Afleet Alex's victory is in danger of being quickly pushed into the background of a very crowded sporting landscape.

Few people may have remembered that Giacomo, the 50-1 long shot that won the Derby, finished third in the Preakness. And that if Afleet Alex had fallen and second-place finisher Scrappy T, who caused the problem at the top of the stretch, had been disqualified, Giacomo would be making a Triple Crown bid of his own.

And racing needs every bump it can get. Visa is in the last year of offering its Triple Crown bonus and the sport needs to persuade another sponsor to sign on.

''I think we have a nice little story building,'' Seigenfeld said.

But it would be a much bigger one if only Afleet Alex could talk about it.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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