I saw an article recently about how Alex’s Lemonade Stand continues to be incredibly successful, ten years after the organization’s mission reached national news and major exposure when Afleet Alex was beginning his romp through 2/3 of the Triple Crown races. Probably quite a few people still remember Afleet Alex’s career well. It wasn’t that long ago, and the way he nearly went to his knees in the Preakness and still recovered, and even more amazingly, went on to win… well that’s almost become part of horse racing lore, the improbable become probable, and it has lingered in people’s memories, even if they just saw it on TV, as I did.
Afleet Alex is a horse that grabbed my imagination from the time I first heard his story. I remember the buzz that circulated around him leading up to the Derby. And why not? His story almost was one of improbability from the beginning, even before he grabbed victory out near-catastrophe in the Preakness. It was inspirational to hear how Afleet Alex came to mean so much to his breeder, stricken with cancer, and how the colt initially had to be bottle-fed, but hung in there and even thrived, going on to become a stellar racehorse. He may never be considered one of the all-time greats, but he’s still cemented his place in racing history and memory for his career, if only for the moment he rallied to win the Preakness. He has heart and determination, and that is more than enough to endear him to people.
This post, obviously, is a bit of a walk down memory lane. The article about Alex’s Lemonade Stand and its affiliation with Afleet Alex brought it all back.
That summer and spring of 2005 did seem like a golden summer to me, because of Afleet Alex. I had all the hope in the world that he’d live up to his promise. He was already an inspiration just because of he overcame a bit of a rocky start as a foal, and how he’d already made a difference to his breeder, given him hope as he battled cancer. That was such a common theme running through Alex’s career and life, that of giving people hope. I love the quote that says something along the lines of a racehorse being able to take hundreds of people for a ride at one time. Alex did that and more.
I still remember the broadcast piece taped for the Derby that followed Alex in morning training, and talked about his journeyman jockey, embarking on a grand journey to seek Derby glory. He had a trainer that had never been in the spotlight much, and the “journeyman jockey” had been won the Eclipse Award for outstanding apprentice jockey, but he had yet to ride in a Kentucky Derby. I was hooked on this colt and there was no one else in that field that even came close to dividing my loyalty, my emphatic desire to root him on. Of course, we all know master jockey Mike Smith coaxed Giacomo to victory, leaving Afleet Alex third. It was a credible finish to be sure, but Alex was far from done with the classic series for his age group.
Afleet Alex’s owners apparently happened to have several children among them named or nicknamed Alex, and according to this article I just read, his connections had been quietly making donations to Alex’s Lemonade Stand. This lemonade stand literally started as small as could be, and just as the name suggests, as a lemonade stand in a family’s yard. But its mission was grander than its modest beginnings. The young girl who started the lemonade stand, Alex Scott, had been diagnosed with cancer at a very young age, and she began her lemonade stand to raise money for cancer research. The colt who had a slightly rough start in life had gained a known link with the young girl who also had her own challenges, more serious challenges, to face beginning early in her life.
While the donations from Alex’s connections had been given anonymously, as this article stated, once the benefactor was revealed, Afleet Alex’s earnings were used to contribute to Alex’s Lemonade Stand, and lemonade stands were set up at the Preakness and Belmont to further collect donations. Sadly, Alex Scott had lost her battle with cancer by then, but it was still inspirational to hear how Alex’s connections reached out even more to the organization and their equine Alex went out that first afternoon the lemonade stands appeared at tracks and earned his own significant paycheck to add to the lemonade stand fund. He didn’t win the Preakness just for himself and just for his connections, although naturally winning a classic meant the world to them on its own merits. I was moved to hear of the help extended to Alex’s Lemonade Stand and of course to see my favored colt win, especially against those odds that stacked against him when he nearly fell. Afleet Alex now was an inspiration throughout the racing world, not just to his breeder. At that time, I was more grateful he had escaped a serious mishap and astounded he still won the Preakness to consider it vindication for his Derby loss.
That vindication seemed to come in the Belmont, when he romped home much the best, winning by seven lengths. He proved that day the best horse isn’t always the one who finished first in the Derby. I suppose a great horse can win against most odds, but when speaking of a good horse, many good horses have been shown to be unable to escape the cavalry charge of horses in the Kentucky Derby and find a clear path to win. I still think Afleet Alex was the best of his crop that year.
Even with several graded stakes wins under his belt, it still felt like Afleet Alex was just starting to hit his best stride after that dominant performance in the Belmont Stakes. While he had escaped major disaster in the Preakness, unfortunately he did not come out of the race unscathed. He had several issues with leg problems and bruising later in 2005. The bruising was believed to be a direct result of the mishap in the Preakness, and he was retired to Gainesway Farm to take up stud duties.
One of my favorite images of Afleet Alex was of him reaching over a fence, held by his groom, to take a peppermint from his jockey Jeremy Rose. He and Rose seemed to have an affinity for one another, on track and off, but what that image showed me more was that Afleet Alex seemed to have a kind nature and be very people-oriented. Any horse, I suppose, could appear that way when being offered a peppermint. Yet considering this photo was taken by Barbara Livingston, whom I consider a master at capturing the true essence of a horse’s personality – which she herself has described as her aim in taking photos – I definitely think the sweet nature of Alex was shining through in that photo.
When I finally got to meet Afleet Alex face to face at Gainesway, I found that to be very true. He is an incredibly good-natured, people-oriented stallion, and one I love to visit. Once I realized first-hand that he has such a good temperament, I hoped he’d stay in Kentucky (somewhat selfishly) so I could keep visiting him. So far, so good. Unlike many stallions that are rushed off to other countries or states, sometimes before it seems they’ve been given a reasonable interval of time to prove if they can establish themselves as good sires or not, Afleet Alex has lived at Gainesway since he retired. Gainesway is not a farm that welcomes visitors on a regular basis like some will, or even has had routine open houses when most farms do, but I’ve visited him every time they let visitors stop by.
Even before he retired, and I knew first-hand what a sweet horse he is, he made another mark on my life. I adopted a sweet little kitten from the animal shelter in the early fall of 2005, and it seemed natural his name would be Alex, though I spelled it Alix. It was my own homage to the horse that had been such an inspiration to me and so many others, and the best part is the feline Alix was every bit as sweet as his equine namesake. He was probably the sweetest cat I’ve ever known, and in those early days of us getting to know one another, a deep bond grew. He was intelligent too, so intelligent that somehow – I no longer remember how it started – we played hide and seek; I would hide, and he would find me. I’ve never had a cat do that before, and I think it’s a pretty abstract concept for a cat to grasp.
I’ve kept tabs on Afleet Alex since then, in between visits. It wasn’t entirely for selfish reasons I wanted his stud career to be a success, so he would stay in Kentucky where I could easily visit him. I wanted him to do well on his own merits, to keep the promise going that he showed on the track. The odds of any stallion making a big splash are slim, but there’s always hope. That’s what keeps people in the game, and Alex had provided hope at so many stages of his life. I had hope for this stage of his life because he had won the Belmont, and if he passed on that stamina, I felt like that would be an excellent contribution to make to the breed.
He came to be described as a “useful” stallion a few years into his career. It was not the most stellar praise, but “useful” can mean providing a return on the investment of the stud fee, even if it’s not done by winning huge races and having multitudes of stakes winners. So that encouraged me a bit that he’d stay here in Kentucky. I can’t even fully explain why it meant so much to me that he stay here, but I just really wanted him to. It was more than wanting to visit him; I guess I just felt he was a horse I’d like to see have success in each stage of his life.
I began tracking his runners from the time they first showed up at sales early in his stud career and of course when they began running. One thing I noticed about a lot of them was they looked quite similar to Afleet Alex and many of them seemed to have his good-natured, calm temperament. Michael Hernon, the director of sales at Gainesway, commented on that as well when interviewed for the Blood Horse about Afleet Alex several years ago.
The first of his progeny that really stood out to me at the auctions was a chestnut colt in one of Keeneland’s September yearling sales. His consignors told me he’d be a Derby horse. I had never heard a consignor make a prediction that optimistic before, and whether that would play out that way or not, I was intrigued enough to follow that colt and see if that prediction held true. The colt went on to be named Dublin and won the Grade 1 Three Chimneys Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga at the age of 2, in his third start and his first try against graded-stakes company. The Derby horse prediction was accurate, after all, when he entered the gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. He finished 7th, and raced a few more times before calling it a career. Still, I remember him well just for that prediction I heard the day I saw him at Keeneland as a yearling. I no longer remember if he was Afleet Alex’s first big runner, but Dublin was indicative of the flashes of brilliance that Afleet Alex was capable of siring now and then.
It was encouraging to me also when Afleet Alex had a Breeders’ Cup Marathon winner in Afleet Again. That race was never quite accorded the same status as the well-established Breeders’ Cup races that had been in place since the Breeders’ Cup was a one-day event, but I liked to see the infusion of stamina Afleet Alex no doubt gave Afleet Again, which Afleet Alex had displayed in his Belmont Stakes romp. It was another major milestone for him when he sired Afleet Express who won the incredibly historic and significant Travers Stakes, and now stands at Gainesway alongside his sire.
What’s incredible now, for those who follow and are somewhat enamored with Afleet Alex as I am, is what a good string of recent successes he had, one that would send any sire’s name filtering into racing headlines. He had Iotapa finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in October last year, starting a run of big horses for him. While she didn’t win the race, I was impressed by her determination. Even when she couldn’t match the top two finishers, she never appeared to throw in the towel. Heart. Afleet Alex clearly had it when he picked himself up and went on to win the Preakness, and Iotapa showed me she inherited that too.
She was sold at auction just a few days after her run in the Distaff, and that is when I saw her in person for the first time. She had a definite presence and classiness about her, and that was reflected in her eventual purchase price of $2.8 million.
It was even more thrilling that in that same Breeders’ Cup, Afleet Alex-sired Texas Red won the Juvenile. I had not heard of this colt before that, but just given that he was sired by Alex made it exciting for me. Subsequently, Texas Red began his journey on the Kentucky Derby trail. Unfortunately, that was derailed by a foot abscess, but given enough time off, he should still be a contender in 3-year-old races further down the road.
Meanwhile, Afleet Alex had another colt – Materiality – enter the picture for Derby contention. While lightly raced, this colt is so far undefeated and just won the Florida Derby in late March. Materiality has a lot of stand-out horses to compete against should he enter the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby, but he has been ranked 7th on Steve Haskin’s most recent Derby Dozen list, and he described him as having “unlimited potential.” That doesn’t always play out but I am just so pleased to see Afleet Alex lately keep having some big hitters at the races for him.
Finally, this article about Alex’s Lemonade Stand that set me reminiscing about Afleet Alex’s career and the lives he’s impacted so positively was one I read on Monday of this week. Not to dwell on this, but in some previous posts I spoke of losing the cat I named after Afleet Alex on a Monday. Mondays do have me reflect upon his life and loss, which had been only six weeks ago this past Monday after I had him for nine years. Takes a while to fully grasp that loss. But in positive terms, it can be a day to honor his life too. And just as I greatly appreciate Afleet Alex and have been drawn to his kind nature, my cat drew people in with his incredibly sweet demeanor. It turned out to be so fitting indeed that I gave him the name of a racehorse I greatly admire and appreciate, and he turned out to be such a great cat to know, one who made a positive impact on my life as well. So I was glad to see this article about the equine Alex on a Monday. It made me reflect on the happiness watching him run and watching his progeny excel brings to me, as well as the joy my Alix brought to my life. I like how all those threads intertwine, and that I too have been able to make the acquaintance of the equine Alex, who helped launched so many dreams for people, from his own classic victories to the Lemonade Stand donations to his Breeders’ Cup winners, and now with another horse on the Derby trail, I see his potential to help dreams be realized starting all over again.