- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2005

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Afleet Alex took his first drink as a newborn from a beer bottle. He races to benefit cancer research. He is jointly owned by the operator of a pizzeria, a stay-at-home dad, a health care director and two men who run a company that sends out doctors’ bills.

It’s not a bio typical of the entrants in tomorrow’s 131st Kentucky Derby, but little about Afleet Alex is standard.

He gets reams of fan mail. A Web site, afleetalex.com, sells merchandise dedicated to him. A couple promised to name their first child Alex in his honor, regardless of the baby’s sex. A fan named her cat after him. Steps from his stall, a member of his almost 150-person entourage sells T-shirts bearing the colt’s image.

The mere presence of Afleet Alex at Churchill Downs — much less all the attention he has received — is a big surprise to his owners.

“If you told me [last year], I would have had a horse going to the Kentucky Derby next year, I’d say you’re insane,” co-owner Joe Lerro said. “Not in this lifetime. Not in 10 or 20 lifetimes.”

One lifetime — and one horse — turns out to have been enough for Mr. Lerro and his four partners in the Cash is King stable, which bought Afleet Alex for $75,000 in 2004 as its first purchase.

It was a spectacular investment. Afleet Alex enters the Derby as the field’s No. 2 choice and its leading money winner. The colt has earned $1,315,800 — nearly 18 times the group’s original investment. Those earnings have funded the expansion of the stable to 14 horses.

But it is Afleet Alex’s connection to cancer research, not his success on the track, that has won him most of his fans.

Near the saddling area at Churchill Downs this weekend will be a stand for Alex’s Lemonade, an organization that raises money for pediatric cancer research. The charity was begun by the family of Alexandra Scott, a Philadelphia girl who died of cancer last year at 8.

Chuck Zacney, the managing partner of Cash is King, made a donation to the charity. Then, after discussing the idea with his partners, he contacted the Scott family to offer Afleet Alex as a means to raise more money for Alex’s Lemonade.

Afleet Alex generates revenue for the charity with every win, place or show in a race. Afleet Alex has won six of his nine starts — including a Mountain Valley Stakes victory on March 5 and a record eight-length victory at the Arkansas Derby on April 16 — producing about $50,000 for Alex’s Lemonade.

That total will rise sharply should Afleet Alex continue his success on the track: The purse for the Derby is $2 million, and there is a $5 million bonus for a horse that wins the Triple Crown (Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes).

“You get an opportunity [to help] like this once in a lifetime,” said Tim Ritchey, Afleet Alex’s trainer. “It’s the right decision.”

A live auction at Churchill Downs earlier this week raised $37,000 for the charity.

Alexandra’s mother, Liz Scott, will be on hand for tomorrow’s race to raise more money in her daughter’s memory. Afleet Alex’s breeder, John Silvertand, himself a cancer patient, and other victims will be on hand as guests of Cash is King.

Afleet Alex had to fight to survive, too.

His mother couldn’t produce milk, and he lived only because Mr. Silvertand’s 9-year-old daughter fed the newborn milk from a sterilized beer bottle until a nursing mare arrived 12 days later.

It’s all been a lot to take in for the Cash is King partners, who revel in the notion that they are just a bunch of regular guys who got very lucky.

They vacation at the Jersey shore and watch Philadelphia Eagles games from the famed 700 club, a section known for rough and rowdy behavior.

Ritchey is such a Pittsburgh Steelers fan that he chose the No. 12 post position for tomorrow’s race for what he considers a good — if not strategically sound — reason: That’s the number worn by former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who won four Super Bowls.

“We’re just everyday people,” Mr. Lerro said. “I want to retire and go golfing and to the racetrack.”

The group will take a limo to the Derby, but they plan to drink beer in the infield before heading to the owner’s box for the race.

Ritchey, 53, carved out a respectable career at small tracks like Penn National, Waterford and Atlantic City before competing successfully at Delaware Park and on the Maryland circuit. He relishes the chance he is getting with Afleet Alex.

“There are a lot of horsemen at these smaller tracks that are just as capable,” Ritchey said. “They just don’t get the opportunity to spend much money on babies. But once in a while you look down the shed row and see a special horse.”

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