- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 11, 2005

ELMONT, N.Y. — Afleet Alex trainer Tim Ritchey has the secret to winning today’s 137th Belmont Stakes as the heavy favorite — relax.

Three straight Triple Crown seekers lost the Belmont amid heavy pressure. Their jockeys moved too soon or their pedigrees were too short to win the “Test of Champions.” Now Afleet Alex comes off his remarkable Preakness Stakes victory to face Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo and nine long shots as the 6-5 choice to become a double crown champion.

But Giacomo’s 50-1 Derby upset has attracted plenty of untested newcomers. Ritchey knows the same pressure that denied immortality the last three years for War Emblem, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones also could beat Afleet Alex.

“Your horse has to relax, and that’s one thing we’ve always tried to work on with this horse — to get him to relax,” Ritchey said. “Funny Cide and Smarty Jones were different types of horses [than Afleet Alex]. They weren’t as tractable and rateable as my horse. I think Funny Cide never really got to relax like he should have, and Smarty Jones certainly didn’t get to relax like he should have to go a mile and a half.”

The Belmont lacks the drama of recent years. In six of the last eight years, Derby and Preakness winners entered vying to become racing’s first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978. The expected crowd of 75,000 at Belmont Park is nearly 50,000 less than last year.

With Giacomo still suspect after his Derby shocker and Afleet Alex the only draw, the Belmont has generated little buzz in the grandstand that was virtually empty yesterday. Trainer John Shirreffs even considered keeping Giacomo in California for the Swaps Stakes. The chance of beating Afleet Alex to become the nation’s dominant 3-year-old colt proved irresistable, but Shirreffs still seemed unenthused over entering.

“The Belmont is an important race,” he said, “but there are plenty of other races left in the year, too.”

Ritchey downplayed the potential duel with Giacomo, partly because the tandem’s radically different styles won’t have them running together until possibly the stretch. Afleet Alex should stay near the leaders, and Giacomo probably will be near last on the final turn before rallying.

If Giacomo doesn’t deliver his late run, Afleet Alex could win easily. However, Ritchey fears another upset after watching Smarty Jones get run down in the stretch last year.

“It’s more than Giacomo versus Afleet Alex,” Ritchey said. “They’ll probably be first and second betting choices, but there will be some fresh horses in there, too. Anytime you have a fresh horse that hasn’t gone through the rigors of five demanding races like my horse and Giacomo have had, you have to be concerned.”

Handicappers looking for a big payoff must search deep into the field to find another plausible winner. The nine remaining entrants are a combined 16 of 43 with two modest stakes victories.

“Alex and Giacomo look tremendous on paper,” said trainer Nick Zito, who enters three colts after beating Smarty Jones last year with Birdstone, “but the Belmont is a mile and a half, and that’s why the Triple Crown is so hard.”

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