- The Washington Times - Friday, May 20, 2005

BALTIMORE — Tim Ritchey will spend the next few days trying to win not one, but two Preakness Stakes.

The trainer’s horse, Afleet Alex, is the favorite in the 130th running at Pimlico Race Course tomorrow. Two days later, Ritchey will attend the sale of 2-year-olds at nearby Timonium Fairgrounds, where he bought Afleet Alex last year for just $75,000.

?We’re trying to look for another, but I don’t know if lightning will strike twice in the same place,? Ritchey said. ?I thought we were getting a nice, athletic 2-year-old [in Afleet Alex]. He looked like he could go on to be a very nice racehorse, but we certainly didn’t have any hopes of looking there and finding a Derby horse.

?He’s done things as a 2-year-old and 3-year-old that I’ve never seen a horse do.?

Ritchey spent the last 31 years on the small circuits looking for the big horse.

He trained 18 years at Penn National, a track that ranks at racing’s bottom. He finally managed to move up slightly to Delaware Park in 1993 before jumping to the Maryland circuit in 1994. Three years later, he returned to Delaware when slots increased the purses at those tracks four-fold.

Ritchey, 53, has spent so much time at far-flung tracks that he no longer calls himself a Maryland trainer or a Delaware trainer or even a Pennsylvania trainer.

?I’m a Mid-Atlantic trainer,? Ritchey joked.

Now he has a chance to become a national trainer.

Afleet Alex already has carried its owners — a group of middle-class workers who pride themselves on being regular guys — into the normally closed club of Triple Crown contenders.

Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo is owned by Jerry Moss, who founded A&M; Records. The owner of Derby runner-up Closing Argument founded Chelsea House publishing. Noble Causeway’s ownership group started Barnes & Nobles bookstores. The owners of Greeley’s Galaxy founded Public Storage.

In other words, horses aren’t the only bluebloods in the racing business.

Trainers have a pecking order, too. D. Wayne Lukas wears his trademark stetson and Bob Baffert dons designer shades. They are the glamour boys of the Triple Crown, with stables filled with pricey horseflesh.

Ritchey is more like Nick Zito, a Brooklyn kid who didn’t leave the old neighborhood even after two Derby victories. Ritchey prefers to wear his Pittsburgh Steelers T-shirt. He chose No. 12 for his horse in the Derby and Preakness because it was the jersey number of former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, his boyhood hero.

He lives in rural Elkton, Md., rather than in a more upscale zip code near a racetrack.

This is the high life. Ritchey’s name is on the side of his baseball cap. He is a rock star among local comrades.

If only these days could last forever.

?As a trainer, you have to look forward to these challenges,? Ritchey said. ?You want to have horses like this. In your career, until you can win a classic, you can win a lot of races and do a lot of things, but this really is the pinnacle.?

Afleet Alex remains the populist horse of the Triple Crown despite Giacomo’s toteboard-busting 50-1 Derby victory. Pimlico will be the seventh track in six states on which he’s run the past 11 months. He has won in Delaware, New York and Arkansas and just missed victories in Texas and Kentucky, amassing $1.51 million in earnings.

Afleet Alex’s backers extend from the infield mania to the upscale turf club. One of the local trainers has made it, even if Ritchey is seldom in one place long enough to truly call it home.

?I think [Afleet Alex] probably has a little more fan base because he’s been to a lot of different tracks,? Ritchey said. ?He probably has a little broader fan base, maybe not bigger but certainly broader. It was gratifying to see that people at Churchill actually were cheering for our horse.

?It’s a feel-good business. There’s nothing I’d rather do.?

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