Conditioner Tim Ritchey, who will turn 60-years-old on Preakness Day this May, began riding horses as a 3-year-old on his uncle’s farm near Pittsburgh and went on to spend some time riding steeplechase races before he started training Thoroughbreds in 1974.
What followed was more than two decades as a kind of road warrior, putting more than 60,000 miles a year on his car as he traveled to and from the various day and night tracks of the Mid-Atlantic circuit, spotting his horses at all of them in search of relatively minor purses before he picked up the pace significantly by becoming Delaware Park’s leading trainer five times in the ’90s with a sixth title at the First State oval in 2001.
And then along came Afleet Alex. Ritchey won his first Grade I race with Afleet Alex by saddling him to win Saratoga’s prestigious Hopeful Stakes in the summer of 2004 and came back the following spring to capture the Preakness and Belmont Stakes with that same life-changing charge.
“Afleet Alex was very good to me from the time I bought him,” said Ritchey Tuesday, speaking over the phone from Oaklawn Park, “and he’s still being very good to me.”
That fact would be most prominently exemplified lately by Elite Alex, a son of Afleet Alex owned by Elite Alex LLC who will travel from Hot Springs, Arkansas, to New Orleans this week to run in Saturday’s $1 million Louisiana Derby, centerpiece event of the Fair Grounds racing season for 98 years and a contest which will become the richest Thoroughbred race ever run in New Orleans with this weekend’s renewal.
“(Elite Alex) only ran once as a 2-year-old,” Ritchey said. “Because he was such a big, long-striding colt, we had to give him more time to develop, and now he’ll probably need between $250,000 to $300,000 graded stakes earnings to make the field for the Kentucky Derby. With Afleet Alex, we already had all the graded stakes earnings we needed.
“That’s one of the reasons we decided at the last minute to come to the Louisiana Derby – because of the new million-dollar purse, but another reason was because of that long stretch run at Fair Grounds. That suits his running style. Elite Alex is different from Afleet Alex because he’s a lot bigger and he doesn’t have that quick sprint that Afleet Alex had, but he does have a high cruising speed and he’ll keep coming at you. With that longer run to the turn in the Louisiana Derby, and that longer stretch run there, it gives you more time to make up for any mistakes (like traffic problems from tiring speed horses in front of him).
“Some of those other horses in the Louisiana Derby are speed horses whose trainers are probably hoping that they can get out there in front with an easy lead and use their early cruising speed to keep going,” said Ritchey, “but the new longer distance of the Louisiana Derby should help my horse. A mile and an eighth should help separate the pretenders from the contenders.”
Elite Alex was entered in last Saturday’s Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, but drew an outside post which would have compromised his chances and was scratched after entry time in favor of the Louisiana Derby.
“The Louisiana Derby was always an option,” said Ritchey, “and I had talked to Calvin (Borel, Elite Alex’s jockey) about this other idea for some time. My horse was ready to run last week and he’s still ready to run.”
Interestingly, Borel, who was born in Catahoula, Louisiana in the heart of Cajun Country, has won three of the last four Kentucky Derbys but has never won a Louisiana Derby