The Sunshine Millions kicks off a weekend of competition between the sunniest places in America, California and Florida. Sadly, none of these races are graded, which means you probably won't find the type of competition you would in, say, a normal graded stakes race in California. This is one reason why I won't attempt to handicap these races; that, and I've already caught Derby fever. Forgive me, my immune system is vulnerable to this rampant disease; in fact, it might be fair warning to just assume this column will be full of mostly Derby screeches and false starts until the big preps are finally underway. So until that time comes in April, I give you... an allowance race to look forward to.
This Saturday, race number two at Gulfstream Park may just mark the coming out party of a certain 3-year-old I've had earmarked since December, when, by chance, I caught his maiden race at Aqueduct. You will not find his name on most early Derby contender lists, because he has only raced once. But this colt, more than most in his crop, is packed with plenty of intrigue to keep him in mind when dreaming of roses in May.
Afleet Express is by Afleet Alex, valiant winner of the 2005 Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Not since Alysheba's Derby in 1987 had there been a more harrowing moment in Triple Crown history, with the an outcome nothing short of miraculous—at the top of the stretch in the Preakness, Afleet Alex fell to his knees when the horse in front of him blew the turn and cut into his lane, nearly sending jockey Jeremy Rose out of his saddle; yet somehow, the team managed to pick up their stride and win the classic race by five lengths. And in the Belmont Stakes, Afleet Alex went on to win the 1 ½-mile test by a condescending 7 lengths, leaving the horse racing world to wonder what might've been had the colt a better trip in the Kentucky Derby, where he finished an unlucky third to the longshot, Giacomo. If nothing else, the son of Afleet Alex certainly has the genes to make him something special; but his first time out has shown that Junior might just have a shine of his daddy in him.
On an early December day at Aqueduct, with a track deemed "muddy," the bay colt made his career debut; but an off track was far from this young colt's biggest woes. Afleet Express broke from the third position, and hardly two jumps out of the gate, the colt was checked hard by two other contenders, causing him to rear up and fall back five lengths from the bulk of the field. There he lagged until the middle of the turn, when he began to catch up to the rest of the horses. At the top of the stretch, with jockey John Velazquez working on him already, a victory seemed impossible, as the colt was lugging out and stalling in his bid to catch the leaders. Afleet Express was running greenly, ogling at the other horses with his head up in the air.
But by the time they reached the quarter pole, Afleet Express began to pick off the rest of the horses, and in one sweeping move, found a rhythm with just enough time to blow past them and win by a length and a half. Once the big, leggy colt approached the wire, he seemed to figure out just what was expected of him, and started a nice, fluid stride. Though he has only raced at a distance of six furlongs, his long stride indicates he will take to two turns just like his papa did.
Afleet Express's first start may not have been a show-stopper, but it hints at a well of talent inside this green colt. While the rest of the field broke cleanly and had no real excuses for losing, 'Express had every reason to lose, and ran away with victory when it appeared he had no idea what he was doing. Now, imagine what this same colt could do if he had nobody checking him and had a little more maturity under his belt—if talent is the only thing that got him to a 1 ½-length victory, focus will make his winning margin stretch far beyond his competition. I can only see bright things ahead once Afleet Express gets more experience.
Afleet Express will be running at 6 furlongs again this Saturday in a $48,000 allowance test at Gulfstream. John Velazquez will also be back in the saddle. Though there is a 30% chance of thunderstorms on Saturday, the rain isn't supposed to start until after 3:00pm local time, and so Afleet Express will likely get his first taste of racing on a fast dirt track. He will be facing a field of six others, and may go off as the second-choice favorite to General Maximus. General Maximus has also had only one start to his career, a 4-length win in July at Belmont Park over the dirt; he is returning to the races for the first time after having a bone chip removed from his ankle.
Gulfstream Park is the perfect spot to take in promising new Kentucky Derby prospects. Whether or not Afleet Express shines like a new locomotive in his first start as a 3-year-old, there are plenty of opportunities for him to prove himself, as well as for other 3-year-olds to make their mark on this trail to Kentucky.