Teresa Genaro is a high school English teacher and freelance turf writer whose work has appeared in a variety of turf publications. A former and erstwhile resident of Saratoga Springs, she lives in Brooklyn and writes about New York racing at Brooklyn Backstretch.
We are not, I know, supposed to fall in love with them. But in the summer of 2004, I just couldn’t help it.
On July 29th at Saratoga, I bet a 3-1 shot in the Sanford. I can’t remember why, or what drew me to him, but when Afleet Alex won by more than five lengths, when he “drew away when roused” (that phrase should be trademarked for him), I was smitten.
When I saw him next, his prodigious ability was overshadowed by an appealing immaturity; how cute he was on August 21st, “zigzagging his way through the stretch at Saratoga…”, according to Tom Durkin, and still, somehow finding a way to win and make it look easy.
Afleet Alex is why I paid attention to racing through that fall and early the next spring, the first year I followed racing year-round. His seconds in the Champagne and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, game efforts both, left my infatuation undiminished; I was wistful but hopeful when he went away for the winter, knowing that he’d be back in the spring.
And back he was in March at Oaklawn, winning the Mountain Valley as he’d won his other races, leaving his backers and his fans always a little nervous—can he really come from that far back? Is he waiting too long? Sigh, relief…no, it’s OK, yes, he can do it, and he did.
Disappointment is inevitable and bitter when it comes; my family was visiting on the day of the Rebel, and my father, an equine realist, pooh-poohed my faith in the little horse; there’s no room for sentiment in his racing world. And when Afleet Alex finished sixth that day, under a new jockey who kept him much closer to the pace than usual, my father said matter-of-factly, “So much for your horse.”
No way. It was Johnny V’s fault; he didn’t know how to ride him. He must have been sick; no way he runs that way if he’s OK. Vindication comes within forty-eight hours, when we learn that the colt has a lung infection.
And then the ride begins in earnest, with another win, this one in the Arkansas Derby, by eighth lengths (my father didn’t have a lot to say after that one), and by now, it’s almost not fun to watch the races anymore. “He has to win, he has to win,” goes through the mind. It’s three weeks from the Derby, and I know—I KNOW—that Afleet Alex is the best three-year-old in the country, that he deserves the roses. I am all objectivity.
It is not possible that he loses the Derby, and it makes sense only in light of the improbable horses who finish in front of them. 50-1 and 71-1? Flukes. They’re not better. They’re not.
And on we go to the Preakness, which takes place on the day of my birthday party. A friend and I go to OTB beforehand, and we buy $2 win tickets on every horse in the race as party favors, distributing them at our favorite Brooklyn bar. The bar unfurls the big screen, and we all stop and watch—because it’s my birthday, they’re rooting for my horse, even if they hold a ticket for another runner.
And we gasp at the top of the stretch; in less than a second, somehow my brain processes, “He’s not only going to lose, he’s hurt, he’s probably really hurt,” but before I can turn away, he’s up again, he’s running, really, really fast, gliding, and even more improbably than Giacomo in the Derby, he wins. The party erupts.
And now it’s Belmont day, and for the first time in nearly a year, I get to see him in person. The anticipation is excruciating--underlying everything, “Suppose he loses?”
It’s post time and I can barely watch, barely make myself stand still in that interminable run to the first turn and up the backstretch. “He’s so far back, and the race is so long, and…what if he loses?”
They are coming around the turn, and I can barely let myself hope, but I’m watching those green silks, and I’m waiting for that move, and I think I see it, but I’m too superstitious to acknowledge the thought. My brother is next to me, and he’s the one with the binoculars. The horses come off the turn, and Michael puts the binoculars down. “It’s over,” he says, and he’s right: now they’re running past us, and he is so far in front that as I try to take a picture, the photo comes up empty: Afleet Alex is already too far ahead, and no one behind him is close enough to make it into the frame.
The little colt is wearing the white carnations, a little more than ten months since the first time I saw him run. On June 11th, 2005, at Belmont Park, my crush is requited. He'll be gone after this, but on this afternoon, fidelity is rewarded, the racing gods have made it right, and my life as a racing fan is perfect. As with all good crushes, the agony, at the end, is worth it.