The rubber match turned out to be nothing but a mismatch.
Displaying the same explosive burst of speed he showed three weeks ago in the Preakness Stakes, Afleet Alex angled off the rail on the far turn and blew past Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo with astonishing ease, galloping down the stretch to win the 137th Belmont Stakes by seven lengths.
Unlike the Preakness, however, in which Afleet Alex avoided a catastrophic fall after colliding with Scrappy T, there was no added drama, just a victory realized with numbing authority.
The colt, who has now won stakes races from six furlongs to 11/2 miles, showed that neither added distance nor a demanding racing schedule could wear him down. The final time of 2 minutes 28.75 seconds for the 11/2-mile Belmont was nothing special, but Afleet Alex ripped through the final quarter-mile in a blazing 24.50 seconds -- the fastest final Belmont quarter since 1969, faster even than Secretariat.
With definitive victories in the final two legs of racing's Triple Crown, Afleet Alex's one-length loss in Kentucky on May 7 suddenly looms terribly large as he is added to a steadily growing list of 3-year-olds who came tantalizingly close to joining the 11 immortal winners of the series.
Although exultant in the immediate moments after the victory, jockey Jeremy Rose couldn't help but reflect on what might have been had Afleet Alex held on in the deep stretch of Churchill Downs to beat Giacomo and Closing Argument.
"He should be a Triple Crown winner," Rose said. "I messed up or whatever. The only reason I say he should be the Triple Crown winner is he's the best horse, the best 3-year-old in the country, and he didn't get it done. I've got to blame someone and it might as well be me."
Tim Ritchey, however, was more forgiving.
"If somebody told us in the beginning of March we were going to win two legs of the Triple Crown, we would have been ecstatic," said the trainer, who lives in Elkton, Md.
Besides Afleet Alex and Giacomo, the field assembled for the Belmont had accomplished little. The crowd of 62,274 -- nearly half the record 120,139 that showed up last year to watch Smarty Jones lose to Birdstone -- made Afleet Alex an even-money favorite, with Giacomo, who finished seventh, second choice at 5-1. No other horse was under 10-1 and none higher than 20-1, reflecting the inscrutability of the bunch.
Front-runners had performed well throughout the day on the Belmont dirt course, but Ritchey gave Rose explicit instructions not to contest the pace.
"All I said was be patient, be patient, be patient," Ritchey said. "And he did, and when he asked him, he just exploded."
When the gate opened, Nick Zito's Pinpoint, who won the Sir Barton on the Preakness undercard, went to the front and ran through an easy opening quarter-mile in 24.47 seconds and a half in 48.62. Rose placed Afleet Alex along the rail in ninth place, while Giacomo loomed close up in fifth.
As the tightly bunched field reached the far turn, Giacomo, under jockey Mike Smith, moved to the lead outside of the fading A.P. Arrow and Southern Africa. At that moment, Rose, who had waited as long as he could, eased off the rail and began to thread his way between horses. Suddenly, the steady advance turned into an electrifying surge as Rose asked Afleet Alex for speed. He swiftly passed Giacomo and there were no more horses left to go by.
Andromeda's Hero, who skipped the Preakness after finishing eighth in the Derby, rallied from 10th to second, but he never threatened the winner. Nolan's Cat, who has never won a race, finished third.
Afterward, Smith said Giacomo had "flipped his palate" in his throat, restricting his breathing. "Down the homestretch, I could hear him make a loud, roaring noise," the jockey said. "I knew he had done it. So, I got him to the outside and dropped his head. A lot of times that will help get it back. But he never did."
Even with the excuse, Afleet Alex appears to be far better than Giacomo. Still, Rose, at the postrace news conference, couldn't get the loss in Kentucky out of his head.
"Knock me, but don't knock him," the rider said. "He's one of the best we'll see in a long time."
Racing Notes: Lost in the Fog, the brilliant 3-year-old speedster who bypassed the Triple Crown to concentrate on lucrative sprint races, ran his record to a perfect 7 for 7, winning the Grade II $200,000 Riva Ridge Breeders' Cup on the Belmont undercard.
Repelling challenges from Going Wild, Middle Earth and, finally, Egg Head, Lost in the Fog ran seven furlongs in a swift 1:21.54 under jockey Edgar Prado.
"They softened him up a little bit," said trainer Greg Gilchrist, "but believe me, their tongues were hanging out trying to catch him."