Fans know their crowd noises: the guttural groan after a vicious football hit, the communal sigh when a putt lips out, the crescendo as a home run leaves the park. They are part of the soundtrack of sports.
On the afternoon of May 21 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, a record Preakness crowd of 115,318 made a less common sound: a gasp. At the top of the stretch, favored Afleet Alex clipped heels with 13-1 long shot Scrappy T and stumbled, his nose nearly touching the loamy earth as jockey Jeremy Rose clung to the horse's black mane. In the time required for stunned spectators to process the prospect of serious injury or a death on the track, Alex bounded back into a full stride, gobbled up Scrappy T and roared to a 4 3/4-length victory.
Sentimental fans and bloodless railbirds alike would call it one of the most remarkable performances in racing history, testimony to the athleticism of both the horse and his jockey.
Perhaps it was even more. Afleet Alex, who two weeks earlier had lost the Kentucky Derby to Giacomo in the final strides, ran for more than the five owners who had bought him for a paltry $75,000. He ran for his 60-year-old breeder, former Royal Air Force pilot John Silvertand, who received a diagnosis of colon cancer and told he had three months to live when Alex was just a baby. "Planning ahead is a big part of not giving up," Silvertand said last spring while following Alex around the country. "Alex has given me something to plan for."
He ran for Alex Scott, a girl from Wynnewood, Pa., who battled neuroblastoma for most of her eight years before dying in August 2004. She left behind the beginnings of Alex's Lemonade Stand, which she started on her front lawn when she was four, promising to use her profits to fight pediatric cancer. Afleet Alex's owners donated a portion of their earnings to Alex's cause, and lemonade stands were set up at racetracks, helping the Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation raise $3.5 million in 2005, up from $1.4 million the previous year.
Afleet Alex went on to win the Belmont Stakes by seven lengths, becoming the fifth consecutive horse to win two Triple Crown races. He did not run again, forced into a December retirement by a degenerative bone condition that his trainer, Tim Ritchey, said was probably related to his Preakness mishap with Scrappy T.
The story of Afleet Alex's recovery that day will outlive all who saw it, finding a place in racing lore. So, too, will Rose's explanation. "It was little Alex," he said, "reaching down and keeping me on."
BOXING A Perfect 10
There is no better platform for heroics than boxing, which is why the sport persists so stubbornly. But in most fights this year, bravado was a no-show. The heavyweights were a lackluster lot, and even the marquee middleweights disappointed their fans. The standbys ( Roy Jones Jr., Bernard Hopkins, F�lix Trinidad) all got old and beaten. Not even Oscar De La Hoya, as reliable a draw as there is, could rouse himself to flash his shiny teeth. Yet with one fight--one round, really--boxing served up a reminder of just how exciting the sport can be.
It was the first go-round between lightweight champion Jose Luis Castillo and Diego Corrales, a good matchup but not a fight that was going to draw national attention. The attraction rested largely on the boxers' heritage; promoters have discovered that, in the absence of Olympic stars or menacing heavyweights, the only surefire bets these days are Latin fighters, who have enough appeal in the Southwest and some urban areas to make pay-per-view worthwhile. The sport has been trending toward niche markets for some time, and this was merely another example.