When 3-year-old filly Cathryn Sophia loaded into the gate for last month's Forward Gal Stakes at Gulfstream Park, owner Chuck Zacney could hardly bear to watch.
“I actually closed my eyes prior to the start, and I was just waiting for the call of the race,” he said. When Zacney didn't hear his filly's name for a few moments, his heart sank. “I was like, oh my gosh, what happened at the start?”
Cathryn Sophia broke slowly, and it appeared the filly who had demolished her competition in gate-to-wire fashion her first two races might be in trouble. But Zacney's anxiousness soon faded as Cathryn Sophia made up the ground and sailed home to win by 5 1/2 lengths.
It's easy to understand why Zacney might be on pins and needles. He's been trying for more than a decade to find a racehorse anywhere close to the first one he ever owned.
His name was Afleet Alex.
“Looking back, I realize how lucky we were because 10 years later, it is a difficult game. It's a very tough business,” said Zacney. “We were, to be honest, somewhat spoiled. We weren't in the game long enough to realize all the pitfalls.”
Zacney first got into the sport as a handicapper, and in 2004, having built the successful medical billing company The Sirrus Group, he was ready to try ownership. He brought in some partners and teamed up with trainer Tim Ritchey, who chose their first horse at a 2-year-old in training sale.
“I was actually at the sale that day, got him for $75,000, and as they say the rest is history,” Zacney recalled. The colt was named after the entrepreneur's son Alex and partner Bob Brittingham's daughter Alex.
Like Cathryn Sophia, Afleet Alex crushed his rivals in his first two starts. He then climbed into graded stakes company and won the G2 Sanford and G1 Hopeful at Saratoga before ending his 2-year-old season with a second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The offers came pouring in, and they were big.
“I'm not sure that if that happened today, that maybe we wouldn't sell,” Zacney said. “But we were taking family and friends on a great ride, and that's what it was all about then.”
The following May, Afleet Alex entered the Kentucky Derby starting gates as the 4-1 second choice but fell a length short to 50-1 upsetter Giacomo, finishing third. Afleet Alex went on to prevail in the Preakness, despite famously almost falling to his knees at the top of stretch, and ran off by seven in the Belmont. Remarkably, a length was all that separated Zacney and his Cash is King stable from winning the Triple Crown with their first horse.
“And then after that, we had a little success, and then all of the sudden it got really cold,” Zacney remembered. “We were spending $30,000; we were spending $200,000, and we couldn't find any success.”
Even Afleet Again, a homebred son of Afleet Alex who became Zacney's next graded stakes winner in 2010, was sold before the colt won the Breeders' Cup Marathon the following year for someone else. Despite the cold cards, Zacney stuck with the game in a toned-down fashion, going to sales and breeding a couple mares to Afleet Alex each year. Including the mares and their babies, he currently has about 16 horses, many of them bred in Maryland or Pennsylvania, where he lives.
“I do like the bonus programs there, especially Pennsylvania,” said Zacney. “It's nice to have the PA-bred bonuses. They quickly add up.”
Zacney was looking for a Maryland-bred at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Fall Yearling Sale when he came across a “well balanced” filly by Street Boss out of a Mineshaft mare. Zacney purchased her for $30,000 and called the filly Cathryn Sophia after his niece, Cathryn McCarry, a rising star athlete at Rowan University in New Jersey.
“She plays soccer for the varsity team, and she's only a freshman,” Zacney said. “She's very athletic, scored a couple of winning goals. So I said, let's see what happens.”
The equine Cathryn Sophia fell behind in her early training due to sore shins, and “believe it or not,” she almost started in a $40,000 maiden claimer because trainer John Servis didn't have a good read on her. When she started working lights out a couple weeks before her debut, the connections diverted to a maiden special weight at Parx. She won by nearly 13 lengths.
“Needless to say, we didn't consider claiming after that,” joked Zacney. In her next start, Cathryn Sophia romped by more than 16 lengths in the Gin Talking Stakes at Laurel before stepping up and winning the G2 Forward Gal. Zacney said the filly is likely to stay in Florida for the G2 Davona Dale Feb. 27, then the G2 Gulfstream Park Oaks April 2. If all goes well, the G1 Kentucky Oaks on the first Friday in May could be in her future.
But Zacney's taking it race by race, enjoying the ride after several frustrating years. Despite the “pitfalls” that came along after Afleet Alex, he still loves the game, still gathers a couple dozen friends and family to watch his horses run or visit Saratoga and Delaware Park in the summer. He's happy to chat with fans who fondly remember Afleet Alex's run and his unforgettable triumph in the Preakness.
Even more fulfilling for Zacney and his family is their lasting connection to Alex's Lemonade Stand, the foundation for childhood cancer that bears the name of Alex Scott, a little girl who set up a stand in her front yard to raise money for pediatric cancer research. She died at age 8 in 2004, but thanks to Zacney and his partners' donations on behalf of Afleet Alex and a publicity campaign throughout the Triple Crown races in 2005, Alex's Lemonade Stand reached a new level of awareness. To date, the foundation has raised more than $100 million. Zacney still makes donations and attends events when he can.
“My son and I manned the Alex's Lemonade Stand at the Preakness last year,” said Zacney. “It's still near and dear to my heart.”
No matter what happens from here on out, it's possible no first-time owners in the history of the sport have had an impact as profound as those of “Alex.”
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