Five years ago, their horse was dazzling in the Preakness Stakes. Sports Illustrated called it the horse-racing performance of the decade. Afleet Alex almost went to his knees after clipping heels with a horse named Scrappy T before righting himself and running away with the Preakness.
Five years later, a son of Afleet Alex - Dublin, who finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby and is 10-1 in the Preakness morning line, trained by D. Wayne Lukas - is slated to leave the Preakness starting gate.
"He's still affecting us," said Joe Lerro, one of the five Philadelphia-area owners of Afleet Alex who pooled resources and paid $75,000 for their first horse, then saw him win two legs of the 2005 Triple Crown.
They don't own Dublin but they're rooting for him, and not just for emotional reasons. They have significant breeding interests in Afleet Alex, so a Triple Crown victory by an offspring would make them money.
Chuck Zacney, the owner of a medical-billing company and managing partner of the Cash Is King stable, said Afleet Alex was certainly good to them monetarily. Zacney points to the second house he bought in Florida and his upgrade to a Mercedes SL550.
But the owners always talk about not being able to buy the thrills that Afleet Alex brought them. "2005 was the most exciting year of my life," Lerro said. "Everybody got to be a part of that."
Time moves on.
"In 2006, I lost my mother and my sister to cancer," Lerro said. "I went from having the best year of my life to the worst year of my life."
The group invested a lot of its Afleet Alex winnings back into the horse business. "We tried to chase the dream," Lerro said. "It was hard."
As it happens, the group known as Cash Is King has had its most recent successes with Afleet Alex babies. A 3-year-old named Afleet Again, trained by Butch Reid out of Philadelphia Park, was the upset winner of the Grade III, $150,000 Withers Stakes last month at Belmont Park. The group is aiming that colt for the $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in August and the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Philadelphia Park in September, Zacney said.
"We have about 15 horses with Tim Ritchey at Delaware Park and 25 horses with Butch Reid at Philadelphia Park," Zacney said. "Plus mares and foals and everything else. We're pretty much in the business."
When an Afleet Alex baby they own won this week at Philadelphia Park, Afleet Alex became the top second-crop sire in the country. Originally, Afleet Alex's stud fee was $40,000, but after the economic downturn hit the breeding industry hard, the fee was down to $15,000 this year, Zacney said. The group hopes that success will increase his value, since it owns 50 percent of Afleet Alex the stallion.
"He's got 150 mares booked this year, which is a positive," Zacney said.
Ritchey, who picked out Afleet Alex at an auction, has said repeatedly that he never will have another horse like him. But when the owner of last year's 3-year-old of the year, Summer Bird, went looking for a new trainer, the colt was switched to Ritchey's barn.
The jockey who managed to stay on Afleet Alex at the Preakness, Jeremy Rose, also has upgraded his career, becoming a regular in Triple Crown races although he doesn't have a ride in this Preakness.
Intertwined with the Afleet Alex story is the story of Alex's Lemonade Stand, which became the horse's charity in 2005, a year after 8-year-old Alex Scott died of cancer.
"It almost had this magical feel to it," Liz Scott, Alex's mother, said this week of the way Afleet Alex won the Preakness and then won the Belmont Stakes on the same day Alex's Lemonade Stand had its annual fund-raising day. Of the boost Afleet Alex gave to the charity, Scott said, "We were determined to continue what Alex had started, but we were very uncertain whether we were able to continue."
On Saturday, there will be an Alex's Lemonade Stand at Pimlico Race Course. Bob Brittingham, another Afleet Alex owner, made the suggestion, Scott said, and he will be there.
"Chuck Zacney has continued to be a very generous donor - he donates auction items, buys auction items," Scott said. "They've set up stands for us. The Brittinghams do a golf outing every year. They are still some of our biggest supporters."
The other four Cash Is King owners officially separated from Brittingham as of March of this year. They often had philosophical differences, even in 2005. But that didn't dampen the feel-good nature of the story for any of them. Five horse players-turned-horse owners on the ride of their life.
They have no ownership interest this weekend, but it will bring back a flood of memories when they root for Dublin on Saturday and a filly named Harissa, another Afleet Alex baby, in Friday's Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico, the filly version of the Preakness.
"You're excited for every one of them," said another owner, Joe Judge, who retired to Florida but was driving back north this week and plans to watch the Preakness at Philadelphia Park.
Another sign of how time moves on: Zacney will be coaching his 11-year-old son, Alex, whom the horse was partially named after, in a baseball game Saturday afternoon in Montgomery County. Lerro will be at a different kind of race course, watching his daughter row on the Schuylkill in the Stotesbury Cup Regatta.
They can't go back to 2005, "but we're really having fun again," Lerro said. "The giddy-up is back. We can't wait to go to the track again."