Two days before her first birthday, Alexandra ("Alex") Scott was diagnosed with an aggressive form of childhood cancer. Enduring chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, the little girl displayed courage and a positive outlook, captivating everyone around her. That alone would be an inspiring story. But that was not all that happened.
In 2000, when she was just four years old, Alex told her parents she wanted to raise money for cancer research. She chose a time-honored kid's project-a front-yard lemonade stand-but unlike most lemonade stands, she raised $2,000 in a single day. Soon, Alex's friends joined in to help, opening lemonade stands in her name. Word spread about Alex's dream of raising $1 million for pediatric cancer research. On June 12, 2004, she raised nearly $40,000 in three hours at her lemonade stand, while supporters nationwide raised $220,000 in one day at hundreds of Alex's Lemonade Stands nationwide. With additional donations from corporate sponsors, Alex was more than halfway to her goal of $1 million.
Just a few weeks later, on July 29, 2004, Alex's family gathered at her Philadelphia-area home to say goodbye. The eight-year-old girl had finally lost her heroic battle with cancer.
But even that was not the end of the story. Alex Scott was gone, but her lemonade stand and her dream lived on. Friends continued to work to achieve Alex's goal. And even as she was dying, another story was beginning, which will forever be linked to hers.
The same day, a young Thoroughbred horse won his first major race, the Sanford Stakes in Saratoga Springs, New York. His name was Alex, too: Afleet Alex. It was clear from his impressive victory that Afleet Alex was no ordinary racehorse, but a potential champion. Gifted with unusual stamina, intelligence, and athletic grace, the plucky little horse won races, a growing number of fans, and media attention.
Afleet Alex knew what it was like to fight for life. At birth, he was given little chance of survival when his mother was unable to produce milk, depriving him of critical colostrum needed to fight infection. For two weeks he was bottle-fed by breeder John Silvertand's 9-year-old daughter Lauren. Against the odds, Afleet Alex survived and grew strong. Overlooked by racing's elite, he was purchased for a bargain price by a group of five Philadelphia friends buying their very first racehorse.
When Afleet Alex's career took off, no one was more excited than Silvertand. Diagnosed with colon cancer, and given only two months to live, Silvertand elected to discontinue chemotherapy and leave it "in God's hands" so that he could fully enjoy Afleet Alex's triumphs. "The horse keeps me going," Silvertand told the Associated Press. "I truly believe he's helping me in my battle." Silvertand has now survived nearly three years since his diagnosis.
That in itself would be an inspiring story. But the story did not end there.
When the owners of Afleet Alex heard about Alex Scott and her lemonade stand, they thought of their friend John Silvertand and his fight against cancer, and knew right away that they wanted to use the star colt's media power to benefit the cause of cancer research. Chuck Zacney, the managing partner, announced that every time Afleet Alex did well in a race, they would donate a portion of his earnings to Alex's Lemonade Stand. They also donated profits from the sale of Afleet Alex gear, and used the colt's popular website and media interviews to promote Alex's Lemonade Stand. They even convinced the racetracks where Afleet Alex was appearing to sponsor Alex's Lemonade Stands. The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes all featured Alex's Lemonade Stands, spotlighted by NBC and ESPN. On Belmont Stakes Day, 30 racetracks throughout the U.S. held stands in her name, raising tens of thousands of dollars.
Helped by Afleet Alex, Alex's Lemonade Stand for Pediatric Cancer Research has now raised more than $2 million and has funded dozens of research grants. But even that is not the end of the story.
In his racing career, Afleet Alex faced many obstacles. Two heart-breakingly narrow losses and a lung infection raised doubts about his future. But his team did not give up. Afleet Alex trained even harder, running more than twice as far every day as other racehorses. After he fought back to a stunning eight-length victory in the Arkansas Derby, Liz Scott, Alex Scott's mother, compared him to her daughter. "Alex was a fighter and determined," she said, "and watching this horse run definitely reminds me of her, with the same competitive, always-do-your-best attitude."
I was there, gasping in horror with millions of others. I had seen such accidents before: with the speeding horses behind him unable to swerve in time, Rose would surely be trampled; other equine and human bodies would be flying as they collided with the wreck, injuries and death almost certain. Oh no, no, no, I thought. Not Afleet Alex!
The potentially horrific scene seemed to play out in slow motion. Incredibly, Afleet Alex did not fall. In a remarkable feat of athleticism, he quickly pulled his half-ton frame upright. Then, to everyone's amazement, he recovered his stride and kept running. The astonished crowd roared as Afleet Alex, unhurt but clearly incensed, surged ahead and won the race by nearly five lengths. That moment will go down as one of the most remarkable in horse racing's history.
How did Afleet Alex get up? Liz Scott thought again of her daughter, Alex. "The way he stumbled and caught himself, that was her," she told USA Today. "That was the way she walked. How many times we thought she was going to fall and she popped up and kept going." How did Jeremy Rose not fall off? He said that an "angel" kept him safe. "There was someone up there who helped us," he said. "Little Alex (Scott) kept me on."
Three weeks later at the Belmont Stakes, along with tens of thousands of racing fans across the nation, I made a donation and enjoyed a glass of lemonade at Alex's Lemonade Stand. I could hardly wait to see what Afleet Alex would do next. He did not disappoint. I got goosebumps as Afleet Alex powered to the lead with a dramatic rush. As the courageous little horse sped past me on the way to a seven-length victory, I shouted, "Fly, Alex, fly!" I'm not sure which Alex I meant.
I cannot say whether Afleet Alex and Jeremy Rose are guided by the spirit of little Alex Scott. But I would have to say that I witnessed a miracle. That a four-year-old child dying of cancer started a charity that has now raised over $2 million, one cup of lemonade at a time, is a miracle. Afleet Alex is a miracle. "He has kept his dying breeder alive," wrote turf columnist Steve Haskin. "He has kept the mission and memory of a courageous young girl alive. He has kept the hopes of hundreds of seriously ill children alive. He has kept the great American dream of his workaday owners alive. And he kept himself and his jockey alive with one of the most remarkable feats of agility ever seen in any sport."
Alex Scott was loved by people everywhere, who were inspired by her courage and her will to live. Afleet Alex, too, is loved by people everywhere, who are inspired by his courage and his will to win. "I've received letters from people who say when they watch this horse run it literally brings tears to their eyes," says Ritchey. I am one of them. As the story continues, as Afleet Alex races on, and with every glass of lemonade I drink this summer, I know that I am participating in a miracle.