December 14, 2009

Remembering ... Alysheba

Relentless. That was the thing about Alysheba, he may not have had the raw talent of his sire, Alydar, he was not an overly precocious juvenile, and as good as he became, Alysheba never overwhelmed his competition with romping victories, but he was relentless. In both his many fine performances on the racetrack and over his three year career, Alysheba would keep on coming with the grim determination of a true champion. By the time Alysheba arrived at the 1987 Kentucky Derby, he was an attractive and promising colt, but still eligible for ‘non winners of one other than.’ His career to that point was littered with near misses and he was coming off a recent disqualification from 1st, after a roughly run three horse stretch battle in the Blue Grass. Flash-forward 18 months later and Alysheba was America’s Horse, the all-time leading money winner, and a respected champion. The legend began with his remarkable run in the Kentucky Derby.

The Kentucky Derby that year featured an excellent field of 17 colts and geldings, many of whom had already compiled a much more impressive resume than Alysheba. Horses of note in the field included Bet Twice, Cryptoclearance, Gulch, Capote, and the betting favorite, Demon’s Begone. Alysheba was respected at 8-1, but not one of the favorites. The running of the race will forever go down in Kentucky Derby lore. As the field straightened out for the long Churchill Downs stretch, Bet Twice had secured the lead, but looked like he would soon be swallowed up by the powerful rush of Alysheba. It would not be that easy though, as Bet Twice started to bear out into his competition. The first time nearly knocked Alysheba down. Alysheba, with Chris McCarron in the irons, went down to his knees, but gracefully regained his balance and set off after the leader again. Two more times, Bet Twice would bear out and impede Alysheba’s progress, but Alysheba was too strong and determined and simply would not be denied. At the wire, he would be ¾ of a length the better of his new rival. It was one of the most eventful stretch runs in Kentucky Derby history and Alysheba was lauded for his amazing performance.

After the thrill of Alysheba’s Derby win, it was straight to Baltimore and the Preakness Stakes. This time Alysheba would be the favorite at 2-1. The result was the same as the Derby, as once again Alysheba would wear down the game Bet Twice in the lane. This race was devoid of the theatrics of two weeks before, but it once again revealed the best three-year-old in the nation. The victory, by a ½ length, put Alysheba just 1 ½ miles away from ultimate glory.

An impressive looking bay colt, Alysheba was a son of the great sire Alydar, and was out of the stakes placed Lt. Stevens mare Bel Sheba. He was bred by Preston Madden in Lexington, Kentucky, and was sold as a yearling to the Scharbauers of Texas for $500,000 at the 1985 Keeneland July yearling sale. The Scharbauers turned him over to the gruff, hardboot Jack Van Berg and now less than two years later, this young horse would try to exorcize the ghosts of Triple Crown past for his sire Alydar. Alysheba would march to the Belmont with the hopes of America on his broad shoulders. For yours truly, it would be my first opportunity to see him in person. Alysheba was supported by bettors to odds-on, despite the then rule of New York racing to not allow the anti-bleeder medication, Lasix, at their tracks. For whatever reason, some blame the lack of Lasix, some thought he was hampered by the ride and the slow pace, Alysheba was not himself that day and I, like most of the crowd, went home with disappointment. He finished worst in a three horse photo for second, with his rival, Bet Twice winning off by 14 lengths. No Triple Crown winner in 1987. I still remember how visibly upset his veteran trainer Jack Van Berg was, the world could see how much he liked his horse. Alysheba would prove to be much more than the Triple Crown though, and finished his championship season with a stirring run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where he just missed by a nose to the best older horse in the land, Ferdinand.

As a four year old Alysheba would take his career to the next level. He thrice defeated, the second great rival of his career, Ferdinand, in California to stake an early claim as the best horse in America. He was beaten twice in the row in the middle of the year, but big wins in the Iselin at Monmouth, defeating Bet Twice, and in the Woodward at Belmont, where he set a track record, propelled Alysheba to top of the racing world. I was in attendance for both of those races, and it was clear that Alysheba had an even greater presence than he had as a three-year-old. He knew he was the best, and he had the wherewithal to prove it to all comers.

So many of Alysheba’s races were memorable, and that is a primary reason why he became immensely popular. One of those memorable races that particularly stands out for me, might seem like an odd choice to many, but it remains in my mind to this day. It was my second year at college, and it was a treat, when on the weekends I came home, to meet up with my father and catch the evening races at the Meadowlands. The most special of that Fall was, without a doubt, the 1988 Meadowlands Cup. It was supposed to be a mere bridge between his record setting win in the Woodward and his ultimate destiny, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but it turned out to be classic in its own right. The Meadowlands, in those days, was notorious for its ability to hold up speed and the Cup had attracted dangerous speed in the form of Slew City Slew. He was a bit of an inconsistent sort, but when he ran his race, he was almost uncatchable. In the Meadowlands Cup, Slew City Slew ran his race. It took every ounce of Alysheba’s talent and desire to run down the speedster that day and win by a desperate neck. I remember thinking there were not many horses that I had ever seen who would have been able to beat Slew City Slew that night. It was no surprise when three weeks later Alysheba returned, with his regular partner Chris McCarron, for the first time to Churchill Downs since his Kentucky Derby win, and was crowned king of the racing world with his dramatic win under the cover of darkness in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The Breeders’ Cup Classic was the perfect ending to a marvelous career. He had become America’s richest horse of all time and Alysheba was America’s Horse. The Hall of Fame runner spent the first part of his breeding career near his birthplace in Kentucky and then was sold and shipped to breed in Saudi Arabia in 2000. In failing health, Alysheba was gifted back to the American people by King Abdullah, who shipped Alysheba in 2008, to live out his final years in his homeland. Thousands of fans visited the oldest surviving Derby winner at his home, the Kentucky Horse Park. Unfortunately, the end came sooner than anyone hoped, and Alysheba was euthanized March 27 of this year, from complications of a degenerative spine condition. He was 25 years old. Alysheba was mourned as one of America’s most popular horses. I remember you Alysheba.


Unknown said...

Great story about a beautiful and loved horse. Thank you for remembering him - I wish I could have seen him run.

Anonymous said...

It was a gift that he got to come back home and die on the soil of the greatest country the world has ever known. And that many got to see him. A mystery remains of the result of his being crossed with Arabian mares by the King Abdullah. Those kind of tidbits always interest me. When our stars travel to the desert kingdoms we suffer from almost total loss of info. I wish that their new connections had better, or any, press about these horses. I wonder how the horse formerly known as Premium Tap is doing. I know they are all well cared for, that's not a problem. I just wish that we didn't all but lose them for good.
I never got to see Alysheba run, but the stories that I would later read, like this one, sure made me a fan. When he came home it was written that he showed recognition of his old connections, how sweet that they were there to greet him.

NetworkEmpowerment said...

It's a shame that he couldn't have come sooner, but on the bright side he did get to live out his final few months in his homeland, where he was loved by all. I never got to see him run, but like anon, the stories I would hear about this beautiful son of Alydar would soon convert me into one his fans.

Celeste said...

Thanks, Brian! Great insight into the beautiful horse that was Alysheba. I was very happy when he was returned to us and looking forward to visiting him at the KHP on my next trip to Lexington. Not to be. Thank you for sharing your memories.

Jennifer Cook said...

Sometimes your columns are like horse racing school for me. Well, not exactly like school. Much more fun! Just went to You Tube and watched the Kentucky Derby win. They do a better job going in for the closeups now. His stumble is really something. Amazing he kept his feet and won. Great race! Thanks Brian.

Jennifer Cook said...
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Anonymous said...

Thanks for the piece on Alysheba. I was frotunate enough to work with him a little bit while he was at the Horse Park. All he wanted to do was go outside. It was like he missed the way the grass felt on his hooves . It didn't matter how cold it was or how hard it was snowing, he went outside and you could just see the peace on his face.


personalensign79 said...

I miss him :( I saw him one bitterly cold day last January all by myself near the HoC at KHP. Someone was walking a small mare by his paddock and he started snorting and prancing up and down the fence. It was a great day.

Great story!

Derby Derek said...

I was fortunate enough to see "SHEBA" several times. After his third in the Juvenile I touted him to win the DERBY all winter long. I drove to the BLUEGRASS STAKES from Jersey and when he DQ'ed that was a long ride home(start to finish 42 hours there and back.) Down 500 but not dismayed, doubled up on the Derby and cashed. What a night that was! I followed him like a camp follower but that night at the meadowlands cup was something to see.I seem to remember a 1.58.4 on the board and was just amazed! What a HORSE!!! I'M sad that I did'nt get to visit him at the HORSE PARK but I'll pay my respects next time I'm in the bluegass. I'll always have a picture of him on my wall favorites. Always on top!