The day after the 1987 Preakness Stakes, I stopped at a service area on I-95 in Maryland on my way back home from the Preakness and called Jack Van Berg, asking if I could do a feature on him for the Thoroughbred Times, which had only been in existence for about a year. I had never met Van Berg, who was on top of the world at the time and who looked like a sure bet to saddle racing’s next Triple Crown winner following Alysheba’s impressive victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The horse had the right pedigree, the right running style, the right jockey, and the right trainer.
Despite obviously being in high demand for interviews, Van Berg agreed to meet me in the diner across the street from the Belmont backstretch for breakfast. It took about 10 seconds for me to feel as if I’d known him for years. He proceeded to express his innermost feelings about his life and his relationship with his father, legendary Midwest trainer Marion Van Berg. He finished by saying, “Steve, if you misquote me I’ll never talk to you again.” That bluntness impressed me. I actually was flattered that he had entrusted me to tell his story correctly and that the article was important enough to him to add that comment. Most trainers would never be that direct.
We then went back to his barn to see Alysheba. I, like most everyone, had become smitten with the son of Alydar – his personality, his intelligence, and his regal way of moving. Whether he was walking, jogging or galloping, he would arch his neck as if showing off his noble bearing. The faster he galloped the farther down he would lower his head. He was sheer poetry in motion.
There were few Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line that came as much of a shock as Alysheba’s distant fourth-place finish to his Derby and Preakness victim Bet Twice, who would become his arch rival over the next two years. Not only did the defeat cost Alysheba’s connections a $5-million bonus, but by getting nipped by a neck at the wire for third by Gulch, it cost them a $1-million bonus, which went to Bet Twice. Jockey Chris McCarron knew it was not his finest moment and that his ride likely cost the owners, Clarence, Dorothy, and Pamela Scharbauer the bonus money and Van Berg his 10-percent share of a million dollars. After the race, McCarron drove up to the barn and sheepishly walked toward Van Berg, not knowing what to expect.
“There’s my boy,” Van Berg said in a warm, welcoming manner. All McCarron could say was, “Am I still your boy?” Van Berg went over and put his arm around McCarron’s shoulder as if to assure him all was fine. That was class, and that’s what Alysheba was all about – class.
McCarron would go on to ride Alysheba 13 more times, winning eight -- seven of them grade I stakes. When he crossed the finish line for the final time, in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic, Alysheba was “America’s Horse,” as proclaimed by race caller Tom Durkin, with career earnings of nearly $6.7 million.
Alysheba’s 4-year-old campaign was perhaps the most underrated ever, as it should have launched him into the pantheon of greats. After winning the Charles H. Strub Stakes by three lengths in 2:00 flat for the 1 1/4 miles, he hooked up in two memorable stretch duels with defending Horse of the Year Ferdinand, who had nipped him by a nose in the previous year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic in an epic showdown between Kentucky Derby winners. This time, a more mature Alysheba got the better of Ferdinand both times, narrowly beating him the Santa Anita Handicap and San Bernardino Handicap.
Those two grueling efforts took their toll in the Pimlico Special and Hollywood Gold Cup, in which Alysheba finished fourth and second, respectively. During the early summer, his coat lacked its usual luster and he had lost some weight. In the Pimlico Special, he was beaten by his nemesis, Bet Twice, whom he was meeting for the seventh time, with each finishing ahead of the other three times.
It was Bet Twice who had drifted out in front of Alysheba in the Kentucky Derby, causing the colt to stumble badly, nearly going down. He quickly picked himself up and closed in on Bet Twice for the second time. Bet Twice again cut right in front of him, but Alysheba, after altering his path, kept coming, collaring his rival with relentless determination to win by three-quarters of a length. Then in the Preakness, he ran down Bet Twice again to win by a half-length.
Following Bet Twice’s stunning 14-length romp in the Belmont, the Monmouth Park-based colt defeated Alysheba and Lost Code in a three-horse photo in the Haskell Invitational at his home track, a race that helped establish the Haskell as one of the nation’s premier races for 3-year-olds. The “Duel at the Shore” still remains one of Monmouth Park’s greatest moments. Alysheba actually got trapped down on the rail leaving the quarter pole when pace-setting Lost Code drifted back to the inside. McCarron had to yank Alysheba to the outside, losing valuable momentum. He came flying late but fell a neck short. The time of 1:47 flat was a fifth of a second off the track record.
Returning to Alysheba’s 4-year-old campaign, because it was obvious he was not at his best in the Pimlico Special and Hollywood Gold Cup, Van Berg gave him two months off and decided to remove his blinkers, which he had worn in his previous 20 starts. When the colt arrived at Monmouth for the Philip H. Iselin Handicap and another shot at Bet Twice on his home track, his burnished bay coat glistened and he appeared to have his old swagger back. He was so on the muscle that Van Berg had his hands full walking him in the morning. “I let you out to get some fresh air, you can at least act like a gentlemen,” he said to the horse.
Getting on Alysheba each day was apprentice rider Kelly O’Hara, who admitted to being extremely nervous, hoping nothing would go wrong in front of so many onlookers.
“This horse is so smart it’s scary,” she said one morning. “Jack told me not to move on him. He said if I had a horse in front of me, to just say to him, ‘Go get him, papa,’ just those words. Sure enough, there was a horse way out in front of me. I said those exact words and this sonofagun just opened up and ran that horse down. Jack also told me not to pull him up, just say, ‘Easy papa, we’re done.’ I did just that and he came right back to me. He has so much class and moves like a cat. It doesn’t even feel like he’s hitting the ground.”
A rejuvenated, blinkerless Alysheba, his handsome head now in full view of everyone, proceeded to turn in four performances that would put a final stamp on a great career. He gained his revenge on Bet twice in the Iselin, winning by three-quarters of a length in 1:47 4/5 for the 1 1/8 miles. After the race, Clarence Scharbauer was so choked up he had trouble speaking. When he saw Alysheba return, he said in a quavering voice, “He’s got more guts and heart than anything I ever saw. He gives you everything he’s…” That was all he could get out.
In Alysheba’s next two starts, the Woodward Handicap and Meadowlands Cup, he became the only horse in memory (possibly in history) to set back-to-back track records at a mile and a quarter, winning the Woodward in 1:59 2/5, defeating a tenacious Forty Niner, coming off gutsy wins over Seeking the Gold in the Haskell and Travers, and then coming back four weeks later and winning the Meadowlands Cup in 1:58 4/5.
When Personal Ensign capped off her unbeaten career by winning the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, the pressure was on Alysheba to win the Classic over a deep, sloppy surface he was not particularly fond of. But he dug down deep to win by a half-length over Seeking the Gold to snatch Horse of the Year away from Personal Ensign. Finishing five lengths back in third was Waquoit, 15-length winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
In those final four races, Alysheba defeated a veritable Who’s Who of The Turf -- Bet Twice, Forty Niner, Seeking the Gold, Gulch, Cryptoclearance, Waquoit, Slew City Slew, Personal Flag, Brian’s Time, and Cutlass Reality, to go along with his two conquests over Ferdinand earlier in the year. By winning the Santa Anita Handicap in 1:59 4/5, he became only the second horse in history, along with Round Table, to break the 2:00 mark for 1 1/4 miles three times in one year. While Round Table ran 1:59 4/5 three times in 1958, Alysheba accomplished the feat in 1:58 4/5, 1:59 2/5, and 1:59 4/5, making him arguably the fastest mile and a quarter horse of all time over a single season. It was one of the greatest campaigns ever, with seven victories in nine starts and one second, but has never received the recognition it deserved.
When it was over, the Alysheba–Bet Twice rivalry stood at 5-4 in favor of Alysheba. Everyone around the two horses, including Van Berg and Bet Twice’s trainer Jimmy Croll, swore the two horses knew each other. When they were at Pimlico for the Pimlico Special, Alysheba was stabled on the backside of Bet Twice. One morning, Alysheba was being walked around the shed by Van Berg and when he passed by Bet Twice’s stall both horses started whinnying and nickering at each other. It happened every time Alysheba went by, and they didn’t do it to any other horse. This went on every morning they were at Pimlico.
Even Alysheba’s groom, John Cherry, was amazed. “I know it sounds weird, but it sure looked like looked they recognized each other,” he said.
Both horses were completely different from each other. Alysheba was pure artistry. In the morning, he would stand motionless on the track with his head cocked to the side and ears pricked for some 10 minutes. When he began to walk it was like seeing a Richard Stone Reeves painting come to life. When he broke off into a gallop and began arching that neck in regal splendor he captured the essence of the Thoroughbred in motion in all its beauty and grandeur.
Bet Twice, on the other hand, had shown such a disdain for training when he was young, Croll had to use a buggy whip to get him to train. By the time he hooked up with Alysheba, however, he was working five-eighths in :58 without raising a sweat.
Van Berg said of the two horses and their rivalry, “They’re like two prizefighters when they get together. They just rear up and fight it out.”
Following Alysheba’s retirement, he was given a farewell at Churchill Downs, the scene of his Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic triumphs. On a cold, dreary afternoon, Alysheba was paraded on the track. As soon as he heard the cheers from the crowd he arched his neck one last time and broke off into the most magnificent gallop I think I’ve ever seen.
I visited Alysheba at Lane’s End Farm several times, and couldn’t believe it when I heard he was being sent to Saudi Arabia in 2000 to stand at King Abdullah’s Janadriyah Stud Farm outside Riyadh. Last week, Alysheba arrived at the Kentucky Horse Park, a gift to America from the people of Saudi Arabia.
That is the second time America has been given the gift of Alysheba. The first was 21 years ago. Alysheba was a gift to anyone fortunate enough to have seen him in action. I’m already looking forward to visiting him and likely will schedule a visit to Kentucky in the near future just for that purpose. The oldest living Kentucky Derby winner will turn 25 at the end of the year. Even if he no longer gallops with that regally arched neck, just one look at him up close and I’ll be able to envision it as if it were yesterday.