Sheba, Joe, and J P

I can remember the image like it was yesterday. And why not? I saw it enough times. The handsome bay colt, his regally arched neck so low you could swear he was looking between his legs. And those strides: smooth and effortless, always reaching out for more ground. Before the term “in the zone” became popular, Alysheba was in the zone every day of his racing life. When he moved, he was sheer poetry, like a Richard Stone Reeves painting come to life. When he broke off into a gallop and began arching that neck he captured the essence of the Thoroughbred in motion in all its beauty and grandeur.

On his back, in perfect harmony with the magnificent steed beneath him, was 38-year-old Joe Petalino, the right-hand man of Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg. Petalino, on the surface, was the quiet type, with not a heck of a lot to say. He left the verbal tapestry to Van Berg, who had a bag full of aphorisms about every aspect of life, and applied almost every one of them to racing. Van Berg was the first person I ever heard use the expression “Time only matters when you’re in jail.” He used it when the media virtually dismissed Alysheba’s chances in the Preakness after he breezed a half in a “slow” :50 2/5 at Pimlico. Now, many Derby winners don’t even have a work between the Derby and Preakness.

All I can remember about Petalino was the way he fit Alysheba like a glove. He had the look of a horseman, and was the type of no-nonsense person that could move up the ranks in the widespread Van Berg operation, which encompassed racetracks all over the nation and opened the door for megatrainers like Lukas and Pletcher and Asmussen.  

It came as no surprise when Petalino turned to training. But that seems like ages ago. His name would occasionally pop up over the years. But now after all this time here he is with a newly acquired gift named J P’s Gusto, who has already taken the first step toward the Run for the Roses and Petalino’s first trip to the Derby since that unforgettable day in 1987 when Alysheba virtually picked himself off the ground, averting disaster, and moved his big, burly, hard-nosed trainer to tears.

I hope J P’s Gusto makes it to the Derby, just so I can catch a few moments with Petalino and talk about Alysheba, who in my mind is one of the three most underrated horses of all time. You won’t find him on anyone’s list of greatest horses, and many of the younger generation know him mostly as the old warrior who returned to his homeland from Saudi Arabia only to pass away shortly after taking up residence at the Kentucky Horse Park. But as someone who has seen the greatest horses of the last half-century, I can say with conviction that Alysheba belongs with the best of them.

We’re all aware of Alysheba’s Kentucky Derby heroics and his powerful Preakness victory over Bet Twice, his narrow defeat in the epic Haskell to Bet Twice over his rival’s home track, his victory in the Super Derby, and later that year coming up just a nose short of catching the previous year’s Derby winner Ferdinand in the Breeders’ Cup Classic over Ferdinand’s home track.

But I’m not sure most people realize what a extraordinary year he had as a 4-year-old; one of the greatest I’ve ever seen. But we’ll get to that later.

When he won the Derby everyone marveled at his remarkable athleticism recovering from a near-catastrophic fall after being interfered with by Bet Twice shortly after turning for home, but his time of 2:03 2/5 convinced many of the experts that this was a less-than-stellar crop of 3-year-olds. By the end of the year, however, it was regarded as one of the strongest and deepest crops in many years, with Alysheba, Bet Twice, Lost Code, Java Gold, Gulch, Cryptoclearance, Gone West, Polish Navy, Demons Begone, and Afleet.

I’ll never forget setting up an interview with Van Berg at Belmont after the Preakness for a feature story. I felt a little intimidated interviewing the legendary trainer, who was known for his gruff exterior and speaking his mind. I was met at the stable gate by Don Alvey, better known as Hee Haw, who did just about everything for Van Berg. The first thing Van Berg said to me was, “Let’s go across the street and have breakfast.” It wasn’t the greatest place to conduct an interview, but I liked the personal setting, and sitting in a diner allowed Van Berg to open up a bit more. As strange as it may seem, the one thing he said to me that made me feel comfortable was, “Steve, now if you misquote me I’ll never speak to you again.” I actually was flattered that he had entrusted me to tell his life story correctly and that the article was important enough to him to add that comment. Most trainers would never be that direct.

Back then, Lasix was not allowed in New York, and Alysheba would have to run without the diuretic for the first time. Other than that question mark, most believed Alysheba, with his running style and being by Alydar, would have no trouble becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed. In addition, he would collect a $5 million bonus given to any horse who swept the Triple Crown. Even if he lost, he only needed only to finish third to collect the $1 million bonus for accruing the most points in all three races.

Alysheba’s jockey, Chris McCarron, got him in trouble early in the race, and although Alysheba was not going to beat Bet Twice, who won by a staggering 14 1/4 lengths, he didn’t even win the $1 million bonus, getting nipped by a neck in the final strides for third by Gulch, who was a nose behind runner-up Cryptoclearance. Back at the barn, a dejected Van Berg and crew could only try to figure out what happened. When McCarron drove up and got out of his car, he looked like Daniel about to enter the lion’s den, not knowing the extent of Van Berg’s wrath he would incur. As he sheepishly walked over, Van Berg yelled over to him, “There’s my boy.” A seemingly stunned McCarron replied, “Am I still your boy?” When Van Berg put his arm around him and reassured him everything was fine, McCarron knew he still was Van Berg’s boy. For the next year and a half McCarron and Alysheba would pave their path to greatness and eventual induction into racing’s Hall of Fame.

I can remember those days of Alysheba, Van Berg, Petalino, Alvey, and McCarron as if it were yesterday.

I asked Alvey recently what he remembered most about Alysheba and Petalino. “Joe was very quiet and basically let ‘Sheba do his own thing,” he recalled. “They would walk down to the track to about the finish line where all the stable ponies were waiting and Sheba would back up to the fence and actually set on it. He would stay there for some 10 to 15 minutes before Sheba was ready to go. Joe said many times that he was just a passenger, as Sheba did everything in his own time. They were quite a couple, both doing things in Sheba’s own time.

“When we left Louisville after the Derby, Joe and I knew each other but we weren’t close friends at that time; we were all just a sidebar to Sheba’s date with destiny. Both of us, along with Jack, were merely passengers. The loss in the Belmont was hard on us all. Joe and I became close friends during those three weeks, and still are to this day. Joe was always a top horseman and became a better one working for Jack.”

To give you an idea just what an amazing year Alysheba had as a 4-year-old, he put together a nine-month campaign unprecedented in the modern era, with arguably the greatest final four races anyone has ever seen. After winning the grade I Charles H. Strub Stakes on Feb. 7, beating Candi’s Gold by three lengths, he got his revenge on Ferdinand, defeating the defending Horse of the Year in nail-biting finishes in the Santa Anita Handicap and San Bernardino Handicap, both times outdueling Ferdinand the length of the stretch. Those races may have taken their toll on him, as he returned east and finished fourth behind Bet Twice, Lost Code, and Cryptoclearance as the highweight in the Pimlico Special before heading back to California and running into a buzzsaw named Cutlass Reality in the Hollywood Gold Cup, finishing second by 6 1/2 lengths in 1:59 2/5, while giving him 10 pounds

That’s when Van Berg decided to remove the blinkers and let the world see Alysheba in all his majesty in the grade I Philip H. Iselin Handicap at Monmouth, the home of Bet Twice and scene of the previous year’s unforgettable Haskell.

Watching Alysheba work one morning, I could only marvel at what a thing of beauty he was. Instead of having McCarron work the colt, Van Berg called on the services of apprentice rider Kelly O’Hara, who had ridden for Van Berg before and had just moved her tack to Monmouth. She was on cloud nine getting an opportunity to ride a horse like Alysheba.

“I’m trying to get to know a lot of the New Jersey trainers and here I am on Alysheba,” she said. “How many trainers would do that for you?”

O’Hara admittedly felt nervous as she prepared to mount up. She could hope “nothing went wrong in front of all these people.”

But Van Berg made it easy for her. He told her not to move on him at any point. When she was ready to set him down just say to him, “Go get ‘em papa;” those exact words. Sheba would do the rest. He also told her not to pull him up after the work. This time she was to say, “Easy papa, we’re all done.”

O’Hara followed instructions and was amazed at the response each time. “As it turned out, there was a horse about an eighth of a mile ahead of me,” she said after the work. “I said, ‘Go get ‘em papa,’ and this sonofagun just opened up. After the work, I said, ‘Easy papa, we’re all done,’ and he came right back to me. This horse is so smart it’s scary. He has so much class and is like a cat out there. It doesn’t even feel like he hits the ground.”

Alysheba and Bet Twice had built up quite a rivalry over the past two years. Van Berg and Jimmy Croll, trainer of Bet Twice, both were convinced the two colts knew each other.

“When we were at Pimlico this year, Alysheba was stabled on the backside of our barn,” Croll said prior to the Iselin. “Jack was walking him one morning, and when he saw Bet Twice they both started hollering at each other, and they didn’t do it to any other horse.”

Van Berg added, “They did it every morning. They just started nickering like the devil. No other horse in the barn did they holler at.”

Even Alysheba’s groom, John Cherry, was amazed. “I know it sounds kind of weird, but it sure looked like they recognized each other.”

In the 1 1/8-mile Iselin, the two hooked up again. Bet Twice opened up a 2 1/2-length lead at the eighth pole, but the unblinkered Alysheba took one look at those familiar orange silks ahead of him and put it in another gear. He was relentless as he came charging after Bet Twice, chopping into his lead with every stride. He caught his rival with 50 yards to go and went on to a three-quarter-length victory in a sharp 1:47 4/5.

After the race, emotions soared. Aylsheba’s owner Clarence Scharbauer was so choked up he was unable to finish a sentence. With his voice quavering, he said, “He’s got more guts and heart than anything I ever saw, he’s…” That was all he could get out. Scharbauer and Van Berg also were thrilled to see Alysheba win without Lasix. Although it was allowed in New Jersey, Van Berg had something to prove and ran the colt without it.

After the Iselin, Alysheba put together a string of 1 1/4-mile victories that elevated him into the realm of the all-time greats. Only three weeks after the Iselin, Alysheba went to Belmont Park and in another epic finish, he gutted out a victory in the Woodward Stakes, beating a game and tenacious Forty Niner by a neck in 1:59 2/5, breaking Silver Buck’s track record, set in 1982 carrying 15 pounds less than Alysheba carried. Finishing behind them were the top-class horses Waquoit, Personal Flag, Cryptoclearance, and Brian’s Time.

It was then on to Meadowlands for the Meadowlands Cup. With only five horses entered, the come-from-behind Alysheba would have his work cut out for him. Not only would he have to face Bet Twice and Cryptoclearance again, carrying topweight of 127 pounds and giving four pounds to Bet Twice and eight pounds to Cryptoclearance, he would have to contend with D. Wayne Lukas’ quick-footed Slew City Slew, who was the only speed on a notoriously speed-favoring track, and give him 11 pounds.

Slew City Slew opened a four-length lead, with Alysheba some seven lengths back. Alysheba made a big move on the turn to pull right up to Slew City Slew, who still had a lot left in the tank. He dug in and fought Alysheba every step of the way. But Alysheba, who had not lost a street fight all year, was tenacious, winning by a neck. Not only did they finish nearly seven lengths ahead of third-place finisher, longshot Pleasant Virginian, but Alysheba once again broke the track record, scorching the 10 furlongs in 1:58 4/5, shattering the old mark by a full second and three-fifths.

He became the only horse, along with Round Table, to break 2:00 for 1 1/4 miles three times in a single year. While Round Table ran 1:59 4/5 all three times, Alysheba won his three races in 1:59 4/5, 1:59 2/5, and 1:58 4/5, a feat not likely to be duplicated.

Alysheba concluded his career in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and needed a victory to take Horse of the Year honors away from Personal Ensign, who several races earlier had capped off her unbeaten career with a dramatic victory over Winning Colors in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Alysheba not only had to defeat arguably the deepest and most talented Classic field ever assembled, with Forty Niner, Seeking the Gold, Waquoit, Cryptoclearance, Slew City Slew, Cutlass Reality, and Personal Flag, he would have to do it in the mud, a surface he had already proven in the Travers he didn’t care for.

Turning for home under darkening skies, there were five of them across the track, with Alysheba getting a short lead; Waquoit, coming off a 15-length romp in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in the slop, hanging right there with him; and Seeking the Gold charging up on the outside. Seeking the Gold appeared to stick his head in front inside the eighth pole, but Alysheba, for the third straight time, dug in when challenged and regained the lead, easing clear to win by a half-length. As he crossed the finish line, race caller Tom Durkin proclaimed him “America’s Horse.”

Alysheba had won seven of his nine starts at 4, including five grade I victories at a mile and a quarter, giving him a remarkable seven grade I wins at 10 furlongs in his career and missing by a nose in another. As a 4-year-old alone, he defeated 12 grade I winners.

During his career he finished first or second at 11 different racetracks in seven different states across the country – New York, New Jersey, California, Kentucky, Maryland, Louisiana, and Illinois.

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, gray afternoon, Alysheba was paraded on the track. As soon as he heard the cheers from the crowd he arched his neck and broke off into another of his magnificent gallops, then strutted majestically off the track for the final time.

Alysheba’s return to his birthplace in Oct. 2008 after spending eight years in Saudi Arabia, was a joyous occasion, rekindling a kaleidoscope of memories. But five months later, at age 25, he was severely injured after falling in his stall. Unable to get up and suffering from a degenerative spinal condition, he had to be euthanized at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute.

How ironic that the horse who saved himself and all those behind him from possible serious injury or death after almost falling in the Kentucky Derby would end up dying after falling in his stall.

As memories of Alysheba continue to flash before my eyes, I can only hope that Joe Petalino makes it to the Derby with J P’s Gusto – for himself and for Jack Van Berg, and most of all to tell stories of Alysheba and restore the legacy of one of the truly great and underrated horses of our time.

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