The Best Derby Winner of my Generation - Alysheba

Courtesy of Becky Johnston 

This 2009 Derby field with the apparent quality and then Alysheba's memorial service this week brought back a flood of memories.  Then add to that the sight of the Scharbauer colors on Silver City last Saturday in the Derby Trial, and, well, my mind fell only one way.

I have a great fondness for Alysheba.  A large Celeste Susany print of the colt greets you as you enter my home.  A smile on Chris McCarron's face, the stunning son of Alydar prancing to his audience with his signature neck-bow.


Star is Born

Alysheba was foaled March 3, 1984, at the Madden family's historic Hamburg Place.  Preston Madden, Alysheba's breeder, is the grandson of John Madden who bred five Derby winners, all from the same foaling barn; Old Rosebud in 1914, Triple Crown Winner Sir Barton in 1919, Paul Jones in 1920, Zev in 1923 and Flying Ebony in 1925.  Alysheba was foaled in an adjacent barn. 

The son of the Lt. Stevens mare Bel Sheba was purchased for $500,000 as a yearling, the seventh most expensive Alydar sold in 1985.  The colt's dam was out of the War Admiral mare Belthazar.  Bel Sheba was 14 when she produced the future Derby winner.

Dorothy and Pamela Scharbauer turned their charge over to their consultant on the purchase, trainer Jack Van Berg.  Years later, Van Berg described on HRTV's Inside Information why he purchased the colt for the Scharbauers.  He said the son of Alydar stood out like a diamond.  As time went on and Alysheba bloomed into adulthood that beauty never left him. 


Two-Year Old

He made his debut on a Monday afternoon in the fourth race at Hollywood Park July 22, 1986.  He was the second betting choice with Randy Romero aboard, but managed only a fifth-placed effort out of seven runners in the 5 ½ furlong event.  Chris McCarron was aboard the winner, Fred Hooper's Fleeting Jet.

He next appeared at Arlington Park on Friday August 22, 1986, stretching out to a mile in the ninth race with Pat Day aboard.  He fared much better, running a neck short of eventual Grade 2 stakes winner, Gem Master. 

As they say, third time's a charm.  Sunday afternoon, September 14th was the day and Alysheba won the third race at Turfway Park.  Debuting a set of blinkers, a better distance of eight and a half furlongs and with yet another rider change in Don Brumfield, he was looking more like his price tag by winning the race by eight lengths in 1:46 2/5.

Thirteen days later, Alysheba and Brumfield ran second in the one mile In Memoriam Stakes at Turfway Park.  The winner was Rainbow East. 

Another thirteen days and Alysheba made his way back to the site of his purchase.  Facing the ten post-position in the mile and a sixteenth Grade 2 Breeder's Futurity at Keeneland, he ran second by three-quarters of a length to the Carl Nafzger trained Orono, an Illinois-bred son of Codex. 

It was determined that Alysheba was suffering breathing difficulties during his races around this time.  He began racing on Lasix when he returned to California in November to run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park with a new rider, Bill Shoemaker.  He went off at odds of 33-1.

1986 Breeders' Cup Juvenile November 1, 1986

Alysheba finished third, but he gave all the appearance of a horse that wanted to go longer than a mile and a sixteenth.  Bet Twice finished fourth behind what would become a familiar rival.

The colt crossed town to Hollywood Park for the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity in mid-December.  He lost Bill Shoemaker to the eventual winner, the Charlie Whittingham trained gray colt Temperate Sil.   Pat Day was back aboard and the pair finished in the same position as last time, a neck shy.  He had won only one race in seven starts.



After a three month layoff, Alysheba made his three-year old debut in a $30,000 allowance event at a mile and a sixteenth at Santa Anita on March 8th.  He managed only a fourth place finish beaten by five lengths as the odds-on favorite.  The winner was the Alan Paulson owned Barb's Relic.

With his worst performance since his first start, time had become an enemy.  Two weeks later he ran on a track labeled "good" in the Grade 1 San Felipe, once again racing at eight and a half furlongs.  With Pat Day still aboard, he ran second to the Richard Mulhall trained Chart The Stars by less than a length.  This time Alysheba had beaten both Temperate Sil and Barb's Relic. 

Alysheba's connections decided to go ahead with the minor throat surgery to tie back his entrapped epiglottis.  His next start would be a month later at Keeneland in the Grade 1 Bluegrass Stakes, an adventurous nine furlongs.  The colt finally found the partner that would see him through the rest of his career, jockey Chris McCarron. 

McCarron was coming off a horrible leg injury that required five months of rehabilitation.  The two mending athletes formed a team that would account for over $6.2 million in earnings in just over 18 months.

The partnership had an inauspicious start.  A seeming win by favored Alysheba in Kentucky's most important Derby prep turned into an interference disqualification from first to third elevating War to the winner's circle.  Alysheba went to Churchill Downs still eligible for a first condition allowance race.

What the Keeneland race did do though was reveal to everyone what the colt was capable of doing and answered any question about his distance ability and his new-found ability to breathe during his races.  But there was a whirlwind coming from Arkansas that everyone had their eyes on.  The flashy son of Elocutionist owned by John Ed Anthony's Loblolly Stable had run through the state's Derby prep series with wins in the Rebel, Southwest and Arkansas Derby with great ease.  Demons Begone was known simply by his fans as "The Demon". 

Alysheba had drawn the three post position and went off at odds of 8-1, while Demons Begone raced from the ten post at 2-1.  Demons Begone was piloted by Alysheba's old friend, Pat Day. 

Others in the race included the Florida Derby winner Cryptoclearance (6-1), Wood Memorial winner Gulch (4-1), and the Fountain of Youth winner Bet Twice (10-1).  The awarded Bluegrass winner War (6-1) would again find trouble on the first turn and the dramatics continued when the favored Demons Begone was pulled out of the race on the backstretch and then Alysheba overcame the mother of all Kentucky Derby stumbles in the homestretch.

1987 Kentucky Derby

One more look at the stumble

Demons Begone bled in the race, but he would return to Arkansas for his four-year-old season.  For Alysheba, it was on to the Preakness.

All the talk was that Alysheba was a tired horse.  He furthered the nay-sayers cause by working a half-mile in over :53 seconds.  Jack Van Berg would later say the horse was indeed dragging, but as any "star" will do, he rose to the occasion.  As soon as he got to the standside of Old Hilltop, he began to lift his head to the applause and put on his one-man beauty pageant.  The son of Alydar took the Preakness over Bet Twice by an easy half-length.

The colt that two weeks before, could have qualified to run in an undercard r qace at most racetracks on a Wednesday afternoon was staring down a date with destiny.  An historic run to become only the twelfth Triple Crown Winner and the second bred at the Madden's Hamburg Place was awaiting the son of Alydar.

There was one catch and it was a big one.  Could Alysheba, with his past breathing problems, run a mile and a half without the bleeder medication Lasix, which was not approved for New York racing.

Alysheba certainly wasn't scaring off any competition and a Triple Crown series bonus didn't hurt.  Cryptoclearance, Bet Twice, Gulch, and Avie's Copy all came back for more and now the talented Gone West was thrown into the mix.

1987 Belmont Stakes

After his fourth place finish, Alysheba was given a two-month freshener before resuming his three-year-old campaign with a trip to the Jersey shore.  Alysheba would face his nemesis Bet Twice and a new top class shooter, the speedy-stayer Lost Code in the Grade 1 Haskell Stakes at nine furlongs.

1987 Haskell Stakes

Bet Twice would skip the next stop at Saratoga where Alysheba would finish a miserable sixth by 20 lengths as the 2-1 favorite in a sea of slop.  Another talented new shooter in this amazing crop, Paul Mellon's Java Gold, stole the show that day in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes.

Jack Van Berg took his colt south to Louisiana for the seventh running of the Grade 1 $1,000,000 Super Derby a month later, September 27th, which was his last victory against his own class before facing older horses in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Hollywood Park.

Van Berg kept Alysheba in the barn for the two months prior to the Classic and he raced at the odds of 7-2.  He faced the even money favorite, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, Ferdinand in what is still arguably the best Breeders' Cup race ever run.  Certainly the best race call of any Breeders' Cup Race.

1987 Breeders' Cup Classic

Alysheba and Ferdinand would do battle three more times in the next year, but the newly turned four-year-old stayed in his own age group for the Grade 1 Strub Stakes in February of 1988, carrying top weight and 4-5 favoritism.  He won the race by the biggest margin since his maiden score. 



1988 Strub Stakes

A Superstar indeed!  The million dollar Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap was a month away and with that came a re-match with Ferdinand, weighted only one pound above Alysheba.  Jack Van Berg's colt had become the betting favorite at even money while Ferdinand held sway at 8-5.

1988 Santa Anita Handicap

At this point, these two colts were in a league of their own, shading the two-minute mark for the ten furlongs.  The next month, the California racing fans were again treated as the two faced off in the Grade 2 San Bernardino Handicap going nine furlongs at equal weights.  Alysheba was again the favorite in the five horse field at 4-5, but Ferdinand was an even-money shot to win at the shorter distance.

1988 San Bernardino

Good Taste appeared to give them a race, but it should be noted that he was carrying 14 pounds less than the top two.

Alysheba headed east with his three-race win streak.  Now he had to face the pesky Bet Twice in the re-invented Pimlico Special at the Preakness distance of a mile and three-sixteenths a week before the 1988 Preakness. 

1988 Pimlico Special

Craig Perret had been riding Lost Code in Arkansas over the winter.  He knew of the colt's propensity to take a wide berth on the turn for home and when he chose to ride Bet Twice and Pat Day took the mount on Lost Code the cagey jock took full advantage of a habit well-known to him.

Alysheba was probably showing some fatigue from his battles with Ferdinand and was due a two-month hiatus from racing.  He came back in the Hollywood Gold Cup in late June and was promptly beaten by Cutlass Reality by six lengths.  The Craig Lewis trainee was carrying ten pounds less than Alysheba and nine pounds less than the third placed Ferdinand.  That would be the last contest between the two Derby winners that had given racing fans so much entertainment in the last eight months.

Alysheba again travelled east for his eighth contest with Bet Twice in the Grade 1 Iselin at Monmouth Park.  Changes were afoot for the west coast invader.  The blinkers came off and in this next video Pete Axthelm recounts the story of the two rivals spotting each other on the backside and baring their teeth at one another.  Don't know if it was true, but it sure added to the flavor of the race.

1988 Iselin

After that win, the connections wanted to show that Alysheba could compete on the New York circuit without Lasix.  He ran into a chestnut buzz saw named Forty Niner who would get seven pounds and a home court advantage in the Grade 1 ten-furlong Woodward Stakes.

1988 Woodward Stakes

With his two race win streak and a new Belmont track record, Alysheba would stay east before the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs to be run in three weeks time.  He ran his final prep in the Grade 1 Meadowlands Cup.  This would be the ninth and last meeting between Alysheba and Bet Twice in the ten-furlong Grade 1 race.  Each colt had finished in front of the other four times.

1988 Meadowlands Cup

Another track record, a race in the dark, the stage was set.  The only thing Alysheba had left to conquer was a wet track and he got one at Churchill Downs on a cold November day that turned into an ironic twilight before the Classic race was run.

1988 Breeders' Cup



Retirement day for Alysheba came up muddy and dark again at Churchill Downs, but he was in all his glory as he began to rock and kick out while jogging in front of the grandstand.  The more the crowd cheered, the more he would do it.  I was one of those cheering him on.

Alysheba retired to Lane's End Farm with Eclipse Awards as the three-year-old champion of 1987, champion older horse and Horse of the Year in 1988. 

While he never re-produced himself at stud, he was very much like other outstanding classic winners; producing daughters that would better carry or pass on his talent. 

His most brilliant filly on the track was Kinghaven Farm's Alywow, the Canadian Champion three-year-old filly, Champion Grass Mare and Canadian Horse of the Year.  Here she is in the prestigious Grade 1 Rothman's International in 1994.

1994 Rothman's International

Alywow, in turn, produced the Danzig colt Century City who was Group 1 placed and a Group 2 winner in Europe.

Alysheba is also the broodmare sire of champion European George Washington (by Danehill) through his daughter Bordighera.  This one could rival his grandsire's beauty.  Here's a tribute video to the quirky horse that always made things interesting.

George Washington Tribute


Other talented runners:

Grade 2 winner Wesley (by El Prado)

Multiple Group 1 winner and Irish Champion Stakes victor Grandera (by Grand Lodge)

Champion three-year-old in France, Bright Sky (by Wolfhound)

Hong Kong champion miler and Horse of the Year Bullish Luck (by Royal Academy), French Group 1 winner Vespone (by Llandaff)

Grade 2 Clark Handicap winner Uniquity (by Colonial Affai)

Grade 2 distance specialist Spice Island (by Tabasco Cat).

After years in Saudi Arabia America's Horse was returned to the United States in October of 2008 to live the rest of his days the Kentucky Horse Park.  Those days turned out to be few.

The Blood Horse's coverage of the return of Alysheba

Alysheba passed away just over three weeks out from his 25th birthday, March 27, 2009.



The three-year-olds of 2009 are coming into the classics with the look of the talented 1987 class. It would be a dream come true for our sport to have a two-year rivalry the caliber of the Alysheba-Bet Twice affair.

Who are the most likely pair?

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