In one nightmarish moment near the top of the stretch, one of those instants that jockeys fear more than any other, Chris McCarron thought that it was all over for him. "I thought I was gone," McCarron said.
He had come to the head of the stretch in Saturday's 113th running of the 114-mile Kentucky Derby knowing he had a dead-solid shot to win America's premier race for the first time in his life. McCarron had ridden his colt, Alysheba, beautifully for the first mile. He had held him together when Alysheba was jostled at the start, threaded him safely through traffic around the first turn, let him hum along on his own down the backside, not rushing him, and then kept him wide but clear as they swept around the last turn and straightened out for home.
Turning into the lane, McCarron had the bay son of Alydar lying third and in quick range of Bet Twice and On The Line, who were bobbing heads apart on the lead. Then On The Line began to fold, and all there was left for McCarron to do was run down Bet Twice. He was doing precisely that, driving Alysheba toward Bet Twice's right flank, when jockey Craig Perret whipped his colt lefthanded and Bet Twice veered suddenly to the right, away from the sting of the stick and into Alysheba's path.
Alysheba's front hooves clipped the leader's heels. Alysheba stumbled badly, appearing almost to go to his knees. "I thought, Oh, God!" McCarron said. "It was so startling. I thought I was gonna fall." Behind him were some 10 tons of Derby horses, and, had Alysheba fallen, sending horse and rider sprawling, there is no telling the tragedy that might have been played out in the upper stretch at Churchill Downs.
May 10, 1987
"When my horse stumbled, he pulled me forward, and I thought, Hang on!" McCarron said. "It was unbelievable. But he regained his balance, and when he did, he put me back in the saddle. At that point I didn't think I was gonna win it. I'm riding for my life, hoping to be second, because I thought they'd take Bet Twice's number down if he won. I had no idea my colt could recover from that and win."
But win the Derby he did, even though a tired Bet Twice, staggering around the homestretch like the town drunk, drifted in front of him a second time, forcing Alysheba to swing out and go around him. McCarron beat a tattoo on his colt to keep him running, furiously whipping lefthanded, and in the final 70 yards Alysheba surged past Bet Twice to win by three quarters of a length. Under the circumstances it was a remarkable performance, the centerpiece of a show that made for one of the most chilling, dramatic finishes in the recent history of the Derby.
It not only gave the 32-year-old McCarron his first Derby victory in seven tries ("I was trembling after the race," he said. "It was indescribable"), but also crowned the rider's recent comeback from an even more perilous scrape with the fates. In a five-horse spill at Santa Anita on Oct. 17, the two-time Eclipse Award-winning rider had broken his left femur in four places, an injury that grounded him for almost five months and left 11 screws in his leg. And, after four misses, this was also the first whiff of the roses for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, 50, who has won more races (almost 5,000) than any other horseman in the history of the sport.
No win was ever as sweet as this, though, and the normally garrulous Nebraskan could barely speak when it was over. "And I'm never speechless," Van Berg said. "This horse stumbled and he overcame it. He overcame it! I don't know how anything can top this."
If Alysheba's near fall and his late rush to victory left many in the festive crowd of 130,532 momentarily stunned—he went off as the sixth choice, by the way, at 8-1—the colt's performance was certainly no surprise to Van Berg, who had spent the week before the Derby telling anyone who would listen that Alysheba was the genuine article.
"I wouldn't trade places with nobody in the race," Van Berg said Friday at his barn at the Downs. "There's no other horse in the race that I'd rather have. He might make a damn liar out of me, and I might be the stupidest man that ever walked, but he's a legitimate horse. He can really run."
Alysheba not only had the pedigree, to be sure, but he also had the looks. He is not a big colt, but a very stylish-looking sort, with a beautiful head, and he's as neat as a pin. It was on the basis of his bloodlines and dashing good looks that his owners, the mother-daughter team of Dorothy and Pamela Scharbauer, bought him for $500,000 at the summer yearling sale at Keeneland in 1985. "I fell in love with him when I saw him as a yearling," said Van Berg, who advised the Scharbauers to buy the colt. "Alydar was a great horse. He never lied to you. And I don't think there's a better-looking horse in the race than this one."
The lack of real enthusiasm for the colt at the betting windows on Derby Day stemmed from the fact that Alysheba, in 10 lifetime starts, had won only once, and that was a maiden race at Turfway Park in Kentucky on Sept. 14. He had been second five times, suggesting that he was what racetrackers call a "sucker horse"—that is, one who comes close, but cannot or will not win. He had also developed a reputation for being something of a rogue at the races. On April 23 in his last start before the Derby, he had won the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland by a head, but was disqualified and placed third for suddenly careening to the right in the stretch and slamming into a colt named Leo Castelli.
The bettors' coolness did not dampen Van Berg's enthusiasm, which was fueled by the discovery in March that Alysheba was suffering from an entrapped epiglottis. A_ membrane covering the epiglottis, the thin flap of cartilage behind the tongue, tended to swell when Alysheba exerted himself, blocking his trachea and depriving him of air. Because he had usually run well anyway, it had never occurred to Van Berg to check the colt's respiratory system.
"He was right there at the finish, every time," he said. "He had some troubles, little things happened to him, but he'd not been a horse who'd run last or next to last and really discouraged you."
So the trainer looked for and found reasonable excuses for all the colt's defeats. After Alysheba finished second in the Breeders Futurity at Keeneland last fall, for instance, Van Berg thought it was because he was nine horses wide on the first turn. After he finished third, beaten 2½ lengths, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita on Nov. 1, Van Berg figured it was because jockey Bill Shoemaker had let the colt fall too far back in the early running. "T forgot to tell Shoe to slap the horse," Van Berg said. When he ran second in the $1 million Hollywood Futurity six weeks later, beaten just a neck by Temperate Sil, Van Berg thought Alysheba was too close to a fast early pace. And so on.
It was not until March 8, when he finished fourth in an allowance race at Santa Anita, that the trainer thought he had better have the horse's respiratory system checked. That's when they found the entrapped epiglottis. In a surgical procedure that lasted almost 2½ hours, a veterinarian cut the membrane away. While everyone breathed easier, particularly the horse, Van Berg aimed him for the Santa Anita Derby on April 4, seeking to get him ready for the Derby at the Downs, but the colt then came down with a fever. He missed three days of training, so Van Berg passed up that dance and shipped him to Keeneland for the Blue Grass.
One of the truest marks of an outstanding trainer, especially in bringing a colt to so searching a test as the Kentucky Derby, is the ability to improvise the best laid plans have to be abandoned. No one has ever questioned Van Berg's ability to improvise. He began working for his father, the late Marion Van Berg, himself a Hall of Fame trainer, when he was 8, and had a license to train at 16.
Marion was a taskmaster. "All the times I won races, he never told me I knew anything," Jack recalls. "He always said, 'Just keep on working.' He was a perfectionist. He'd put you in charge and let you make mistakes. But you'd better not make too many."
Shipping Alysheba to Keeneland was certainly not one. Having lost some time and playing catch-up with him, Van Berg thought the colt would benefit from training and racing over the soft, tiring Keeneland surface. The breathing problem cured, he worked aggressively, and in the Blue Grass he ran the race of his life at 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ miles. What Van Berg liked most was that Alysheba finished strongly, racing the last furlong in a sharp 12[1/5] seconds.
"That's when I knew he was getting his air," he said. "Before that, he'd gulp for air and couldn't get any. He made a firm believer out of me."
And out of McCarron, too. who rode Alysheba for the first time in the Blue Grass and was just beginning to feel like his old self in the saddle. His had been a long, difficult convalescence, but one made as short as possible by the work he put into it. He exercised avidly to get back into shape, using Nautilus machines to regain his strength and fitness. "He worked very hard," said McCarron's wife, Judy. "He bought an exercise bicycle, and he'd sit in front of the TV and ride it 10 miles a day. He did that for weeks."
He worked that hard, in part because he did not want to miss the Derby. He had twice finished second in the race—on Desert Wine in 1983 and on Bold Arrangement in 1986—and, this year more than ever, he did not want to pass up a chance to win it. "I always wanted it bad, but I think I wanted it more this year because I was coming back from that injury," McCarron said. "I knew it would mean just that much more."
McCarron started exercising horses in late February, and on March 12 he rode in his first race since the spill. Shortly after that, Pat Day, who had become Alysheba's regular rider, committed to the eventual Derby favorite, Demons Begone. After speaking with McCarron, Van Berg, feeling no reluctance in handing his colt over to a man who had been virtually idle for five months, offered him the mount. "Ft took me a couple of weeks to really feel comfortable about riding in a race," McCarron said. "There was a lot of anxiety, some tension, but after a few races I lost that. The past three weeks I've been feeling much, much stronger."
As things turned out, McCarron needed all of his old self simply to survive the race, much less win it. This was one of the roughest Derbies in years, and not just for Alysheba. The first turn looked like a hockey game, not a horse race. The winner of the Blue Grass, War, lost all chance in the bumping and shoving there.
"It's a wonder I came back," said War's rider, Herb McCauley. "They almost put me over the fence on the first turn. My horse was actually leaning over the top of the rail with half his body."
The second victim of the roughhousing on the turn was Masterful Advocate, a 6-1 shot. "He really got banged around on the first turn," said jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. Even Alysheba was briefly involved in the jostling. He bumped into Demons Begone, but that colt was going nowhere anyway. Jockey Day pulled him to a halt down the back-stretch when the Demon started bleeding heavily from the nostrils.
Cryptoclearance, another 6-1 shot, also got slammed around at the first turn. "He caught some other horses coming in so fast that they bumped him into the rail," said Jose Santos, his jockey. Santos saw blood on his silks and thought Crypto had been cut. But, in fact, the blood came from Demons Begone, who was running ahead of him.
This was no picture Derby, for sure, and the running time on a fast racetrack, 2:03⅖ made it the slowest since Cannonade came home in 2:04 in 1974. Unquestionably, Alysheba's stumbling and swerving for running room affected the final time. He ran the last quarter in :26⅖ trotting-horse time, but there is no plausible explanation for why so many horses came up so empty.
What is clear is that the best horse got the best ride, and it could not have come on a day more fitting for the colt's owners, whose family returned to the thoroughbred game in 1985 after leaving it 18 years ago. Dorothy Scharbauer's father, Fred Turner Jr., won the 85th Kentucky Derby with Tomy Lee, Bill Shoemaker up. In fact, announced Dorothy's husband, Clarence Scharbauer, "it was 28 years ago today—I mean May 2, 1959—that Dorothy's father won the Kentucky Derby with Tomy Lee. Dorothy and I were there. It was really a thrill that day. And, boy, it's a helluva thrill today."
"When my horse stumbled, he pulled me forward, and I thought, Hang on!"