On Saturday afternoon Jockey Chris McCarron brought more than just his riding skills to the saddle. As he left the jockeys' room at Pimlico Race Course to ride Alysheba in the 112th Preakness Stakes, McCarron spied a little blonde girl waiting on the jockey porch. Eleven-year-old Odessa Clelland is the daughter of Odie Clelland, the venerable trainer under whom McCarron learned his trade. Clelland, whom Alysheba's trainer, Jack Van Berg, calls "just the finest gentleman who ever lived," died recently at age 76, and among the many he left grieving was Odessa. McCarron leaned down and kissed her.
"This one's for Odie," he said.
A few minutes and a flawless ride later, McCarron and Alysheba had won one for Odie. Moreover, the Preakness victory, coupled with their win in the Kentucky Derby two weeks before, had earned Alysheba a shot at becoming the 12th winner of the Triple Crown. A win in the Belmont Stakes in New York on June 6 will do it.
Asked later if he was nervous before the Preakness, what with so much at stake, McCarron said, "Was I nervous? Does Dolly Parton sleep on her back?"
McCarron slept not a moment on the back of Alysheba, who was even sharper and more aggressive than he had been in his victory at Churchill Downs. "He was much more on the muscle in the post parade," said McCarron, "and he was much more on the bridle today than he was in the Derby."
When the gates opened for the Preakness, the two swifties in the nine-horse field, Lookinforthebigone and Harriman, shot to the lead as expected, with Bet Twice and No More Flowers tracking them, and Alysheba, the 2-1 favorite, lying sixth as they swept through the first turn. Down the backside, racing far off the rail with jockey Angel Cordero Jr. and Gulch on his outside, McCarron waited for the speed to tire and begin backing up. He was standing high in the irons with two armsful of horse. Off the far turn and around the last bend, Alysheba set off for the leaders. For a moment, as Cordero moved with him on Gulch, McCarron glanced left and saw Jose Santos, the rider of the 5-2 second choice, Cryptoclearance, racing into the hunt on the rail.
"I thought he was going to be the horse to beat," McCarron said later of Cryptoclearance.
As the speed began to wilt near the top of the stretch, jockey Craig Perret moved Bet Twice toward the leaders, and Santos swung Cryptoclearance out between horses to give chase. Santos later said he had had no chance to get off the rail—Death Valley for horses at Pimlico in the days preceding the Preakness—and Cryptoclearance's trainer, Scotty Schulhofer, could not believe that Santos had had his colt down inside. "What were you thinking of?" he cried to Santos after the race.
Turning for home, Perret drove Bet Twice past Lookinforthebigone. At that point he was sure Alysheba would be coming after him. "I knew at the quarter pole it was going to be a two-horse race," Perret said.
The long drive was on. Alysheba moved to the flanks of Bet Twice nearing the eighth pole; 220 yards from the wire they were head and head. Inside the pole McCarron slashed his horse once righthanded, and Alysheba surged to the lead. With the wire less than 100 yards away, McCarron switched the stick to his left hand and whipped Alysheba four times quickly. The colt drew off in the closing yards to win by half a length. The time of 1:55[4/5] for the 1[3/16]-mile race was the slowest in the Preakness since 1975.
Van Berg met McCarron and the horse for the walk to the winner's circle. The trainer removed the blinkers and continued to fuss about with the colt's head when McCarron yelled down to him, "Oh, hell, Jack, he looks good enough. Let's go!"
Looking not bad himself was Alysheba's breeder, Preston Madden, grandson of the legendary John E. Madden, the breeder of five Kentucky Derby winners in the early part of this century, when he was known as the Wizard of the Turf. "You know who bred the first Triple Crown winner?" Preston Madden asked. Of course. The Wizard bred Sir Barton, who in 1919 became the first horse to win all three races. "I always thought that the emulation of the family tradition was a worthy endeavor," said Preston. "After 52 years of endeavor, I finally got lucky."
Two hours later Van Berg had just ordered a vodka and water—"in a tall glass," he told the bartender—and was celebrating in a corner of the crowded room when Clarence Scharbauer spotted him. Scharbauer's wife and daughter, Dorothy and Pamela, are the owners of Alysheba, but no one in the victory party at Pimlico that early evening—not Van Berg, not Dorothy nor Pamela nor anyone else—appeared quite so caught up in the bright lights of the moment as Scharbauer, a voluble, multimillionaire oilman from Midland, Texas.
Approaching his trainer, Scharbauer called out, "Well, what do you think, Van Berg? We're doin' pretty good so far, aren't we?"
Van Berg laughed quietly, nodding. "Pretty good," the trainer said.
"We're slippin' and slidin'," Scharbauer shouted. "We're gettin' there. Can you believe this? We got two out of three. Now we've got to get that third one!"
Ah, yes, the third one—the 1½-mile Belmont, the last, the longest and perhaps the most searching test in the Triple Crown. Alysheba is the first horse since Pleasant Colony, in 1981, to come to Belmont in a position to join the most illustrious club in American racing. After winning the Derby and the Preakness, a physically drained Pleasant Colony finished third in the Belmont. Before him, since 1944, nine others had won the first two jewels and failed to win the last.
This year, winning all three means a good deal more than in the past. This is the inaugural year of the Triple Crown bonus program, in which horses are awarded points for finishing in the money in each of the three races—five points for first, three for second and one point for third. The horse with the most points at the end of the Triple Crown series wins a $1 million bonus. So far, with wins in the first two races, Alysheba has 10 points, while Bet Twice, who has now finished second in both the Derby and Preakness, has six. A horse who wins all three races earns an additional $2.5 million bonus, all on top of the $1.5 million in regular purses awarded the winners of the three events. That comes to a total of $5 million for Alysheba if he wins the Belmont.
For Van Berg the prospect is enough to keep him awake at night. As a trainer who receives 10% of his horse's earnings, he sees Alysheba's run for the Triple Crown as more than a mere chance to make history. "It's a rare privilege, going for that $5 million," he says. "I think I'll start sleeping with this horse."
That Van Berg and the bay son of Alydar would be running for all those marbles on the first Saturday in June seemed almost inconceivable a few weeks ago. Entering the Derby, Alysheba, despite the fact that he had finished out of the money only twice in 10 lifetime starts, had won only one race in his entire career.
This is not the stuff of which Triple Crown candidates are made. But in March a respiratory problem, an entrapped epiglottis, had been discovered and subsequent surgery had cleared the colt's trachea, giving him room to breathe. Alysheba began running like a different horse. "He has talent and that will to win," Van Berg said in the week before the Preakness. "In the Derby it was just like he knew he had to get to that wire in front. That's how determined he was. He looked like O.J. Simpson or Gale Sayers going down through there. It was like he had a goal line to get to and there was nobody going to get in his way."
If Alysheba's performance at Churchill Downs confirmed for Van Berg that he had something special on his hands, doubts about the horse lingered in the days leading up to the Preakness. At Pimlico there were ominous whisperings that Alysheba had lost the sheen to his coat and that his workout two days before the Preakness (half a mile in a lackluster 50[3/5] seconds; Van Berg had wanted a 47-second run such as the one the horse had given him before the Derby) indicated that the colt may have been tailing off in form. After all, he had run two grueling races, the Blue Grass Stakes and the Derby, in a period of nine days, and here he was racing again just two weeks later. Not a robust sort, built rather along the lines of a deer, Alysheba hadn't carried much excess flesh to begin with and appeared leaner in Baltimore than he had in Louisville.
That listless workout did not appear to concern Van Berg. "He went a little bit slower than I thought he would go," the trainer said, "but I'd rather have him go a little too slow and save himself than go too fast and take it all out of him. But he's fit enough."
Nonetheless, knowing how horses can make liars of men, Van Berg hedged a bit on his bet. "We don't know how much this horse had to use of himself in the Derby," he said. "He may come in here and throw in a clinker 'cause he overdone himself in the Derby. Whether he overdone himself, I don't know. Sometimes horses will run a giant race and they've overdone themselves and don't come back. But...he hasn't missed a kernel of oat. Acts good. Feels good."
Van Berg himself had clearly not missed an oat, either, since the Derby, and throughout the week before the Preakness the Nebraskan presided at Pimlico in the style of a country-boy raconteur, which he is. Mixing tales from his past with self-deprecating wit, he bantered cheerily with the press. When Eddie Donnelly, who covers racing for The Dallas Morning News, asked a question using the word "indicative," Van Berg interrupted him: "Use smaller words, will ya, Eddie? I got kicked out of school."
While commenting on Alysheba's penchant for stopping to gaze quietly at whatever might be happening around him, Van Berg interrupted his own discussion and mused, "I've always been that way myself, enjoying watching other people work. My father always said I'd make a good old man 'cause I saved myself when I was young."
Banter aside, it is precisely Alysheba's poised demeanor that has served to save him in his Triple Crown campaign. "He don't make any false moves or jumps," Van Berg said. "Just goes out on the track, does his business, and comes back. He looks out for himself. He'll go out there and stand on the racetrack for two hours, and he shows no emotion. He doesn't show any emotion until I blow him out a day or two before a race. Then he knows he's gonna run."
In the Belmont, Alysheba will have to run farther than he ever has before. And he will have to do it without benefit of Lasix, a diuretic administered to him before the Derby and Preakness but which is banned in New York. Used to reduce blood pressure in bleeders by inducing urination, Lasix is widely perceived as a drug that enhances a horse's overall racing performance. Van Berg scoffs at the notion, saying he gave Alysheba Lasix only to help empty the colt's bladder before the race to avoid discomfort. "The medication don't mean crap," he says.
What Alysheba needs is time to rest from the rigors of his campaign and to prepare for the Belmont. "We've got to settle down and train for that race," Van Berg said. "He has to go that mile and a half." Van Berg should get his horse there, even if he has to sleep with him.