In the swirls of pandemonium that swept him into the winner's circle after Saturday's Belmont Stakes, Bob Levy was momentarily free-falling in space—not fully aware of what had just taken place and what it really meant to him.
Minutes earlier, the 56-year-old Levy had witnessed the sight of his life as a thoroughbred owner. A principal co-owner of Bet Twice, Levy had watched his horse blow past the leaders at the far turn and gallop off with a flourish to win the 119th Belmont by a stunning 14 lengths. Far behind the winner, in a three-horse finish that needed a photo to separate them, Cryptoclearance finished second by a nose over Gulch. A neck back in fourth came a struggling Alysheba, the colt who had whipped Bet Twice in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes to arrive at Belmont Park with a chance of becoming America's 12th Triple Crown winner.
In the cheery din after the Belmont, all Levy knew was that Bet Twice had won, Alysheba had lost, and he and his co-owners had walked off with the third leg of the crown and the winning purse of $329,160. At the conclusion of the winner's circle ceremony, a New York racing official collared Levy and said, "Now you have to come over here to accept the check."
As the longtime majority owner of Atlantic City racetrack, Levy knew that checks for winning purses are not presented in postrace ceremonies. "What check?" he asked.
"You won the $1 million dollar bonus," the official said.
"Oh, my God!" said Levy.
With that exclamation, the racetrack executive spoke for just about everyone at the improbable climax of this sunny Saturday afternoon on Long Island. Alysheba had come to the Belmont with the chance to win $3.5 million in bonus money—$2.5 million for winning all three races and another $1 million for compiling the most points in the new Triple Crown Challenge (five points were awarded for a win, three for second, one for third). Alysheba already had 10 points; Bet Twice had six. To win the $1 million bonus, Bet Twice would have to win the Belmont and Alysheba would have to finish worse than third. And how likely was that?
For the first mile Bet Twice, ridden by Craig Perret, tracked Avies Copy and Gone West through a tediously slow early pace—three-quarters in 1:13⅘ waltz time—while behind him Chris McCarron, apparently misjudging the pace, took Alysheba back. Nearing the far turn, Perret asked his colt to run. Just before the race, Bet Twice's trainer, Jimmy Croll, and Levy had given the rider only one brief instruction. "When you go to the front, don't ease by them," Levy said. "Blow by them! And open up as much as you can. If he gets beat, he gets beat."
Bet Twice pounced on the leaders in quick bounds, like a big cat chasing zebras, and at once he had them by the throat. Gone West tried to run with him, but Perret opened daylight quickly—two, three, four lengths. Turning for home he was in front by five, sailing.
"He's the kind of colt who tells you a lot through your hands," said Perret. "I know what he's gonna give me and when he's gonna give it. I just asked him a little, and he accelerated, and when he opened up, it gave me a chance coming off the turn to give him a breather."
By then, essentially, the horse race was over, suddenly as old as a $2 win ticket on Alysheba, and Bet Twice stretched the gap to finish with a respectable time of 2:28[1/5]. If such a scenario had seemed highly improbable only minutes earlier, it was certainly not out of the question, particularly given the imponderables that so often shape the Belmont. After all, at 1½ miles the race is the longest of the spring classics by 440 yards, and as the last race in the Triple Grind, it often signals that a horse has made one too many trips to the well. This year, however, other questions made the Belmont even more difficult to figure.
The most vexing question of all involved Lasix, a medication used to prevent respiratory bleeding. In his last four races, including the Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories, Alysheba had run on Lasix. In New York, which does not permit the use of the medication, he was compelled to run without it.
The colt's trainer, Jack Van Berg, had soft-pedaled the significance of Alysheba running drug free, but he also hedged his bets during the week before the race. "I think maybe we're past the bleeding," Van Berg said. "I'm hoping we're past it. Hell, I don't know. Can't swear we're past it. Nobody can tell you what makes a horse bleed."
Because horses coming off the drug often suffer a decline in performance, the Lasix question commanded much attention among serious handicappers. So, too, did the presence in the race of Gone West, a colt widely viewed as, at best, a middle-distance horse who appeared to have as much of a taste for the Belmont's 12 furlongs as he had for steak tartare. In the hands of anyone else he would have stirred little interest, but Gone West happened to be trained by Woody Stephens, who had won the last five Belmont Stakes—a feat of horsemanship unsurpassed in the game's history.
"You can run but you can't hide," the Wood Man said the morning of the Belmont. "I know what it takes to get that horse [Alysheba] beat. If the pace is slow enough, he can get beat. I think Van Berg will be well entertained."
It was Stephens and Van Berg who did all the entertaining in the days leading up to the Belmont. Together, they appeared at press functions and performed a talking duet for national television. It was Hall of Famer Van Berg, the tall, 51-year-old Midwesterner, going after the 12th Triple Crown, and Hall of Famer Stephens, the wizened, 73-year-old Easterner, shooting for his sixth straight Belmont Stakes. The Jack and Woody show, featuring two down-home country wits, played to raves.
"I feel like I'm going against John Wayne and Barry Fitzgerald," said Leroy Jolley, trainer of Belmont contenders Gulch and Leo Castelli.
While the show went on in New York, trainer Jimmy Croll kicked back at Monmouth Park in New Jersey and waited, watching Bet Twice prosper at his home stable. Out of the limelight, the horse was largely ignored. "He only got beat a total of a length and a quarter in the Derby and Preakness, and everybody has totally forgotten about him," Croll said. "If it weren't for that length and a quarter, he'd be top dog."
Perret was riding the colt in the mornings and listening to the ticking of the clock. "I'm not saying this horse is going to win Saturday," the jockey said. "If Alysheba is a hundred percent, and Bet Twice is a hundred percent, Alysheba is a half-length better. But who's to say Alysheba is going to be a hundred percent? It could be the Lasix. It could be the heat. It could be anything. And if he isn't a hundred percent, we're going to be there waiting for him."
The jockey sensed that his horse was a loaded gun. The day before the Belmont, after working him three-eighths of a mile in 36 seconds, Perret called Levy in his room at the Waldorf in New York. Levy's wife answered. "Cissie," Perret said, "he did it this morning just right. He was full of himself. Look out, here we come!"
Word got around in the Bet Twice camp. Levy's octogenarian mother, Blanche (a co-owner along with several minor owners, including baseball's Pete Rose and Garry Maddox), could not attend the race because of illness, but she sent $30 with her chauffeur to be wagered across the board on the colt, her first bet of this Triple Crown series.
On Saturday, Perret and Bet Twice made Blanche look the prophet as they came flying at the half-mile pole going into the far turn. On the bend, McCarron, on Alysheba, got caught behind a tiring Gone West and had to check his colt sharply, an incident that probably cost him second place and the $1 million bonus. To his credit, the rider later blamed himself for being way back there in the first place, admitting he should have been more closely tracking the leisurely pace.
"I think I got the colt disinterested in the race by getting him that far back," McCarron said. "He wanted to run all the way around the first turn, and I was preventing him from doing so. That probably discouraged him, and he kind of quit running on me most of the way down the backside. When I gave him a little cluck and chirp leaving the five-eighths pole, the response wasn't there. Down the stretch he never really kicked in at all."
McCarron had handled the colt intelligently in his last two races, but in the most important event of the colt's life, the jockey let the race get away from him. "I'm going to do my best to keep it from affecting how I perform," a disconsolate McCarron said. "But this race is going to go over and over in my head many times, just as the Derby and Preakness have, and there will be a whole different light on this one."
The race certainly left Stephens scratching his head, trying to figure out why Gone West had tired to sixth after the slow first mile in 1:38[2/5]. "I can't see him losing the lead after that mile," he said. "He worked a mile faster than that not long ago."
The victory even left Bet Twice followers puzzled. Alysheba had gone off as the odds-on 4-5 favorite, with Cryptoclearance second choice at 4-1 and Gone West the third choice at 5-1. At 8-1, a conspicuous overlay, Bet Twice paid $18 to win. "If the favorite was 4-5, we should have been 2-1," said Croll.
Regardless of prices, the Triple Crown was lost and the $3.5 million with it. "Down the tube," Van Berg said. "But I ain't gonna jump off a building. You're disappointed but you can't cry. This is a sport, and you gotta be a sport about it."
The thought of winning the bonus had never even occurred to Levy. "I didn't think we could beat Alysheba," he admitted. "The bonus never entered my mind. At all." That the colt avenged two defeats made the victory all the sweeter. On his way down to the circle, Levy turned to a companion and said, fiercely, "He crushed 'em!"
At the champagne party that followed, Levy was still happily savoring the details of Perret's ride, which had been executed precisely according to those few words of advice. When Perret appeared, Levy said to him excitedly, "When you blew by them today, you didn't wait."
"Those were my orders, weren't they?" said Perret. "I was going to blame you if I got beat."
At that moment Levy and Perret were surrounded by jubilant followers, all wondering where in New York City to spend this celebratory evening. Since they hadn't expected to win, they had planned to return to New Jersey; no one had made any reservations for dining or partying the night away. With a quick phone call, one of the celebrants. Sonny Werblin, former owner of the New York Jets, had a room reserved for them for dinner at the '21' club.
As they left the track Saturday night, most of the group were wearing buttons that read BET TWICE/MAKE IT HAPPEN. Barbara Poretsky, the daughter of one of the colt's owners, had designed the button; she was already making plans for a new one even before the colt had cooled out. It will read BET TWICE MADE IT HAPPEN.
And so, emphatically, he had. Though the horse was the only one who didn't look surprised.