Jockey Bill shoemaker, his face flecked with the dirt of the racetrack, looked grim as he reined Ferdinand to a stop in front of the Hollywood Park grandstand on Saturday afternoon. The colt's chestnut coat was awash with sweat, and he was breathing deeply.
Janet Johnson, Ferdinand's exercise rider and an assistant under trainer Charles Whittingham, moved toward rider and horse. "You win?" she asked.
"I don't know," breathed the Shoe. "Too close."
Moments earlier, in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic at a mile and a quarter, Shoemaker and Ferdinand had fought jockey Chris McCarron and Alysheba down to the wire in one of the most memorable 100 yards of racing in recent history. Just past the 16th pole Ferdinand took the lead by a little more than a length, but Alysheba came bounding up alongside, nibbling at his margin with each stride—to a length, then half a length, then a neck and a head, and finally they were nose and nose. They hit the finish line in tandem, as if harnessed to the same chariot, and it was so close that neither rider was sure who had won. As they were pulling up their horses just past the wire, Shoemaker hollered over to McCarron, "Would you like to save?"
November 30, 1987
"Yeah," said McCarron. "How 'bout a nickel?"
"Ten at least," said the Shoe.
Using racetrack parlance, Shoemaker had asked McCarron if he wanted to make a saver bet that would ease the pain of the loser—whoever it was. The agreement meant that the winner would pay the loser $10,000. The two men brought their horses back toward the winner's circle.
They were met there by a sustained standing ovation from the crowd of 57,734, an appreciative roar that soared through the clubhouse and grandstand. The atmosphere was positively electric, juiced by the sight of these two most recent winners of the Kentucky Derby straining mightily through the stretch. Alysheba, in particular, had been a study in desire. As the wire loomed, he stretched his neck and stuck out his snout as far as he could, looking as if he wanted to win it every bit as much as McCarron, who flailed him lefthanded with the whip.
And now, as the crowd continued to cheer, all eyes were on the tote board, which still read PHOTO. At last the number six flashed. Ferdinand had won it by the snip of a nose.
McCarron looked at the board, snapped his head down and uttered a profanity. The $10,000 saver was small consolation for the $135,000 that the Shoe had just earned as his 10% cut of the winner's prize of $1.35 million. But bettors crowding along the apron leaped in the air as the biggest roar of the day went up. Ferdinand was not only the even-money favorite but also a Southern California horse, and Shoemaker, 56 years old, has been riding in California since 1949. Pressing against the fence, bettors began chanting: "Shoe! Shoe! Shoe!"
Shoemaker's wife, Cindy, a foot taller than his 4'11", met him on the racetrack as he walked to the winner's circle, where she bent over and embraced him. "Hey, we made it, Mama!" he said. It was Shoemaker's first victory ever in a Breeders' Cup race since the seven-races-in-one-day event was launched in 1984. "I was getting worried whether I'd ever win one," he said.
It was also the first Breeders' Cup victory for the 74-year-old Whittingham, who has won more stakes races in the U.S. than any other trainer in history. But on this day Whittingham seemed nearly certain to come up with a winner, Ferdinand's chances aside. In the second race, the $1 million Juvenile Fillies, he had the second favorite, Jeanne Jones, and in the third, the $1 million Distaff, he had the heavy favorite, Infinidad. He also had decent chances with entries in the $2 million Turf and in the $1 million Mile.
But at the outset it wasn't a day for favorites. For four months this summer and fall, a sleek chestnut colt named Groovy was unquestionably the fastest sprinter in the world, and in the six-furlong Breeders' Cup Sprint, Saturday's first race, he was sent off at 80 cents to the dollar. Breaking slowly from the two post, Groovy never got his head in front, where he runs best, and a filly named Very Subtle—a 16-1 shot—beat him by four lengths. "He broke horrible," said Groovy's trainer, Jose Martin.
For Whittingham, that might have been an omen. One by one, his horses were picked off. Jeanne Jones, under Shoemaker, was six in front with 220 yards to run and looked as if she would win with a grin—but then a 30-1 shot, Epitome, ran her down and beat her a dirty nose. "She should have won," Shoemaker said. "She kind of jumped and hesitated when she saw the cameramen inside the rail." At odds-on in the Distaff, Infinidad couldn't mount anything resembling a challenge and finished fourth, beaten almost seven lengths by Sacahuista. Whittingham, sitting in his box seat, scratched his hairless pate and shrugged. "That filly didn't run a yard," said the Bald Eagle. "I don't know why."
In the Mile, a French horse, Miesque, scored by 3½ lengths, and Whittingham's two-horse entry got buried. He didn't have a horse in the fifth race—the Juvenile for 2-year-old colts, won by Success Express—and his three horses in the 1½-mile Turf finished off the board.
But Whittingham's disappointment notwithstanding, the Turf evolved into the kind of horse race that reaches beyond the realm of an athletic contest and becomes, in the beauty of its struggle, a piece of art.
How else to describe that magnificent stretch run from the quarter pole to home? It began unfolding when Trempolino, winner of the world's most prestigious race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, raced to the flank of front-running Theatrical and snatched the lead. The race appeared to be over. Surely Trempolino would now gallop away grandly, just as he had in the Arc, which he won by two lengths.
But not this time. Gathering himself under jockey Pat Day, Theatrical resolutely battled back. By midstretch he had the lead again, and from the eighth pole to the wire he edged ahead of the game Trempolino to win by half a length, tying the course record of 2:24[2/5] for 12 furlongs. It was a stirring performance.
Six races down and one to go, and Whittingham had won nothing. And, as Janet Johnson walked through the paddock, she came upon Jack Van Berg, trainer of Alysheba. Whittingham's assistant was wearing a full-length plaid dress with a high collar.
"Why do you have a long dress on today?" Van Berg asked her.
"I was hoping to get my picture taken in the winner's circle," she said. "It just hasn't happened yet."
Her trainer had saddled seven horses without earning a photo session, and now Ferdinand was the last chance for her, for Whittingham and for Shoemaker. All year long Whittingham had been aiming Ferdinand for the Classic, and he had the colt ticking like a new Swiss watch. Whittingham offered Shoemaker little counsel before the start, telling him simply, "Don't get too far back. Speed is holding up good here today."
Shoemaker let Ferdinand break casually from the gate, steered him to the rail around the first turn to save ground and watched the race develop up front. What he saw was Candi's Gold racing for the lead and Judge Angelucci tracking him. The two leaders fired the first half in 46[2/5] seconds, honest time for this 10-furlong race, and then they were nose and nose, their heads bobbing together as they swept down the backside.
Shoemaker let out a notch here, and Ferdinand advanced along the rail, moving from sixth to fifth. Behind him things were going swimmingly for McCarron and Alysheba. "It's the best trip he had all year," McCarron said. "He was inside all the way around the first turn, saving ground, and when we turned into the backside I took him outside, where Jack wanted me to be. In the passing lane, as he calls it."
Meanwhile, jockey Eddie Delahoussaye was getting a ton of run out of the white-faced Judge Angelucci. Candi's Gold and the Judge ran through six furlongs in 1:10⅕ and at that point Shoemaker left the rail and moved outside, in front of Alysheba, to get out of traffic. The race, as they say, was on. "He felt as good as he ever did," said the Shoe.
On the turn for home, Ferdinand was hounding the leaders, just off the pace. Shoemaker did not want to move too soon. "He's not an easy horse to ride," Shoe said later. "You have to time his move just right, as close to the finish as you can. When you get to the lead with him, he thinks the race is over and pricks his ears and eases up. If you wait too long, you might not catch 'em. If you move too soon, he might make the lead, pull himself up and get beat. You have to gauge it."
Still tracking the Judge and Candi, Shoemaker nursed Ferdinand behind the leaders around the final turn and waited. McCarron, meanwhile, sailed wide with Alysheba on the turn, giving ground rather than risking the perils of the rail. "He lost a lot of ground," McCarron said. "But it's better than going inside and getting him stopped."
They wheeled for home. Shoemaker was in quick reach of the leaders, but he continued to wait for that last possible moment to move. Now Alysheba came to Ferdinand at the top of the final straight. McCarron thought he was going to win it. "He had dead aim on 'em, and he was rolling," the rider said. In a trice Alysheba was at Ferdinand's saddlecloth. Shoemaker merely waved his stick in front of Ferdinand's right eye. The colt surged forward.
"Man, did Ferdinand take off!" McCarron said. "He quickened and got the jump on me, from a half-length lead to a length and a half."
Ferdinand began running down Candi's Gold and Judge Angelucci without more urging from Shoemaker. At the eighth pole he was third, half a length behind Candi. "Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ferdinand," said Delahoussaye, "and I said, 'Uh-oh, here he comes.' You knew that Ferdinand and Alysheba were the horses we'd have to outrun."
Ferdinand steadily whittled at the lead. Candi tired first, fading on the rail, but the Judge resisted admirably. With the wire 100 yards away, Shoemaker decided he could wait no longer and went to scrubbing on Ferdinand. The colt picked up the beat and surged to the lead. In front and 50 yards from the finish, he suddenly pricked his ears and began to loaf, just as Shoemaker had feared. With a head of steam up, Alysheba rushed right next to him, Ferdinand responded and the magical scene played out—two Derby winners battling head to head, not only to win this race but also most probably to earn the title of 1987 Horse of the Year.
Shortly after the race, McCarron watched a rerun of the two colts hitting the wire, with Alysheba sticking out his nose. "Damn!" said McCarron. "He just ran out of real estate."
Shoemaker laughed. "I was worried at the 16th pole whether I was going to get by the Judge," he said. "But when my horse saw Alysheba coming to him at the end, he put in a little extra effort and got the job done."
Van Berg was crushed. In the interview area immediately after the race, he hunched over and watched the taped reruns, as if he were expecting the outcome to change miraculously with each viewing. Apparently unconvinced, he finally straightened up and said, "Can you get the photo? I'd like to see the photo."
But no reexamination of the evidence would change the verdict, and many in the paddock on Saturday felt a certain sense of justice. Whittingham's fellow trainers were well aware of the patience and design that he had brought to the training of Ferdinand for this race. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who had won two Breeders' Cup races on the day with Sacahuista and Success Express, met the Bald Eagle in the paddock after the race. Lukas leaned close to him and whispered, "Most deserving."
Meanwhile, as Whittingham, the septuagenarian, was savoring his triumph, Shoemaker, the seemingly ageless one, was providing a fitting denouement for the day. Immediately after the Classic, Hollywood Park ran two more stakes, the first of them, the Somethingroyal Handicap—and the Shoe was back in the saddle. Not only that, but he won the race on a 9-1 shot. The name of the horse? Fairly Old.