The most popular racehorse in the country strutted around the paddock at Belmont Park on Saturday, working the crowd that leaned over the railing. As his admirers whistled and shouted his name—"Alysheba! Alysheba!"—the handsome 4-year-old bay son of Alydar and the favorite for the $750,000 Woodward Handicap, tossed his head. He danced. He pranced. He was every inch the star. "If you wanted to draw a picture of a horse," trainer Jack Van Berg had said earlier, "you couldn't find a more perfect model. He's a gorgeous horse, a beautiful horse. And he's got charisma."
A few minutes later, Alysheba, carrying the top weight of 126 pounds, gave yet another grand performance, beating a classy field of seven other horses and setting a track record of 1:59[2/5 for the mile and a quarter. The victory provided one more sterling entry in his bid for Horse of the Year honors and made up for a disappointing performance on this same track in last year's Belmont Stakes, a loss that prevented him from becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner. It also silenced skeptics who had said he couldn't win a big race in New York, where he would have to run without the diuretic Lasix, which is banned there.
There had been a lot of 'Sheba bashing in the week before the Woodward. Though the colt had won the Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park on Aug. 27 without the drug, reporters who dared to mention the L word to Van Berg were treated to a ruder one in return, outbursts that ended with "Don't you bleeping reporters have anything better to write about?" Van Berg was confident of his colt's ability: "He's stronger mentally and physically than last year [when he won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Super Derby]. He knows what's going on. He just growed up. Last year he was a little foolish."
In six outings this year, Alysheba had won four times, including the San Bernadino and Santa Anita Handicaps, in which he beat last year's Horse of the Year, Ferdinand. In the Iselin he defeated his nemesis, '87 Belmont winner Bet Twice, who ran on Lasix for the first time. Still, the strongest criticism of Alysheba was that in 11 starts using Lasix, he had won six races and nearly $4 million, but in 11 starts without the drug, he had won only his maiden race at Turf-way Park. His worst defeats without Lasix both occurred in New York: a fourth-place finish in the '87 Belmont and a sixth in the '87 Travers in the slop at Saratoga.
September 25, 1988
Now Alysheba had returned to New York to try to clear his name. And he was attempting to do it in what the Daily Racing Form called "probably the best race of the year." All eight entries in the Woodward were winners of Grade I stakes races. Alysheba's major competition was Forty Niner, the fine 3-year-old who had won all three of his races in New York, including this year's Travers. Forty Niner, the speed horse in the race, had to carry only 119 pounds. "He don't care what you do with him," said his trainer, Woody Stephens. "He's stronger than he's ever been. He's come here to dance."
At the outset it looked like a leisurely waltz. When the gates opened, Waquoit, a 5-year-old shipper from Suffolk Downs, loped to the front with Forty Niner lapped on him and Alysheba on the outside, half a length back. The three raced in that order up the back-stretch and into the far turn—Waquoit, Forty Niner and Alysheba, at the quarter, at the half and at the three-quarter mark—posting moderate fractions of :24⅕ :47[3/5] and 1:11⅕ hardly the stuff of records. But the pace began to pick up. At the mile mark Forty Niner put his head in front and maintained the lead until midway into the far turn, where Alysheba, ridden by Chris McCarron, overtook him. In a thrilling stretch drive, the three blazed side by side by side and noses apart. At the finish it was Alysheba by a neck over Forty Niner, who was a neck in front of Waquoit. The time cut [1/5] of a second off the track record set in 1982 by 4-year-old Silver Buck, who carried only 111 pounds.
A short time later, McCarron approached Van Berg and said, "What did they go? I didn't see the fractions. I expected him to be five or six lengths off the lead. But when he broke a half length in front I didn't want to take any hold of him. I did that in the Belmont—I tried to ease him back—and that was a mistake. I didn't want to do that twice. So I just let him go."
Alysheba's failure in the '87 Belmont was very much on Van Berg's mind, too. "I felt bad last year," he said. "We let everybody down. If I could've found a hole, I would've crawled in and stayed."
But did the Woodward win make Alysheba Horse of the Year? "I don't care about Horse of the Year," said Van Berg. "Our main objective is to keep the horse sound for the Breeders' Cup." The 1¼-mile Classic on Nov. 5 at Churchill Downs will be Alysheba's chance to get even for his narrow loss to Ferdinand in that same race last year, which many think cost Alysheba the 1987 Horse of the Year title.
And he's certainly not a lock this year. At the moment, the 4-year-old filly Personal Ensign, undefeated in 11 lifetime starts, is the leading candidate. Should she remain unbeaten through the Breeders' Cup Distaff race, there's a good chance she'll be voted the title. But don't count Alysheba out. The voters are fickle, and some tend to dismiss a filly's accomplishments. Moreover, Alysheba has earned $4,969,242, second to John Henry on the career earnings list. Should he take the Classic's $1.3 million winner's purse, he'll be only a quarter of a million from the mark, and his handlers say he'll race next year.
But Saturday, Van Berg was content with Alysheba's Belmont vindication. "It's a great satisfaction to come back here and have him redeem himself in New York," he said. "He won and set a track record. And he ran without Lasix." For Van Berg to utter the dreaded L word, he had to be happy indeed.