In the full flush of victory, Jockey Chris McCarron simply couldn't resist the impulse to proclaim the news to all those around him. To the fans draped over the homestretch rail at Churchill Downs, who were calling his name. To the man holding the red-and-white sign that read ALYSHEBA FOR PRESIDENT. And to the dozens of others who had swept onto the racetrack and were following McCarron around as he and his horse waited for the ceremony in the winner's circle to begin.
McCarron's mount, Alysheba, dropped his head, ground the bit in his mouth, and splashed and circled in the mud. Sitting on him, McCarron was as wild-eyed and mud-flecked as the colt, and at least as much on the muscle. Suddenly, the jockey pumped a fist in the air, pointed at his mount, and yelled to the crowds, "This is the horse of the year right here! Here he is!"
Indeed, Alysheba had just proved it. Late last Saturday afternoon in Louisville, in a scene at once eerie and portentous—beneath a low, scudding mantle of dark gray clouds and in light that was fading so quickly that racetrack officials had to turn on spotlights to illuminate the finish line—the bay colt emerged from the gloaming at the top of the stretch, ran down the leaders with 220 yards to go and then fought off a last, show-me-what-you-got stretch drive by Seeking the Gold to win the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
What gave the final struggle an epic dimension, making it more than just another rich, athletic contest among horses, was the virtual certainty, going into the race, that Alysheba would have to take the 1¼-mile Classic to earn the title of America's 1988 Horse of the Year, the most coveted honor in the sport. Earlier, the other chief contender for the title, the undefeated filly Personal Ensign, had emphatically laid her claim. In the Breeders' Cup Distaff, a 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile race for fillies and mares, the long-backed, 4-year-old bay had turned in one of the most inspired and inspiring performances in recent memory.
November 14, 1988
On a muddy racetrack that she obviously did not like, Personal Ensign stepped along cautiously for most of the way and appeared hopelessly beaten midway on the turn for home. She was eight lengths behind this year's Kentucky Derby champion. Winning Colors, who was running dangerously loose and free on the lead through moderate fractions. At that point Personal Ensign's trainer, Claude (Shug) McGaughey, turned to a friend, Rogers Beasley, and said, "Not today.... She's beaten."
But wait. As she straightened for home, Personal Ensign began to reach out, striding with more confidence, and slowly she whittled at Winning Colors's lead. In midstretch, with just 220 yards to go, Personal Ensign was still four lengths behind and faced the seemingly impossible job of catching the Derby champ. With jockey Randy Romero scrubbing on her, she cut the lead to three lengths, then two. The crowd of 71,237 began rocking the rafters, fully aware of the importance of the moment. The owners of Personal Ensign had made no secret of the fact that this was the elegant filly's last race. She had come to the Distaff with 12 lifetime victories in as many starts, and no major American racehorse had retired undefeated in 80 years, since Colin won all 15 of his starts in 1907-08.
She was running for history now. With only the length of a football field to go, she still looked beaten; but now Winning Colors, who had led from the start, began to tire. Suddenly, Personal Ensign was only a length behind, and then it was a neck. Romero was doing the bump and grind to keep her running. Trying with all she had in her. Personal Ensign surged forward, her neck stretched out. Two jumps from the wire, she was cheek by jowl with Winning Colors. And then she stuck out her chocolate nose to win by inches in the final stride.
A kind of joyous pandemonium erupted. McGaughey's assistant trainer, Buzzy Tenney, bolted onto the racetrack, throwing his fist in the air. "God almighty, what a thrill!" he shouted. McGaughey moved excitedly toward the track. "Undefeated," he said, with enormous relief. "One of the most courageous performances I've ever seen."
D. Wayne Lukas, the trainer of Winning Colors, grabbed McGaughey outside the winner's circle and, pumping his hand, said, "That's what it's all about! That's what racing's about!"
McGaughey pumped Lukas's hand right back, grinned and said, "Yeah, but you about ruined my day."
Indeed, Lukas spent much of Saturday messing up the plans of his foes, just as he had in previous editions of Breeders" Cup races. Coming into this fifth running, Lukas had won more Cup races—six—than any other trainer; nevertheless, there were serious students of the sport who suggested that Lukas might not win a single race this year, citing the overall strength of the competition. Lukas ended that speculation quickly enough when he saddled Gulch in the first of the seven Cup races and saw him win the six-furlong Sprint in a driving rush for the wire. In the very next race, for 2-year-old fillies, Lukas sent out a five-horse entry, shunning the old racetrack axiom that says racing is supposed to decide who has the most horse, not the most horses. Three of them, led by owner Eugene V. Klein's Open Mind, finished 1-2-3.
Enjoying things every bit as much as Lukas to that point was jockey Angel Cordero Jr. The third-winningest rider in history in races won (trailing Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay Jr.), Cordero is no longer the consistent presence he once was—back when he was the most brilliant and creative of American riders. In his 25 earlier Breeders' Cup races, Cordero had won only once, on Life's Magic in the 1985 Distaff. But now, three days shy of his 46th birthday, the old guy flashed his special style.
It was Cordero who rode Gulch to victory in the Sprint, taking back off an unimaginably torrid early pace on a gooey surface that would yield slow final times all afternoon. In the Sprint, however, the flat-out fastest thoroughbred in America, Olympic Prospect, blazed a quarter mile in 21 seconds, a half in 44⅕ and five eighths in a startling 56[2/5]. By then, though, sucked along in the slipstream, Gulch was running the fastest of all, with Cordero whooping and gunning him from the eighth pole home, and slicing into the leaders' margin with every stride. "The last eighth of a mile," he said afterward, "when my horse was moving for the lead, I was saying to Gulch, 'Please don't quit on me now! I am so close!' "
Cordero himself was sporting a not-so-secret weapon; he is one of the first jockeys to wear the formfitting jockey silks that are designed to reduce air drag and water weight (SI, Nov. 7). And on this wet and windy day in Louisville, his garb may have made a difference. "You bet these silks helped," Cordero said after Gulch had won by three quarters of a length. He also wore them in the second race, which he won on Open Mind by 1¾ lengths. Altogether, Cordero rode in six of the Cup races, and the horses he straddled took home a nifty $1,538,000 in prize money. He will get a 10% cut of that, or $153,800, for his day's work.
Neither silks nor strategy proved enough for Cordero in the 1½-mile Turf race. Aboard Sunshine Forever and lying just off the pace most of the way, in perfect position, he had dead aim on the leader, the long shot Great Communicator, every step of the race. When he set the colt down in the drive, however, Great Communicator, guided by Ray Sibille, simply outran him from the eighth pole and won it by a half length. The other turf race, the Mile, was more formful. Last year's champion, the dashing French filly Miesque, became the first horse ever to win two Breeders' Cup races when she collared the pacemakers in the stretch and won with a flourish, by four lengths—the day's largest margin of victory.
In the fifth Cup race of the afternoon, McGaughey's earlier fears were realized: Lukas finally did ruin his day. In the Juvenile, for 2-year-old colts and geldings, Lukas sent out Is It True, another Klein horse. McGaughey saddled a golden chestnut named Easy Goer, the prohibitive favorite at 3-10, who had met Is It True three times and routinely had him for breakfast. A son of the great stallion Alydar, out of a champion race mare named Relaxing, Easy Goer was truly born with designer genes. So wondrous were his recent races in New York that some handicappers were already comparing him to Secretariat.
Meanwhile, Is It True was perceived as no more than the second-best 2-year-old in the Lukas barn, behind a son of Seattle Slew named Houston. That colt broke his maiden last summer, but then he bucked his shins and has not raced since. Lukas, however, didn't need his top gun on Saturday. Is It True galloped to the lead and never came back, winning by 1¼ lengths, with Easy Goer a slow-closing second. Immediately after pulling off the upset of the day, Lukas poked his son Jeff, his chief assistant trainer, and said, "And Houston's in the barn!"
Easy Goer never got comfortable in the mud. "He didn't like the racetrack," said his jockey, Pat Day. "He was jumping up and down." Easy Goer undoubtedly will still be voted the 2-year-old champion, and he will rule as the winter book favorite for next year's Kentucky Derby. But Lukas, once again, showed the extraordinary depth of his stable. Is It True was his third winner. By day's end the trainer had also saddled three second-place finishers and one third-place horse. In all, Lukas-trained horses earned $2.19 million. "Best day I've ever had," Lukas said. "I came here hoping to win one. Amazing."
With the exception of the Distaff, with Personal Ensign's matchless exertions, the earlier races served chiefly as stepping-stones to the Classic. This was the one on which would turn the grand championship of racing: If Alysheba did not excel, there would be irresistible sentiment to award the Horse of the Year title to Personal Ensign off her undefeated career and her remarkable final race. But Alysheba had had a memorable year as well. The 1987 Kentucky Derby winner had won six of eight races and $2,458,600, had run on six different racetracks coast to coast—Churchill Downs would be his seventh—and had fractured two track records along the way. His lifetime earnings stood at $5,329,242, and a victory in the Classic would make him the biggest money-winner in racing history, vaulting him past the iron horse John Henry, who had earned $6,597,947 in an eight-year career. But beyond the formidable field Alysheba would be facing in the Classic, what looked most troubling was the condition of the track. More than an inch of rain had recently fallen, and with no sun to warm the track and a steady, bone-chilling wind whipping over it, the surface had the texture of what Lukas called "rolled peanut butter."
Not incidentally, the fact that the Breeders' Cup races would be contested on such a surface this year had been the source of controversy. The Breeders' Cup was conceived as a television spectacular, a Super Bowl of racing in which a TV audience could watch many of the world's best horses racing for $10 million in one day. Of the first four Breeders' Cups, three were held in Southern California, where the sun tends to shine, and on fast racetracks. Next year the series will be run at Gulfstream Park, in sunny Florida. The question was and is: Why hold the Breeders' Cup in a location like Louisville or New York (it was held at Aqueduct In 1985), where there is a chance that rain will alter horses* form and turn a colorful celebration of the sport into a dreary TV image of horses splashing around a sunless, muddy track in cold rain?
The word was going around that Kentucky breeders and local officials have been lobbying the directors of the Breeders' Cup to make Churchill Downs the permanent home of the series. Disconcerting as this prospect is, the idea has a couple of points of merit. No racetrack in America is more experienced and better suited to hosting a horse-racing spectacular than the home of the Kentucky Derby; and because Louisville is centrally located, it offers a neutral ground for horses based at the major tracks on either coast. Those advantages aside, the unpredictability of the weather, as witnessed Saturday, creates a serious drawback to holding the show there. Fortunately, the extraordinary drama of some of the performances saved the show.
Among the most dramatic was Alysheba's in the Classic. His trainer, Jack Van Berg, certainly had no fear of the elements. "It don't make no difference if it's muddy or what here," he said on the eve of the race. "This is the best racetrack there is—mud or anything. I'm not bothered by it raining. If he's got good racing luck, I'm not worried. He's just as good as you can make one, I think. Knock on wood that he's like that Saturday."
And indeed he was. The only problem, of course, was that you couldn't see him very well, what with the late post time (5:33 p.m. EST)—as dictated by NBC-TV—and the thick, low-hanging clouds. The whole event might have been better served had the jockeys worn miners' helmets with lamps shining. Still, for McCarron the race could not have come up easier. He settled Alysheba at the break, steered him clear of horses into the first turn and slowly closed ground down the backstretch, galloping along in fourth place behind the front-running mud-lover, Waquoit. Day, on Seeking the Gold, lay behind Alysheba, intending to track him until it was time to move.
The real race began as the horses moved into the far turn. "I tapped him on the shoulder at the half-mile pole," McCarron said. On the turn Alysheba raced outside and free of trouble. The natural light grew dimmer now, the clouds darker, and at once the bunching leaders appeared out of the turn like a herd of wild horses, distant and shadowy, surreal in black and white. The scene made for an odd moment. The Classic is the centerpiece of the Breeders' Cup, and after all the waiting and the buildup, it was almost invisible, a run through the dark.
What was going on up there at the turn? Well, midway through, McCarron decided to wait no longer. He twice tapped Alysheba on the shoulder. He felt the surge again. Four horses fanned out on the final bend—Waquoit and Cutlass Reality, Alysheba and Personal Flag. Right behind them lay Seeking the Gold, and Day thought he was going to get to the wire first. A consistent winner at Churchill Downs and always a favorite with the fans, Day hadn't had a victory all afternoon. Now he thought. Well, here we are. "I really felt confident," Day said afterward. "I called on him and he gave it to me."
Alysheba drove to the lead though the top of the lane. Waquoit resisted. Seeking the Gold closed outside of Alysheba. They were nose and nose. "I got right head and head with Alysheba and it turned into a dogfight," Day said. His blood up, Alysheba fought back, as has been his way in so many of his most exceptional races. Slowly, he pulled away from Seeking the Gold to triumph by half a length as Waquoit faded to third.
It was a tremendous performance, and it led straight to the winner's circle. "Who's horse of the year?" McCarron asked happily.
The filly was truly grand, but there was one better answer.
"She was running for history now but looked hopeleessly beaten on the turn for home."