The date was May 2, 1987. The United States was just months away from Black Monday, the worst stock market crash in nearly 60 years, and in the world of thoroughbred horse racing; a new star would be born and a great rivalry would begin all within the final quarter mile of the grandest of stages in American racing. The Kentucky Derby is the one race where a horse’s fortune can be made in the time that it takes
for the conscientious person to brush their teeth. Never was this truer than in the Kentucky Derby of 1987 and for a courageous bay colt named Alysheba.
By the time Alysheba arrived at the Kentucky Derby, he was regarded as an attractive and promising colt, but the $500,000 yearling buy of the Scharbauer family was still eligible for ‘non winners of one other than.’ His career to that point was littered with near misses, and when he finally did get to the wire first in a big race, he was ceremoniously disqualified. Despite being taken down from 1st after being determined to be the main troublemaker in a roughly run three horse stretch battle in the Blue Grass, Alysheba had shown improvement in his first races since throat surgery to repair an entrapped epiglottis.
The Kentucky Derby that year featured an excellent field of 17 colts and geldings, many of whom had already compiled a much more impressive resume than Alysheba. Horses of note in the field included Cryptoclearance, Gulch, Capote, and the betting favorite, Demon’s Begone. Alysheba was respected at 8-1, but was only the sixth betting choice.
The seventh betting choice was Bet Twice. The chestnut son of Sportin’ Life was considered one of the favorites for the Derby only a few months before, but his performances after beginning his career with a five race winning streak, had become a bit spotty. Early in his three-year-old season Bet Twice looked like a champ in winning the Fountain of Youth for fun, but then returned to run an uninspired fifth in the Florida Derby at odds-on. There was an excuse, but still Bet Twice would be let go at 10-1 on Derby Day.
Little did bettors realize that a great rivalry was about to unfold among the two horses preferred sixth and seventh best. Alysheba and Bet Twice had met once already, but that was when they shipped across country to run third and fourth respectively the previous year in Capote’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The Kentucky Derby would be their second meeting, and this time they would be the stars of the show.
As often happens in the Derby, the real running began on the far turn, and both Bet Twice and Alysheba had positioned themselves well for the stretch drive. When the field straightened out for the long Churchill Downs stretch, Bet Twice had secured the lead, but looked like he would soon be swallowed up by the powerful rush of Alysheba. It would not be that simple though, as Bet Twice started to bear out into his competition.
The first time nearly knocked Alysheba down. With Chris McCarron in the irons, Alysheba went down to his knees, but gracefully regained his balance and set off after the leader again. Two more times, Bet Twice would bear out and impede Alysheba’s progress, but the powerful Jack Van Berg trained colt was too strong and determined, and simply would not be denied. At the wire, he finished ¾ of a length better than his new rival. While leaving Bet Twice a valiant, but vanquished second place finisher, Alysheba was on his way to becoming a star. The Derby triumph may have marked only the second victory in what had been up to that time, the son of Alydar’s trouble-plagued career, but it was clear his star was on the way up.
Flash-forward 18 months later and Alysheba had become America’s Horse, the all-time leading money winner, and a respected champion. He would defeat Bet Twice in the Preakness, as well as come within a whisker of being the first horse to win back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Classics. Meanwhile, Bet Twice would go on to have a fine career, winning several more stakes races including a runaway victory in the Belmont that ended his popular rival’s quest for the Triple Crown. Their rivalry may have been best remembered in the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, but there battles would continue on over the next two seasons. In all, the two would face each other nine times with Alysheba besting his rival on five occasions.
Nine meetings between the two may have made up one of the best rivalries in recent racing history, but it was the Derby that really made the rivalry. Bet Twice was both a determined and a bothersome competitor, but nothing was going to stop the brave and relentless Alysheba on that unforgettable May afternoon at Churchill Downs.