Southern California's Greatest Racehorses: Alysheba

May 20, 2015 12:48pm
Alysheba Derby 615 X 400
Photo: Churchill Downs Photo

Unlike the first two subjects in my series on “Southern California Racing Greats,” this next immortal thoroughbred was a bit of a late developer. Before victories in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, this son of Alydar entered his three-year old season with just one win and was not one of the public’s choices in the annual “Run for the Roses” at Churchill Downs. Despite being eligible at the Kentucky Derby for a non-winners of two event, Alysheba had an illustrious career and is this week’s topic on my weekly Horse Racing Nation piece.

The bay colored star was bred by Preston Madden in 1984 and sold as a yearling to Dorothy and Pamela Scharbauer for $500,000. Alysheba was then put in the hands of 1984 Eclipse Award winning conditioner Jack Van Berg, who trained him to a record of 11 wins, 8 seconds and two third-place efforts in 26 career starts. Van Berg, who led the trainer standings at Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha, Nebraska for 19 consecutive years, was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1985.  As was almost always the case, Van Berg practiced patience with Alysheba and brought him along a bit slower than others might have.

Alysheba began racing on July 21, 1986 where he finished fifth at Hollywood Park. This was followed by a runner-up performance at Arlington before breaking his maiden at Turfway Park on September 14, 1986.  From there, the Alydar progeny was quickly sent into stakes company 13 days later where he finished second in the In Memoriam Stakes.  Underneath finishes continued for Alysheba with a runner up effort in the Grade II Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, a third place effort in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and an other second place finish to end his two-year old campaign in the Hollywood Futurity on December 14th.  It was not an awful juvenile season by any means for him and his connections, but the best was certainly yet to come.

Van Berg gave Alysheba a few months rest after his 7-race two-year old season before an allowance prep on March 8 at Santa Anita Park and then the Grade I San Felipe Stakes. Once again, he ran well, but not good enough to win when finishing second to Chart the Stars.  The colt clearly was doing well despite being upset in Arcadia and in his third race off the layoff; he was shipped to Lexington for the Blue Grass Stakes.  It appeared that he won his second career event, but the Keeneland stewards stepped in to disqualify him despite finishing ahead of the front running War and the hard charging Leo Castelli.  His second trip to the winners’ circle would have to wait one more start.

For the first time, a winner of racing’s Triple Crown would receive the massive bonus of $5 million dollars. The stakes were as high as ever as a star-studded field took to the gates for the 1987 Kentucky Derby. Demons Begone was the betting favorite and Leroy Jolley’s entry of Gulch and Leo Castelli also took their share of money.  The three-horse D. Wayne Lukas entry of War, two-year old champion Capote and On the Line as well as Scotty Schulhofer’s “now horse” Cryptoclearance were also given decent chances. For a runner with just one win, Alysheba was still given plenty of respect going off at 8.40 to 1. He did not disappoint his supporters.  Despite a less than ideal trip where he was squeezed early and then nearly knocked down by runner up Bet Twice, the bay colt was able to cross the wire first under vigorous left-handed urging from Chris McCarron in a less than brisk 2:03 4/5 seconds.  Jack Van Berg captured his first and only Derby. McCarron winning the first of his two “Run for the Roses.”

Alysheba would return in two weeks for the 112th Preakness Stakes where he beat a more compact field, again narrowly defeating Bet Twice despite a wide voyage over the Baltimore, Maryland surface. This set the stage for the potential of the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 and a “takedown” of the new $5 million dollar bonus.  Despite the two victories in May, things were different for the Derby and Preakness winner at Belmont Park.  He was forced to race without the anti-bleeding medication Lasix since it was not allowed in New York in 1987. He also would have to defeat the great 73-year old trainer Woody Stephens and his runner Gone West. Stephens seemingly won Elmont, New York’s biggest race every year and came into the race searching for his sixth win in a row in the Belmont Stakes. In a story today’s racing fans are accustomed to, the Derby/Preakness winner came up short. The pace was slow early and a strong middle move from jockey Craig Perret on Bet Twice gave the runner up in the Derby and Preakness a large lead when they turned for home. The son of Sportin’ Life then drew off in the lane giving him a 10-length win in the end. The odds on favorite could do no better than fourth. Given the early pace it is likely even with Lasix he would have come up short.

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Alysheba’s three-year old campaign continued less than two months later at Monmouth Park where he finished second in the Grade I Haskell followed by an unimpressive sixth in the Travers at Saratoga.  He rebounded well in Louisiana winning the Super Derby before heading back to Southern California for the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic. In one of the greatest renditions of the event and the first battle between Derby winners since Affirmed and Spectacular Bid, the 1986 winner Ferdinand nosed out the Van Berg trainee to take the lions’ share of the $3 million event. I was too young to recall the race live, but still Tom Durkin’s call will be one I will never forget as he proclaimed. “The two Derby winners hit the wire together!”

Unlike many of the top colts today, Alysheba raced quite arduously during his four-year old season. In fact, it was his most productive as a racehorse.  Victories in the Strub Stakes, the “Big Cap” and the San Bernardino at Santa Anita Park started his 1988 with a “bang.” A fourth place effort in the Pimlico Special was a minor “hiccup” followed by a runner up effort in the Hollywood Gold Cup in late June.  After a two-month freshening, the star colt ended his Hall of Fame career with four consecutive Grade I victories.  A score in the Iselin Handicap began the winning streak followed by wins in the Woodward at Belmont Park and the Meadowlands Cup in North Jersey.  This paved the way for the long awaited return to America’s richest race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The 1988 event saw another amazing group of runners take the stage over a sloppy Churchill Downs surface.  Slew City Slew and Waqouit went toe to toe early, while Alysheba settled into a perfect spot in fourth about eight lengths off the early pace.  When they turned for home, five runners were across the track, but in the final furlong it came down to two greats once again in the Classic. Seeking the Gold collared the runner Tom Durkin referred to during the race call as “America’s Horse,” but the son of Alydar was “unyielding.” Chris McCarron and Alysheba crossed the wire first and got revenge from the narrow miss a year before.  It was simply another epic version of the $3 million event and a perfect way to end his 26-race career.

After his career as a racehorse Alysheba was also productive as a sire, however none of his progeny came close to his success. The 11-time winner was responsible for 11 stakes winners including Canadian runner Alywow and Desert Waves.  On March 27, 2009 the 1987 Kentucky Derby winner was euthanized at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute near Lexington, Kentucky.  The 25-year old stallion was buried at the Park’s Hall of Champions across from the grave of John Henry.  The beloved colt fell in his stall and was not able to get up. It was clear that he would not be able to recover from the chronic degenerative spinal condition complicated by his age.

I was only 9-years old when Alysheba was born, but I remember watching the Kentucky Derby with my father having little clue about racing.  The Hall of Fame runner’s $6,679,242 earnings and performances on racing’s biggest stages will never be forgotten.  May the racing world see another Alysheba very soon.


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Scott has been a fan of handicapping and following thoroughbred racing since Garden State Park was rebuilt in Cherry Hill, NJ in 1985.  His first memories of the racetrack include the 1985 Jersey Derby won by Spend a Buck and the 1990 Met Mile clash between Easy Goer, Criminal Type and Housebuster, but it was not until his mid to late twenties that Scott became confident he had a knack for picking winners. He points to the summer of 2007 in San Diego while working on a masters degree in American History as the time where he took his handicapping, his communication skills, and his attention to detail to the next level.  It was at this time where he had his first real big score.   He had four of only five winning combinations in the now extinct “Place Pick All” on a $8 ticket netting himself $40,000. 

A few months after hitting a monster pick five at Santa Anita Park in February of 2013, Scott started his website, showcasing his and other experts' selections, as well as analysis and commentary on North American racing. From there, he began writing a weekly column for called "Race of the Week" and soon thereafter started writing for Horse Racing Nation. Currently, he is Horse Racing Nation's Southern California Racing Correspondent and can be found most days at Santa Anita Park or Del Mar Race Course.

Scott loves playing in horse racing tournaments and constructing pick four and pick five tickets.  His favorite all-time horses are Captain Bodgit, A.P. Indy, Fly So Free and Charismatic. He has lived in multiple states including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Colorado before returning to Southern California in the middle of 2015 to start "Shapper Da California Capper." 


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