Beware the Ides of March, indeed! Shakespeare's famous line from Julius Caesar unfortunately turned out to be a harbinger of tragic events with past Kentucky Derby champions. The news of Alysheba's death last Friday due to a stall injury from a degenerative spinal condition has slowly reverberated throughout the equine world, just as racing fanatics were digesting the news of Lil E. Tee's passing nine days previous.
Alysheba (conditioned by savvy horseman Jack Van Berg and piloted by Chris McCarron) is universally regarded as the greatest racing progeny of the great sire, Alydar. Speaking of Alydar (and his epic rivalry with Affirmed), his son had a penchant for rivalries as well in both his 3 and 4 year-old seasons. The first rivalry started with Alysheba's 1987 Kentucky Derby triumph over Bet Twice, in which he avoided near catastrophe after clipping heels with Bet Twice in the stretch (ala Afleet Alex and Scrappy T. in the 2005 Preakness). These two finished in the same order at Pimlico two weeks later, while the speedy Bet Twice cantered through soft fractions in the "test of champions" (a.k.a. Belmont Stakes) to win easily while Alysheba lacked his customary finishing kick and finished fourth. It is important to note, however, that Alysheba was a bleeder and had to run without the diuretic Lasix according to New York medication laws at that time. For good measure, Bet Twice squeezed out a neck victory from Alysheba in the Haskell Invitational to split their head to head campaign at two wins each. And this was amongst strong competition with the likes of Gulch, Cryptoclearance and Demons Begone in their crop.
Alysheba's second "mini-rivalry" began with a painful loss to 1986 Derby winner Ferdinand by a diminishing nose in that fall's Breeders' Cup Classic. Although that defeat stirred up Alysheba, who came back for his four year-old season pissed off with a vengeance! In nine starts, he had seven wins - six Grade I's - and all but one victory was by the slim margin of under a half length... essentially taunting his peers until the finish line. Three of these victories were at the expense of Ferdinand, who fell "off form" in his six winless starts as a five year-old. Alysheba's final career victory under the lights of Churchill Downs in the Breeders' Cup Classic sealed his Horse of the Year honors. He was soon thereafter an inductee into the National Horse Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, NY.
It is both tragic and fitting that Alysheba made it back to Kentucky just months before his death after returning to the rolling hills of bluegrass from a Saudi Arabia stud farm in late October... a much better fate than previous racing foe, Ferdinand, who's life ended in a Japanese slaughter house (www.friendsofferdinand.org). He briefly called the Kentucky Horse Park Hall of Champions home, occupying the very stall that housed John Henry for decades. Alysheba retired with over $6.6 million in lifetime earnings, also supplanting John Henry's earnings record by a slim margin. That leaves another one-time earnings leader in Cigar (until Curlin recently surpassed the $10 million mark) across from the again unoccupied stall wondering who his new neighbor will be. Whichever new horse the Horse Park staff is able to woo to the Hall of Champions, it's doubtful that one will be able to fill the bridle left by "America's Horse" - Alysheba.