LOUISVILLE, Ky. — To the considerable surprise of a lot of people who didn't think any of them could, the Kentucky Derby was won by one of the horses entered in it Saturday.
To give you an idea, the horse who won it was winning his second race ever in his life.
Would you believe Alysheba? Neither did most of the people who came to the track and let him get away at 8-1 in a field of nobodies.
He didn't so much win the race as he inherited it. The field was so slow, he ran up on it and almost went to his knees in the stretch behind stopping horses staggering into his path.
It wasn't a race, it was a rumble. Kentucky Derbies usually are. The favorite started to hemorrhage in the post parade, and by the middle of the backstretch, he didn't need to run so much as he needed to swim. He was a Niagara of red, bleeding from both nostrils. He looked like the loser in a Jake LaMotta fight. The rest of the field took turns trying to knock each other into the infield.
Hagler-Leonard was a figure-skate by comparison. War's rider actually was hanging over the rail on the first turn. For War, the race was hell. Cryptoclearance needed a cut man, too, after he got slammed into the fence early in the going and spent the rest of the trip bleeding from the shoulder. These horses don't need saddles, they need antlers.
All you needed to do well in this race was survive it. The last time this many reckless horses charged down a track, the riders were waving sabers and wearing fur hats. And cutting the ears off people.
Asking this bunch to run a mile and a quarter, fast, was like asking Zsa Zsa Gabor to do Shakespeare. The field was stumbling so in the stretch, it looked like closing time in a waterfront saloon.
Alysheba was the best horse in the race. But this may be like being the best dancer in Bulgaria. Or the best skier in Morocco.
It figured to be a wide-open race. Around a race track, "wide open" usually means "Don't bet any of these."
The Kentucky Derby was spared the embarrassment of a maiden winning its race. Alysheba did win another race once. That was back in September of his 2-year-old year, when he was able to handle the best that Turfway Park could lure in the starting stalls against him.
None of them put you in mind of Man o' War. Winning a maiden race at Turfway Park, the racing equivalent of the old Three-I League, is not enough to make an owner think he will some day see his colt's name in gold on the clapboard walls of Churchill Downs. But Alysheba was given a masterful training job by Jack Van Berg, one of the canniest handlers of horses this side of Geronimo.
Alysheba may not have been the best horse, but he was the fittest. He came down the stretch like Eric Dickerson through the Chicago Bears. The tiring horse in the lead, Bet Twice, did everything to stop him but open fire. Like a great fighter, Alysheba came off the ropes and one knee to win it.
Jack Van Berg figured this race owed him one. He came here three years ago with a 3-year-old rogue, so anti-social they almost had to blindfold to get him to race other horses and not bite them.
They put the horse, Gate Dancer, in Post Position 20, which is two area codes out from the real race, and, then, when Gate Dancer began to take out frustrations on luckier horses, they made him the only horse in Kentucky Derby history ever to be disqualified. He finished fourth and was moved back to fifth. In a Kentucky Derby, normally, Jesse James' horse would not get disqualified.
They thought Jack Van Berg had another outlaw in Alysheba. Actually, Alysheba won the second race if his life at Keeneland last month. But he won the race the way Dempsey used to win fights or Hitler battles. They thought Jack Van Berg had another horse who should run in a mask, but Alysheba was the one who got mugged Saturday.
"A less athletic colt would have never gotten back up to win," his rider, Chris McCarron, said after the race.
The race may be not be as memorable for the horse on the track as for the boy on his back. Only a few weeks ago, Chris McCarron was not on a horse, he was in a wheelchair. On Oct. 16 of last year at Santa Anita, McCarron, a red-haired, blue-eyed young rider who looks a little bit the way you imagine Oliver Twist or any other Dickens character might, tumbled off a horse called Variety Road in a pileup that ended the career (and almost the life) of another rider, Terry Lipham.
It appeared for a while as though McCarron had taken his last ride, too. His leg was so badly broken, it looked like something that got caught in a Cuisinart. To heal it, the doctors first had to assemble it.
Overeager, McCarron returned to racing too soon--he wanted to be riding by St. Patrick's Day or mid-March--but he had to go to weightlifting studios to strengthen the part of him jockeys need most, the legs. "When a horse I was exercising went left when I was leaning right, I didn't have any strength in my leg to stop him," the rider recalled.
On Saturday, he had enough to survive a stretch drive that must have seemed like the race-track version of the Charge of the Light Brigade. All that was missing was the cannon to the left of them, as Alysheba tried to storm the finish line through a wall of stopping horses.
It has a chance to be a vintage Kentucky Derby after all. It can come to be remembered as the year Chris McCarron won his first. Jack Van Berg not only had a mile-and-a-quarter horse, he had a mile-and-a-quarter rider. In a race which stops at the quarter pole for most of the entries, this was a nice winning combination to have in Kentucky Derby No. 113.
Now that he's won in Kentucky, does this mean Alysheba will win the Preakness and Belmont? Well, it's an intriguing thought--to have a horse that's won four races in his lifetime. And three of them were the Triple Crown.