BALTIMORE — Alysheba, a colt who wasn't given much respect before the Kentucky Derby and then brought out a new army of skeptics last week at Pimlico, won the Preakness Stakes more convincingly than his half-length margin showed Saturday as he moved within one victory of becoming the 12th horse to sweep the Triple Crown.
A 3-year-old hasn't blitzed the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes since Affirmed in 1978, but after Chris McCarron hustled Alysheba past Bet Twice in the last 50 yards Saturday, this late-running son of Alydar needs only to win at Belmont Park on June 6 to join the equine pantheon that started with Sir Barton in 1919.
Sir Barton earned $57,275 for his triple. Because of an insurance policy that Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park took out this year, Alysheba can collect a $5-million guarantee with his Triple Crown. He's already earned just more than $1 million with his Derby and Preakness pots, and a victory in the Belmont would be worth a total of more than $3.9 million.
Jack Van Berg, Alysheba's trainer, will be 51 the day after the Belmont, and late Saturday, no one had to remind him about the $5 million at the end of the rainbow.
"I was thinking about the $5 million when I told Jim McKay (ABC broadcaster) that I was going to win it with this horse last October," Van Berg said.
But even Van Berg must have had some doubts about Alysheba when he brought the horse out of California in April. Alysheba was a colt with a breathing problem that may have been corrected by minor surgery, and a horse who seemed to always come close but had won only one of nine races.
Since McCarron started riding him, Alysheba has done nothing but run first, although his Blue Grass victory, just before the Derby, was negated by a disqualification for bumping another horse in the stretch.
In the Derby, Alysheba was the sixth betting choice at 8-1, then survived repeated mugging attempts by Bet Twice through the stretch to win by three-quarters of a length.
Last week at Pimlico, a groundswell of pessimism surrounded Alysheba. For one thing, only three favorites in the last 23 Triple Crown races had won. Also, the Preakness was going to be Alysheba's third tough race in less than a month, and the colt moved like a yak in his final workout Thursday. Van Berg didn't seem to reek with the confidence that he had before the Derby.
After the Preakness was his, however, Van Berg said that the poor workout didn't disturb him.
"It was a slow work," he said, "but this horse was already so fit that all he had to be was sound for this race. I wasn't worried."
Five of the first six Derby finishers returned to run in the Preakness, and Saturday's result was almost a carbon copy of what happened at Churchill Downs, without the medical report that stemmed from a bumper-car 17-horse field and Bet Twice's rude antics through the stretch.
Alysheba ran a comparatively slow Derby, and his time of 1:55 4/5 over a fast track was the slowest for the Preakness in 12 years. Nevertheless, he has soundly beaten the best of his generation twice, and there appears to be no giant-killer lining up for the Belmont. Even trainer Woody Stephens, the Belmont winner each of the last five years, has a questionable 1 1/2-mile horse in Gone West.
The Belmont is a quarter-mile farther than the Derby and 5/16 of a mile longer than the Preakness, but Van Berg doesn't expect the added distance to be a problem.
"This horse can run from here to California if you set him down on the road," Van Berg said. "I know Woody will be sitting there on his home ground, and nobody brings a horse up to a race better than he does, but I've got my assistant--Charlie Whittingham--to gang up on him."
The last was a facetious reference to Derby week. Whittingham, the Hall of Fame trainer who lost his Derby starter when Temperate Sil got sick 10 days before the race, remained at Churchill Downs and helped supervise Alysheba's final preparations for the race.
Ironically, Bet Twice has been second in both the Derby and Preakness, and is also one race away from a rare feat, albeit a sheepish accomplishment compared to what Alysheba has going for him. The only horse to be runner-up in all three Triple Crown races has been Alydar, Alysheba's sire, who lost to Affirmed by a combined margin of less than two lengths.
On Saturday, Bet Twice had 1 1/2 lengths on the third-place Cryptoclearance, who got a questionable ride from the usually able Jose Santos. Cryptoclearance finished 3 1/2 lengths in front of Gulch, and the rest of the order in the nine-horse field was Avies Copy, Phantom Jet, Lookinforthebigone, No More Flowers and Harriman.
The late money in a record Pimlico crowd of 87,945 made Alysheba the favorite over Cryptoclearance, and the winner paid $6, $4.60 and $3.40. Bet Twice returned $4.60 and $3.60, and Cryptoclearance paid $3. A $2 exacta on Alysheba and Bet Twice was worth $23, and a $2 trifecta on the first three finishers paid $80.70.