To pass the time on the flight from Los Angeles to Louisville for this year's Kentucky Derby, Scott Merrill brought along a recent medical textbook.
"It said in there that the operation I had done on Alysheba was not the right thing to do," said Merrill, a 30-year-old veterinarian. "It said that the procedure wouldn't work."
That textbook may be in need of revision.
Since Merrill performed throat surgery on Alysheba in the horse's stall at Santa Anita on March 24, the colt who won once in 10 starts has finished first in three straight races--the Blue Grass at Keeneland, the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and the Preakness at Pimlico.
The stewards at Keeneland disqualified Alysheba for interfering with another horse in the stretch, but there was nothing to taint his victories in the Derby and Preakness. Now the son of Alydar has a chance at a $5-million payoff. He will try to become the 12th Triple Crown champion a week from Saturday in the Belmont Stakes at Elmont, N.Y.
Jack Van Berg's patient training and Chris McCarron's flawless rides are all ingredients in this Triple Crown scenario, but the horse is the most important element, and Alysheba is not the same horse that began his 3-year-old season in early March by running fourth as the odds-on favorite in an allowance race at Santa Anita.
"I'll bet that he broke everybody in California that day," Van Berg said. "The clockers--everybody--said he was training so well that he was bound to win."
After that race, Alysheba was "scoped," examined with an endoscope, a piece of equipment that has optical fibers to transmit light from a small condenser down a horse's throat and relay an image back to the veterinarian's eye.
The exam showed that Alysheba had a soreness of the epiglottis, the fleshy tissue that covers the windpipe when a horse swallows, preventing food from entering the lungs.
The scoping also showed that Alysheba might have bled from the lungs. Two state veterinarians agreed and put him on the Lasix list, which allows a horse to run on a diuretic that deters bleeding.
Alysheba's next scheduled race was the San Felipe Handicap at Santa Anita, the colt's first major prep for the Kentucky Derby, and Alysheba was put on antibiotics for several days.
Despite his poor debut, Alysheba was considered a threat in the San Felipe. As a 2-year-old, he was third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, second in the Hollywood Futurity and at the end of the year was ranked behind only four juveniles--Capote, Gulch, Polish Navy and Temperate Sil.
Alysheba was sent off at 3-1 odds in the San Felipe, second only to Temperate Sil, and he came from last place to finish second, less than a length behind Chart the Stars.
Pat Day, who rode Alysheba that day, said, however, that the horse did no running in the last eighth of a mile and questioned his desire. Van Berg, however, had noticed something else in Alysheba's two 1987 races.
"When he was fourth, he ran with his head kind of cocked to the side," the trainer said. "Then in the San Felipe, he ran up to the leaders and threw his head up, like he wasn't getting any air."
Merrill, who has treated Van Berg's horses for about four years, suggested surgery after the first race, and now the trainer was convinced that it should be done. A scoping of Alysheba after the San Felipe showed that the epiglottis was entrapped. A small part of the soft palate was rising up, blocking the air flow.
Merrill might have known sooner than anyone else that Alysheba had Triple Crown potential.
"To run second with his epiglottis entrapped, you had to know that he was a real contender," the veterinarian said.
In 1985, veterinarian Greg Ferraro freed Tank's Prospect's epiglottis with a 20-minute operation, and a week later the colt won the Arkansas Derby, followed by a victory in the Preakness.
Merrill told Van Berg that Alysheba's operation might take 2 1/2 hours.
"That was the maximum, but I wanted Jack to know the longest that it would take, counting the time for the anesthesia," Merrill said. "My philosophy is to treat all horses the same, but let's face it, this was an expensive horse. His owners (the Clarence Scharbauer family of Midland, Tex.) paid $500,000 for him. It's a delicate procedure. Things can go wrong."
For a while March 24, they did. The instrument Merrill used--it doesn't even have a name--is a 20-inch stainless-steel rod with a hook-shaped blade. Down-home Van Berg, the layman's layman, said it reminds him of a coat hanger.
"It looks like the kind of thing that you might use to get into your car, after you've locked yourself out," Van Berg said.
Merrill himself has a layman's way with words. The membrane he was trying to remove was fairly thick, about three-eighths of an inch, and it reminded him of a big wad of bubble gum.
After an hour or so of probing, Merrill wanted to give up. The soft palate kept flipping over, blocking the veterinarian's access. There was also the danger that the anesthetic might be wearing off.