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Whittingham, Van Berg to Match Derby Winners

Jim Murray

November 15, 1987|Jim Murray

Ferdinand is the best horse Charlie Whittingham ever trained. The evidence is incontestable. He won the Kentucky Derby.

Charlie has had horses who won the Arc de Triomphe, Santa Anita Handicaps, Hollywood Gold Cups, Marlboro Cups, Del Mar Futurities. But only one won the Kentucky Derby. Other horses made him wealthy. Ferdinand made him famous.

Jack Van Berg has trained horses almost as long as Charlie Whittingham. He was all but born in a stable. Other kids got ponies for Christmas; Jack got a 6-year-old claimer and a box of bandages. He won more races than any other trainer in the world one year. But he won only one Kentucky Derby. Alysheba is the best horse he ever trained.

Neither Ferdinand nor Alysheba is apt to make the world forget Man o' War. Or even Swaps. Alysheba has had 16 races and won 4 of them. Ferdinand has had 19 and won 6. But they were the best of their company one day in May in Kentucky when it all counted.

Dempsey-Tunney, it's not. There may be better horses in the Breeders' Cup fields at Hollywood Park Nov. 21. But none more competitive, none more dramatic than the matchup between these two.

Match races, per se, are not favored by horsemen. The conditions aren't true. A race is without strategy. An unsound horse is often made to toe the mark because of pre-meet publicity.

The next-best test is a race in which the conditions are such that either horse thinks he can win it. Almost never are Kentucky Derby winners on the same card, let alone the same race.

The bragging rights to California are at stake. Charlie Whittingham and Jack van Berg are such good friends that Whittingham helped Van Berg with his conditioning at this year's Kentucky Derby. "I wish he'd ask me this week," jokes Charlie.

Although matchups between past winners of the Kentucky Derby are not entirely unprecedented--Seattle Slew defeated Affirmed in the Marlboro Cup in 1978 in a battle of Triple Crown winners, no less--they are rare.

Neither horse is a clock-breaker. Ferdinand won his Derby in 2:02 4/5, several ticks off Secretariat's track and race record, 1:59 2/5. Alysheba's was even slower, 2:03 2/5.

If they were human, they'd be sluggers. Pittsburgh Steelers, not Dallas Cowboys. Athletes, not artists. Blue-collar horses. Like baseball players who go for power, not average. As longtime trainer Jimmy Jones once said of Citation, "He wants to be firstest, not the fastest." They don't always look good winning. But they win.

They both survived rough trips to win the Derby.

Ferdinand was shuffled back into a closet at the start by a no-chance field horse in his Derby and had to find a keyhole in the wall of horses in the stretch to win the race.

Alysheba got batted around like a fullback at the goal line in his race and finished with another horse's blood on him and almost had to take an eight-count in the stretch when he clipped the heels of the front-running Bet Twice a furlong from the wire.

Their match next Saturday shapes up as more Dempsey-Firpo than a style show. More than the game's richest purse--$3 million--may be at stake as they come toe to toe to the wire. Horse of the year, every breeders' daydream, could be in the balance.

"Ferdinand is the best horse in training today," insists Charlie Whittingham.

Jack Van Berg turns slightly purple at that suggestion but Alysheba has some horsemen's prejudice to overcome. Alysheba was the first horse in nearly 40 years to win a Kentucky Derby with only one win, and a maiden race, at that, to his credit.

He came up nearly 15 lengths short in his attempt to win his Triple Crown, finishing that much short of Bet Twice in the Belmont. Press box judgment was that Alysheba needed Lasix, a medication banned in New York state but used elsewhere by Alysheba to counter a tendency to bleed from the nose. Some horsemen think Lasix does more to promote speed than stem hemorrhaging.

Van Berg had another explanation: "You can't give up 10 lengths in a slow-run mile and a half race," he growls.

A New York writer was even more specific. "McCarron (Alysheba's jockey, Chris)) rode him like an elephant," he said.

Van Berg points out that his horse ran sans-Lasix in New Jersey a month later and only got beaten by a neck by Bet Twice. "He was much the best," grumbles Van Berg. "He had another rough trip."

Two-horse races are an American tradition. Another American tradition is to bet the older horse. In real match races, Seabiscuit, at 5, beat War Admiral at 4. Armed, 6, beat Assault, 4.

But, Man o' War, 3, beat Sir Barton, 4, in 1920, and Sir Barton was the original Triple Crown winner. Man o' War never ran in the Derby.

Can Alysheba, 3, beat Ferdinand, 4? That may not be the way to bet but Van Berg is unconvinced.

"This is a horse that has the best nervous system of any horse that's ever been--at least that I've been around," he says. "He is the most unexcitable horse you've ever seen. Nothing bothers him, the crowd, the competition, the noise, the starting gate. He's just a great athlete."

Unexcitability is a great asset in a crucial match. Joe Louis used to fall asleep on a rubbing-table before world title fights.

But how about Ferdinand's being a year older?

"Alysheba don't know it," shoots back Van Berg.

What if their "match" race turns out to be for fourth place?

Van Berg is insulted. "I'll book that bet," he growls.

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