Alysheba and Ferdinand, or is it Ferdinand and Alysheba?
Nowhere, it seems, can these Kentucky Derby winners be kept apart, least of all on the track.
They have raced against each other three times, and the distance between them at the finish has been, successively, a nose, a half-length and another nose. At Hollywood Park, even their barns are next to each other.
Sunday, in the $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup, they will meet again. Four other horses were entered Friday for the 49th running of the Grade I event, but none of them is being given serious consideration in the 1-mile race.
Even some of their trainers admit as much.
Mel Stute, whose Lemmon Juice is all that will separate Ferdinand and Alysheba in the starting gate, told the horse's owners they were "shooting at the moon" in trying to beat the top two with a $12,500 claimer.
Bobby Frankel, who will send Simply Majestic to the post, said his colt "has to run the race of his life" to have any chance.
The same could be said for Masterful Advocate and, to a lesser extent, Cutlass Reality, who round out Sunday's field of six.
In the draw for the post positions, trainer Jack Van Berg's Alysheba, the high weight at 126 pounds, got the far outside. Ferdinand, meanwhile, will go from the No. 4 slot for trainer Charlie Whittingham and will carry one pound less.
Hollywood Park linemaker Russell Hudak has made Dorothy and Pamela Scharbauer's Alysheba the 7-5 favorite on the morning line, with Mrs. Howard B. Keck's Ferdinand the second choice at 9-5.
Who will win? That's anyone's guess, but of all the summer reruns this should be the one most worth watching. A quick update on the plot so far:
--In the $3-million Breeders' Cup Classic at Hollywood Park Nov. 21, Ferdinand, the 1986 Derby winner, got to the wire a nose in front of 1987 Derby winner Alysheba en route to earning horse-of-the-year honors.
--On March 6, in the Santa Anita Handicap, Alysheba evened the score by getting out to a quick start under Chris McCarron and beating Ferdinand, ridden by Bill Shoemaker, by a half-length.
--Six weeks later, in the San Bernardino Handicap, also at Santa Anita, the two battled neck and neck, with Alysheba again proving to be better by a nose.
Neither of the jockeys was at Hollywood Park Friday, Shoemaker having taken the afternoon off and McCarron having left for Suffolk Downs in Boston, where he will ride defending champion Waquoit in today's $250,000 Massachusetts Handicap.
Earlier this week, however, they both gave their Gold Cup mounts final tuneups. Thursday morning, McCarron worked Alysheba 5 furlongs in 59 3/5 seconds and afterward said the 4-year-old son of Alydar felt much better than he did when finishing fourth behind Bet Twice, Lost Code and Cryptoclearance in the Pimlico Special May 14.
"It went great," McCarron said. "He seems to be right on his game. He's much sharper now than he was going into the Pimlico race. Mentally, he's a lot sharper."
McCarron said the potential for a small field would not make the Gold Cup any easier to win.
"I'd rather be against a small field than a large field," he said, "but it doesn't necessarily mean you're going to have the best of it or an easy trip or anything like that."
Wednesday, Shoemaker worked Ferdinand, on whom he won the Gold Cup last year, 5 furlongs in 58 4/5 seconds. He said Ferdinand, too, shows improvement over his last race, a fourth-place effort in The Californian June 12.
"He's going to have to run one of his better races to win, which is what we expect him to do," Shoemaker said. "If he runs his race, he'll be right there."
The only other one who might be "right there," according to Hudak, is Cutlass Reality, who has been made the 4-1 third choice on the morning line. This is based solely on the 6-year-old horse's upset victory in The Californian under McCarron.
After that race, the jockey said trainer Craig Lewis deserved credit for the win.
"In all honesty, it looked like he (Cutlass Reality) was outclassed," McCarron said, "but by the same token, the way Craig Lewis has been going, everything he leads over here has been running out of its skin.
"When a guy like that gets on a roll, boy, you better start getting on his horses, because everything he runs is right there."
Since McCarron has the mount on Alysheba, Gary Stevens, who leads both the meeting and the nation in races won and purses earned this year, will ride Cutlass Reality Sunday.
Shoemaker, while impressed by Cutlass Reality's run in The Californian, said he doubts that the horse can repeat it.
"He ran better than everybody thought he would," Shoemaker said. "If he comes back and runs like that again, then he'll make a believer out of us."
Any horse other than Alysheba or Ferdinand finishing first would be an upset, however, and the only question being asked Friday was: Can Alysheba make it three wins in a row over his main rival, or will Ferdinand square the series at two victories apiece?