Alysheba, who is expected to be named 1988 horse of the year during a ceremony today at Santa Anita, has put together the strongest record since John Henry in 1981.
To win racing's highest honor, Alysheba had to be better than just good last year. Two of the horses he beat in the voting--Personal Ensign, the undefeated filly, and Risen Star, winner of the Preakness and Belmont--had records that would have been good enough to win the title in many years.
All but 1 of Alysheba's 9 starts were in major races, and he won 6 of them, including the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, where he ran his final race before going to stud, breaking John Henry's record by going over the $6.6-million mark in purses.
Alysheba had 7 victories overall last year, spreading them over 5 tracks--Churchill Downs, the Meadowlands, Belmont Park, Monmouth Park and Santa Anita, where he opened the year by winning 3 straight, including the Santa Anita Handicap. He broke track records for 1 1/4 miles at both Belmont and the Meadowlands.
Alysheba didn't race Personal Ensign or Risen Star. Personal Ensign, who won 7 straight to finish her career with 13 in a row, raced against her own sex except for 1 start, and Risen Star was injured and retired to stud after winning the Belmont.
Alysheba never ran on grass, which was John Henry's best surface, but in one respect he was like the durable gelding who was horse of the year in both 1981 and 1984. Both horses frequently didn't win by much, but they won. Last year, after Alysheba won his first race, the Strub Stakes at Santa Anita, by 3 lengths, his biggest winning margin was three-quarters of a length.
"He always looked like he'd be life and death to get there," said his jockey, Chris McCarron. "But then he'd give you that quick turn of foot to get the job done. He only won the Breeders' Cup by a half-length, but he could have gone around the track another 2 times and nobody would have beat him. Even when I was galloping him out after we crossed the finish line, he wouldn't let another horse pass him."
Trainer Jack Van Berg removed Alysheba's blinkers for his last 4 starts last year, making sure that the 4-year-old colt could see any horses that might be challenging him near the wire.
McCarron, who also rode John Henry, says that Alysheba is the best horse he has ever ridden. They won the Kentucky Derby together in 1987, then missed by a nose of catching Ferdinand, the 1986 Derby winner, in Alysheba's first Breeders' Cup Classic.
Alysheba had a habit of avenging defeats. He beat Ferdinand twice at Santa Anita last year. Bet Twice and Cutlass Reality, who accounted for Alysheba's only 1988 losses, were unable to beat him later in the year. Alysheba twice beat Bet Twice and he defeated Cutlass Reality in the Breeders' Cup.
Alysheba, a son of Alydar and Bel Sheba, was foaled at Hamburg Place, the Kentucky farm where Derby winners Old Rosebud, Sir Barton, Paul Jones, Zev and Flying Ebony were also bred. The Scharbauers--Clarence, Dorothy and their daughter, Pamela--bought Alysheba at a yearling auction for $500,000.
Clarence Scharbauer, who owns 10 cattle ranches in Midland, Tex., had raced champion quarter horses, and Dorothy's father, Fred Turner, had won the Kentucky Derby with Tomy Lee in 1959. In 1984, at Dorothy's suggestion, the Scharbauers bought 2 thoroughbreds, the more expensive costing $100,000.
"Dorothy is like her father, she's got horses in her blood," Clarence Scharbauer said.
In 1985, the Scharbauers bought 4 more yearlings, the most expensive being Alysheba. There was another horse that they liked at the Keeneland sale, but his selling price shot up to $1.9 million and the Scharbauers backed off. That horse turned out to be Gone West, who became a multiple stakes winner with about $600,000 in earnings.
The Scharbauers bought Alysheba for less than the $600,000 average that Alydar yearlings brought in 1985.
"This was a well-bred colt," Clarence Scharbauer said. "And physically, he was perfect in every way. I don't like, for example, horses that have parrot mouths. I think you should get a horse that is correct in all ways. That way, when he goes to stud, people will (breed their mares to him)."
Going into the 1987 Kentucky Derby, Alysheba had won only 1 of 10 starts, having beaten maidens as a 2-year-old at Turfway Park. But he was probably running with a breathing problem, which wasn't discovered until early in his 3-year-old season.
After minor surgery, Alysheba finished first in the Blue Grass, the week before the Derby, but he was disqualified for fouling another horse in the stretch. Then he won the Derby despite repeated interference by Bet Twice in the stretch, which almost sent Alysheba and McCarron to the ground.
Some critics said that Alysheba needed an anti-bleeder medication to be successful, but at the end of his career he was running without medication and still winning.