ELMONT, N.Y. -- Today, Alysheba will be opposed in the Belmont Stakes by nine other racehorses and one certified legend. It is this latter presence that has prompted a wide belief that in Alysheba's thrust for Triple Crown glory, his biggest obstacle is a 73-year-old biped named Woody Stephens.
Nothing in competitive history, no horse race or anything in baseball or Super Bowl lore ever has generated a mystique to compare with Stephens' genius for training horses up to winning the Belmont Stakes. In an industry in which trainers hunger for the one Belmont victory that will be their crowning achievement and validate their reputation, Stephens has won five, all in a row. Incredible, that term does not suffice.
So he'll be shooting at Alysheba today with his two-horse entry of Gone West and Conquistarose. The Belmont credentials of those two are, however, scanty. Ordinarily they would go to the post 10 to 1, or worse, in a presumably laughable effort to contest with Alysheba. But under the stamp of Woody Stephens' reputation, they have been dropped to 4 to 1 in the prerace odds, despite Gone West's history of never having won at more than a mile.
This essay, however, is not about Woody Stephens. It is about Alysheba, a Derby/Preakness winner who still can't get a good press, particularly in New York, where they point out that 18 of the last 20 Belmonts have been won by New York-based colts, whereas Alysheba has been campaigning in the boondocks except on Derby and Preakness occasions.
He's posted as the 8-to-5 favorite for the Belmont, but a common sport of handicappers has been the punching of holes in Alysheba's performaces. He won the Derby in the slowest time in 13 years, and his Preakness victory was the slowest in 12 years. He was a dud until his last three races.
Stephens himself recently joined the bad-mouthing of Alysheba when he commented, "Where was he last year? You don't think of Triple Crown winners who break their maiden at Latonia." The New York Times' esteemed Steve Crist this week dismissed Alysheba with one line, "Lacks Triple Crown quality."
On top of everything, or maybe at the bottom of it, is the complaint, not yet valid, that Alysheba is Lasix-dependent, helpless without the anti-bleeding diuretic that controls hemorrhaging from the lungs. It was allowed in Kentucky and Maryland. New York says no to Lasix; ergo, Belmont's mile-and-a-half is asking too much from poor Alysheba.
The time has come to put in a nice word about Alysheba. For openers, it may be emphasized that of the 40,000 racehorses foaled in 1984, only one of them still has Triple Crown potential, and his name is Alysheba. He has beaten seven of the nine he will oppose in the Belmont, with Gone West one of the exceptions.
There is decent support in the Belmont for Bet Twice, second to Alysheba in the Derby and Preakness. Yet Alysheba ran him down in the stretch in both races, and the Belmont is a longer test. On his stretch-running talents, Cryptoclearance could be the third choice today.
They made excuses for Cryptoclearance the last two times, saying he had bad racing luck in the Derby, was almost mugged at the start and found trouble in the heavy traffic later. Cryptoclearance had bad luck in the Derby? How about Alysheba, who almost went down in the stretch when the swerving front-runner, Bet Twice, took his path away, and then recovered a second time from the same rude antics of Bet Twice.
There may have been faster Derby victories than Alysheba's, but no gutsier ones. They made excuses, too, for Cryptoclearance's fourth-place finish in the Preakness, saying Jose Santos stupidly kept him too long on the rail, else there would have been a different result. All Alysheba can do is win races. Full credit escapes him.
This time, Cryptoclearance's trainer, Scotty Schulhofer, hopes he has taken steps to get his colt home in front of Alysheba. He has switched riders from Santos to Laffit Pincay Jr., obviously with instructions to ride a smarter race.
Rider changes always recall the episode, if apocryphal, when a certain desperate trainer finally engaged Eddie Arcaro to try to get his spavined old skate home at odds of 30 to 1. His instructions: "Eddie, I want you to lay off the pace, but be up there with the leaders. Don't make your move 'til you get to the far turn. Coming into the stretch, I want you to go to the front."
Said Arcaro, "Yes, sir. Now tell me, what do I do with the horse?"
In shoveling doubt at the quality of Alysheba as a potential Triple Crown winner, they've challenged everything but his lineage, and with good reason they don't bring that up. He's by Alydar, with Native Dancer also in his blood. The same star-crossed Alydar who ran second to Affirmed in all three Triple Crown races but who has avenged himself as a performer in the breeding shed, where Affirmed has been a notable flop, his services widely unsought.
Today, if Seattle Slew isn't the most expensive performing stallion in the world, Alysheba's daddy is. Secretariat, the great one, commands a stud fee of $80,000 per romance, for example, but a mating with Alydar is a $300,000 experience, and by late Saturday afternoon, his boy, Alysheba, could send the price up.