ELMONT, N.Y. -- This one's for everybody who's had to settle for second money: for the Minnesota Vikings, for the Boston Red Sox, for Adlai Stevenson, for Sham and, in the irony of them all, for Alydar.
Alysheba's bid to become the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown ended at the hooves of Bet Twice, the horse he'd run down twice already. In a complex twist of fate and genealogy, Alysheba, son of Alydar, allowed Bet Twice to do what Alydar himself never could against Affirmed -- come back off the canvas to beat his nemesis.
So the Belmont Stakes, the longest of the classic races at 1 1/2 miles, the true test of champions -- the one that certifies the consistency, character and stamina of a Triple Crown winner -- claims another victim. Alysheba is the 11th horse with the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness already mounted on his mantel to be undone here. "A lot of them have been knocked off here," said Jack Van Berg, Alysheba's trainer. "I'm not the first one." Indeed, Alysheba adds his name, if hardly equal luster, to such as Tim Tam, Northern Dancer and Spectacular Bid. And the 1980s continue without a Triple Crown champion.
"It was a great thrill while it lasted," Van Berg said right after the race, as he waited to watch a replay in the tunnel leading from the paddock to the track itself. "You couldn't ask for more. I won the Kentucky Derby. I won the Preakness. You can't be a hog." He put his hands in the pockets of his lucky brown suit and reached for a cigarette. "It changes a couple of things, I guess -- I don't have to go on 'Good Morning America' anymore," he said grinning. "But it won't hurt my appetite none; I'm gonna eat. And I ain't gonna jump off this building, either, I'll tell you that." Van Berg was asked if he felt the Belmont was the toughest of the three Triple Crown races, and he laughed heartily. "It was for me," he said. "I didn't win it."
Perhaps there is some small solace for Van Berg knowing that finally Woody Stephens didn't win it, either. Stephens had won an unprecedented five Belmonts in a row. He sent Gone West into this one even though the horse had not won a race longer than a mile, and the betting public responded by making Gone West the third choice. So tight is Stephens' hold on the New York racing crowd that he could saddle Mr. Ed and he wouldn't go off at more than 8 to 1. But if Gone West's defeat brought Stephens down to earth, Alysheba's defeat brought Van Berg down a tax bracket or two. By failing to win, Alysheba lost the $5 million package that was available to a Triple Crown champion. By failing to place in the money, Alysheba lost the $1 million bonus that went to the horse with the best overall finishes in the classics. Under the points formula, with two seconds and this first, Bet Twice, as they like to say in horse racing, nosed him out. Characteristically, Van Berg was good-humored about it: "I've been busted all my life, a few more years won't hurt . . . The bad thing is I'd spent the money already."
Alysheba had been placed in Barn 33, a far enough commute from the paddock to make you think about renting a helicopter to get the horse to the track. Van Berg and Alysheba picked up so many stragglers as they walked over -- counting the press, there must have been at least 60 people in tow -- that when they reached the walking ring for the promenade before the race, one man yelled out, "What an entourage! It's just like for a boxer." And if their hearts belonged to Stephens, their wallets belonged to Van Berg, and they cheered him warmly.
Van Berg offered no excuses. He discounted the absence of Lasix as a factor, although we can't be sure it wasn't. He discounted the rough encounter Alysheba had with Cryptoclearance at the top of the stretch when Gone West suddenly slowed and Chris McCarron had to pull Alysheba back because there was nowhere else to go. He didn't blame Laffit Pincay Jr., on Cryptoclearance, for not giving Alysheba racing room. "That's race riding," Van Berg said. "I'd do it myself." He was as gracious in defeat as he'd been in victory.
The closest Van Berg came to blaming anyone was to criticize McCarron for "human error" in taking too strong a hold on the horse and keeping him too far off a slow pace. "I thought he'd be a lot closer," Van Berg said. "They were walking on the lead. Heck, he'd galloped faster than they were going." Van Berg said he'd known Alysheba was conceding too much ground early in the race, and watching the replay he talked of how Alysheba was "lollygagging back there." McCarron confirmed it all, apologizing to Van Berg immediately after the race that he'd erred in the ride. "He really wanted to run, and I totally discouraged him," McCarron said. "I wanted to get to the outside, and I pulled on him too soon. It got him distinterested in the race." But even with all that, Van Berg said the most it cost him was second money. "We couldn't have beaten Bet Twice today," he said.
Back at Barn 33, they were waiting for Van Berg. His son, Tom, was there. So was Michael Finell, the artist who had done an oil painting of Van Berg holding Alysheba by the bridle, a picture Van Berg must have thought flattering because it gave him back the healthy crop of blond hair that he'd assuredly lost along the way. His bobo, a rotund man nicknamed Hee-Haw, was there. As were other friends and family. The postrace party would go on no matter what. In just a few hours, Jack Van Berg would celebrate his 51st birthday, and, like he'd said, he still had his appetite.