After the Breeders' Cup, the racing writer for the Los Angeles Times surveyed other members of the press to learn whom their choice would be for horse of the year. He found that there was roughly equal support for Ferdinand, Theatrical and Java Gold.
The Daily Racing Form echoed this view when columnist Mike Watchmaker wrote on Monday, "In the wake of the Breeders' Cup, it would seem there are three legitimate candidates for horse of the year: Ferdinand . . . Theatrical and Java Gold."
Have the Eclipse Award voters developed amnesia? Why is everybody choosing to ignore the colt who had the toughest campaign and was surely the most memorable performer of 1987? Why shouldn't Alysheba be the horse of the year?
His detractors may give the facile answer that Alysheba won only three of 10 starts during the year. But if his rivals have better won-lost records, it is only because they were managed much more cautiously and didn't try to do all the things that Alysheba did. They are the equine equivalents of football teams that boost their standings in the polls by scheduling a lot of home games against Columbia.
Theatrical's achievements were limited because he is strictly a turf runner; America's racing championships are traditionally decided on the dirt. In a weak year like this one, I would be willing to vote for a truly great grass runner, but despite his five Grade I stakes victories and his stirring triumph in the Breeders' Cup Turf, Theatrical wasn't even the best American grass horse of 1987.
Manila whipped him soundly in the Arlington Million, only to have his career subsequently ended by an injury. Dance Of Life beat him decisively in the Sword Dancer Handicap; Theatrical was awarded first place on a disqualification.
Although Theatrical was admirable in many ways -- he competed in top stakes company from January to November and never gave a bad effort -- he wasn't good enough at his specialty to be chosen horse of the year over horses who competed in America's established championship races on the dirt.
Java Gold wasn't venturesome enough to merit any awards; he was coddled all season. Trainer Mack Miller and owner Paul Mellon looked with disdain on the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup, and pointed their colt for four major stakes in the late summer and early fall.
Java Gold won three of them, including a victory over Alysheba in the Travers at Saratoga, but the track was so sloppy that the $1 million event was destroyed as a meaningful test. (Java Gold is an ace mudder; his main rivals were not.)
His other victories came at the expense of the same tired horses whom Alysheba had been destroying in the Triple Crown series. The serious part of Java Gold's 1987 campaign lasted all of two months; he never once ventured outside of his home base, New York. He didn't accomplish enough to be named horse of the year.
Ferdinand was another stay-at-home. He never left California because trainer Charles Whittingham was single-mindedly pointing him for the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
Ferdinand had previously run in seven Grade I stakes and won only one of them -- as the 2-to-5 favorite against a moderate field in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Although Ferdinand did run gamely while losing narrow decisions in the Strub Stakes and the Santa Anita Handicap last winter, his entire claim to be horse of the year rests on his nose victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
If Alysheba had won that photo finish at Hollywood Park, there would be no controversy -- indeed, no discussion whatsoever -- about who should be horse of the year. He would have locked up the title.
Since the Eclipse Award is supposed to honor a horse for his achievements during an entire year, it makes no sense that losing one race by the bob of a head should turn Alysheba from a shoo-in to a noncontender for the title.
Alysheba's overall campaign was tough and admirable. From March through November, he ran in nine Grade I stakes at nine tracks in all parts of the country. He won four (with one disqualification) and finished second in three others. His victory in the Kentucky Derby, when he recovered after nearly falling at the top of the stretch, was one of the most heroic performances by an American thoroughbred in years.
In previous runnings of the Breeders' Cup Classic, horses who have gone through long, tough campaigns like Alysheba's have often run dismally. Alysheba's narrow loss to a rival who had been pointed for the Classic for months should hardly be held against him.
The only thing I would hold against Alysheba is his reliance on Lasix; he was zero for four when he didn't have the aid of the antibleeding medication. In another year, a horse with such a record might not be remotely considered for an Eclipse Award. But Alysheba was the best American racehorse of 1987, and it is incomprehensible that voters are not even viewing him as a contender.