There is precious little I can recall from the year 1987, but after 22 years one memory refuses to dull.
I was 10 years old watching the Kentucky Derby for the first time alongside my father. I believe my dad was high on Cryptoclearance but I remember everyone on TV was talking about Demons Begone. The race went off and a gorgeous bay stumbled slightly at the start but quickly picked himself up and began advancing steadily through the 17-horse field.
I remember he had blue and white silks – like Secretariat, I thought – and when they hit the stretch, something happened that literally changed my life. That striking bay colt that had come charging up clipped heels with Bet Twice – in midstretch of all places when momentum is paramount – and for a split second, it looked like tragedy could strike the first Saturday of May. But not only did he NOT go down, but that athletic bay horse picked himself up, regained his stride in a handful of jumps, and managed to go by his rival to prevail by three-quarters of a length.
His name was Alysheba. And in that instant, he turned a 10-year-old girl who liked watching the pretty horses run into a raving, chart-reading, would-rather-study-Triple Crown-winners-than-her-stupid-math-homework racing fan.
Two weeks later, I was again glued to the set to watch my new favorite horse win the Preakness Stakes and three weeks after that, I sat with my dad in his brown station wagon as we weaved through the worst traffic I have ever witnessed on the Cross Island Expressway trying to make our way to Belmont Park to watch the 12th Triple Crown winner materialize (we thought).
Some people say racing is a dying sport but on that day, I remember our car overheating a mile from the track after sitting for what seemed like hours in bumper-to-bumper congestion trying to get to Exit 36-D. We parked on the grass and hoofed it the rest of way, walking alongside a guy who left a wedding early because “he didn’t want to miss this”. Once we reached the track, I distinctly remember a guy selling t-shirts BEFORE the racing that said “Congratulations Alysheba, 12th Triple Crown winner” (yes, he was giving them away on the way out).
Yeah, yeah we all know what happened next. Bet Twice had his redemption as Alysheba ran fourth in the Belmont and my father had one despondent kid on his hands for the hour and a half ride home to Connecticut. But as much as my heart broke that day, it soared over the next year and a half as that pretty bay horse I loved came thisclose to beating Ferdinand in the Breeders’ Cup and then returned the following season with a take-on-all-comers campaign that made him the world’s richest, and arguably most popular, horse.
In the years that would follow, my obsession with horse racing would grow and – unlike my math classes – would actually lead me to my current career. Thus, when I learned my childhood sweetheart had been sold to Saudi Arabia, I resigned myself to the fact I would never get to see what my first love looked like up close, much less tell him how much he inspired me.
On the Santa Anita backstretch last October, the week of the Breeders’ Cup, I learned that was about to change. Alysheba was coming home to Kentucky to reside at the Horse Park, and I along with everyone who loved him would finally get some hands on time with one of the most charismatic track performers in decades.
I was there for the ceremony when he first arrived but the real fun came a couple weeks later when myself and a colleague went back out to the Horse Park without the crowds around us to get some one-on-one time with the former Horse of the Year. More than 20 years after I first fell in love with him, I got to feed the still regal and handsome Alysheba carrots, rub on his neck, and thank him for making me fall head over heels with him and his sport.
Alysheba was euthanized Friday night after falling in his stall and, like many, my first thoughts were of overwhelming sadness – for myself and for his Horse Park family. In the short time he was there, bonds were formed quickly. For a staff that is still getting over the loss of John Henry, having to let go of Alysheba so soon was beyond painful.
Because of the Horse Park, I and many others were given an opportunity to bond with one of our heroes. And because of them, I and others were able to have one more indelible memory of an indelible horse.