The same agility that enabled him to win the Kentucky Derby and prevented him from suffering serious injury in the Belmont Stakes probably cost Alysheba victory Saturday in the $500,000 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.
In the Derby at Churchill Downs, Alysheba twice was blocked by a swerving Bet Twice in the stretch, even clipping the heels of the horse ahead of him near the 3/16 pole. After going to his knees and recovering, Alysheba got back in gear and went on to a 3/4-length victory.
After winning the Preakness, Alysheba went after the Belmont, the Triple Crown and a $5-million payoff in early June. Far back early, Alysheba got caught between horses nearing the stretch, was knocked sideways by Cryptoclearance into Gone West and finished fourth as Bet Twice defeated him by 14 lengths.
"A lot of horses would have wound up with a broken leg after getting hit like that," trainer Jack Van Berg said of Alysheba.
But in the stretch run of the Haskell, Alysheba may have been too nimble-footed for his own good.
With about a quarter of a mile to run, Alysheba was on the rail and in third place. About two lengths ahead of him, vying for the lead, were Lost Code, just off the fence, and Bet Twice.
Chris McCarron, anticipating that there wouldn't be room on the rail to ride Alysheba past Lost Code, swung him to the outside and his colt wound up almost in the middle of the track. Alysheba continued running hard, but he finished a neck short of Bet Twice at the wire, with Lost Code winding up third, another neck back.
"The horse overreacted," Van Berg said. "He's like a cat, and is so light on his feet that it was easy for him to move as far out as he did, and that cost us even more ground."
Bill Donovan, Lost Code's trainer, estimated that Alysheba lost 1 1/2 to 2 lengths in being shifted to the outside.
Donovan credited Craig Perret, Bet Twice's jockey, with deciding the race.
"Perret was dynamite, he gave that horse a masterful ride," Donovan said. "He rode as good a race as I've ever seen ridden.
"He kept my horse hemmed in, and that kept Alysheba from having a chance to get through on the rail."
With one notable exception, the Haskell set up the way Van Berg and McCarron anticipated after reviewing tapes of previous races.
They thought, however, that there would be room on the rail because Lost Code seemed to be a colt who drifted out in stretch runs in many of his races.
Lost Code didn't drift out Saturday. Perret and Bet Twice weren't going to let him, and besides, according to Donovan, that's not the colt's tendency, anyway.
"It might have looked like 'Codey' drifted out in some of those race, but that's not the case," Donovan said. "Gene (St. Leon, Lost Code's jockey) brings him out, because it's usually better for him to be running out from the rail."
Van Berg doesn't feel that McCarron could have done anything differently.
"He made the right decision to go around," the trainer said. "Something that also cost us more ground is that my horse was still coming out of the turn when Chris made his move. If he had tried to stay on the fence, they would have shut him off.
"You got to have luck on your side. The little decisions have made a big difference in some of these big races that I've been in the last few years. I could have retired if I had won a couple of them. I could have been resting comfortably by now."
Van Berg was talking about Gate Dancer's second-place finish (and then a disqualification to third) in the first $3-million Breeders' Cup Classic at Hollywood Park in 1984, and then the same horse's second-place finish, a head behind Proud Truth, in the Classic at Aqueduct in 1985. Laffit Pincay rode Gate Dancer at Hollywood and McCarron was aboard at Aqueduct.
"If Laffit had waited, he could have gotten a city bus through on the rail," Van Berg said. "At Aqueduct, we went too fast in making a move on Chief's Crown coming out of the turn."
At Monmouth Park Sunday morning, the Haskell combatants were examined by their trainers and veterinarians and found virtually free of injuries and ailments. Lost Code had minor cuts on both lower forelegs, which apparently happened coming out of the gate.
Lost Code's next race will probably be the $300,000 Pegasus at the Meadowlands in New Jersey on Sept. 19. Bet Twice, who has won the last two meetings with Alysheba after finishing behind Van Berg's horse the first three times they met, is headed for Saratoga and the $1-million Travers on Aug. 22, a race that also will feature Alysheba.
After running the horse on an anti-bleeder medication in four races, Van Berg didn't use Lasix in the Haskell. He can take the colt into the no-medication Travers with the strong suspicion that he doesn't need to be treated for an earlier bleeding problem. Alysheba was examined after the Haskell and showed no signs of bleeding.
Alysheba will continue to be treated for the skin rash that has bothered him for the past couple of weeks.
Van Berg, who will ship Alysheba and seven other horses to Saratoga Tuesday, has another goal at the upstate New York track besides winning the Travers.
"I'm aimin' to lose at least 12 pounds while I'm up there," he said. "I'm going to do it if they have to sew my mouth shut."