In one nightmarish moment near the top of the stretch, one of those instants that jockeys fear more than any other, Chris McCarron thought that it was all over for him. "I thought I was gone," McCarron said.
He had come to the head of the stretch in Saturday's 113th running of the 114-mile Kentucky Derby knowing he had a dead-solid shot to win America's premier race for the first time in his life. McCarron had ridden his colt, Alysheba, beautifully for the first mile. He had held him together when Alysheba was jostled at the start, threaded him safely through traffic around the first turn, let him hum along on his own down the backside, not rushing him, and then kept him wide but clear as they swept around the last turn and straightened out for home.
Turning into the lane, McCarron had the bay son of Alydar lying third and in quick range of Bet Twice and On The Line, who were bobbing heads apart on the lead. Then On The Line began to fold, and all there was left for McCarron to do was run down Bet Twice. He was doing precisely that, driving Alysheba toward Bet Twice's right flank, when jockey Craig Perret whipped his colt lefthanded and Bet Twice veered suddenly to the right, away from the sting of the stick and into Alysheba's path.
Alysheba's front hooves clipped the leader's heels. Alysheba stumbled badly, appearing almost to go to his knees. "I thought, Oh, God!" McCarron said. "It was so startling. I thought I was gonna fall." Behind him were some 10 tons of Derby horses, and, had Alysheba fallen, sending horse and rider sprawling, there is no telling the tragedy that might have been played out in the upper stretch at Churchill Downs.
"When my horse stumbled, he pulled me forward, and I thought, Hang on!" McCarron said. "It was unbelievable. But he regained his balance, and when he did, he put me back in the saddle. At that point I didn't think I was gonna win it. I'm riding for my life, hoping to be second, because I thought they'd take Bet Twice's number down if he won. I had no idea my colt could recover from that and win."
But win the Derby he did, even though a tired Bet Twice, staggering around the homestretch like the town drunk, drifted in front of him a second time, forcing Alysheba to swing out and go around him. McCarron beat a tattoo on his colt to keep him running, furiously whipping lefthanded, and in the final 70 yards Alysheba surged past Bet Twice to win by three quarters of a length. Under the circumstances it was a remarkable performance, the centerpiece of a show that made for one of the most chilling, dramatic finishes in the recent history of the Derby.
It not only gave the 32-year-old McCarron his first Derby victory in seven tries ("I was trembling after the race," he said. "It was indescribable"), but also crowned the rider's recent comeback from an even more perilous scrape with the fates. In a five-horse spill at Santa Anita on Oct. 17, the two-time Eclipse Award-winning rider had broken his left femur in four places, an injury that grounded him for almost five months and left 11 screws in his leg. And, after four misses, this was also the first whiff of the roses for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, 50, who has won more races (almost 5,000) than any other horseman in the history of the sport.
No win was ever as sweet as this, though, and the normally garrulous Nebraskan could barely speak when it was over. "And I'm never speechless," Van Berg said. "This horse stumbled and he overcame it. He overcame it! I don't know how anything can top this."
If Alysheba's near fall and his late rush to victory left many in the festive crowd of 130,532 momentarily stunned—he went off as the sixth choice, by the way, at 8-1—the colt's performance was certainly no surprise to Van Berg, who had spent the week before the Derby telling anyone who would listen that Alysheba was the genuine article.
"I wouldn't trade places with nobody in the race," Van Berg said Friday at his barn at the Downs. "There's no other horse in the race that I'd rather have. He might make a damn liar out of me, and I might be the stupidest man that ever walked, but he's a legitimate horse. He can really run."