The word was going around that Kentucky breeders and local officials have been lobbying the directors of the Breeders' Cup to make Churchill Downs the permanent home of the series. Disconcerting as this prospect is, the idea has a couple of points of merit. No racetrack in America is more experienced and better suited to hosting a horse-racing spectacular than the home of the Kentucky Derby; and because Louisville is centrally located, it offers a neutral ground for horses based at the major tracks on either coast. Those advantages aside, the unpredictability of the weather, as witnessed Saturday, creates a serious drawback to holding the show there. Fortunately, the extraordinary drama of some of the performances saved the show.
Among the most dramatic was Alysheba's in the Classic. His trainer, Jack Van Berg, certainly had no fear of the elements. "It don't make no difference if it's muddy or what here," he said on the eve of the race. "This is the best racetrack there is—mud or anything. I'm not bothered by it raining. If he's got good racing luck, I'm not worried. He's just as good as you can make one, I think. Knock on wood that he's like that Saturday."
And indeed he was. The only problem, of course, was that you couldn't see him very well, what with the late post time (5:33 p.m. EST)—as dictated by NBC-TV—and the thick, low-hanging clouds. The whole event might have been better served had the jockeys worn miners' helmets with lamps shining. Still, for McCarron the race could not have come up easier. He settled Alysheba at the break, steered him clear of horses into the first turn and slowly closed ground down the backstretch, galloping along in fourth place behind the front-running mud-lover, Waquoit. Day, on Seeking the Gold, lay behind Alysheba, intending to track him until it was time to move.
The real race began as the horses moved into the far turn. "I tapped him on the shoulder at the half-mile pole," McCarron said. On the turn Alysheba raced outside and free of trouble. The natural light grew dimmer now, the clouds darker, and at once the bunching leaders appeared out of the turn like a herd of wild horses, distant and shadowy, surreal in black and white. The scene made for an odd moment. The Classic is the centerpiece of the Breeders' Cup, and after all the waiting and the buildup, it was almost invisible, a run through the dark.
What was going on up there at the turn? Well, midway through, McCarron decided to wait no longer. He twice tapped Alysheba on the shoulder. He felt the surge again. Four horses fanned out on the final bend—Waquoit and Cutlass Reality, Alysheba and Personal Flag. Right behind them lay Seeking the Gold, and Day thought he was going to get to the wire first. A consistent winner at Churchill Downs and always a favorite with the fans, Day hadn't had a victory all afternoon. Now he thought. Well, here we are. "I really felt confident," Day said afterward. "I called on him and he gave it to me."
Alysheba drove to the lead though the top of the lane. Waquoit resisted. Seeking the Gold closed outside of Alysheba. They were nose and nose. "I got right head and head with Alysheba and it turned into a dogfight," Day said. His blood up, Alysheba fought back, as has been his way in so many of his most exceptional races. Slowly, he pulled away from Seeking the Gold to triumph by half a length as Waquoit faded to third.
It was a tremendous performance, and it led straight to the winner's circle. "Who's horse of the year?" McCarron asked happily.
The filly was truly grand, but there was one better answer.