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In the full flush of victory, Jockey Chris McCarron simply couldn't resist the impulse to proclaim the news to all those around him. To the fans draped over the homestretch rail at Churchill Downs, who were calling his name. To the man holding the red-and-white sign that read ALYSHEBA FOR PRESIDENT. And to the dozens of others who had swept onto the racetrack and were following McCarron around as he and his horse waited for the ceremony in the winner's circle to begin.
McCarron's mount, Alysheba, dropped his head, ground the bit in his mouth, and splashed and circled in the mud. Sitting on him, McCarron was as wild-eyed and mud-flecked as the colt, and at least as much on the muscle. Suddenly, the jockey pumped a fist in the air, pointed at his mount, and yelled to the crowds, "This is the horse of the year right here! Here he is!"
Indeed, Alysheba had just proved it. Late last Saturday afternoon in Louisville, in a scene at once eerie and portentous—beneath a low, scudding mantle of dark gray clouds and in light that was fading so quickly that racetrack officials had to turn on spotlights to illuminate the finish line—the bay colt emerged from the gloaming at the top of the stretch, ran down the leaders with 220 yards to go and then fought off a last, show-me-what-you-got stretch drive by Seeking the Gold to win the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
What gave the final struggle an epic dimension, making it more than just another rich, athletic contest among horses, was the virtual certainty, going into the race, that Alysheba would have to take the 1¼-mile Classic to earn the title of America's 1988 Horse of the Year, the most coveted honor in the sport. Earlier, the other chief contender for the title, the undefeated filly Personal Ensign, had emphatically laid her claim. In the Breeders' Cup Distaff, a 1⅛-mile race for fillies and mares, the long-backed, 4-year-old bay had turned in one of the most inspired and inspiring performances in recent memory.
On a muddy racetrack that she obviously did not like, Personal Ensign stepped along cautiously for most of the way and appeared hopelessly beaten midway on the turn for home. She was eight lengths behind this year's Kentucky Derby champion. Winning Colors, who was running dangerously loose and free on the lead through moderate fractions. At that point Personal Ensign's trainer, Claude (Shug) McGaughey, turned to a friend, Rogers Beasley, and said, "Not today.... She's beaten."
But wait. As she straightened for home, Personal Ensign began to reach out, striding with more confidence, and slowly she whittled at Winning Colors's lead. In midstretch, with just 220 yards to go, Personal Ensign was still four lengths behind and faced the seemingly impossible job of catching the Derby champ. With jockey Randy Romero scrubbing on her, she cut the lead to three lengths, then two. The crowd of 71,237 began rocking the rafters, fully aware of the importance of the moment. The owners of Personal Ensign had made no secret of the fact that this was the elegant filly's last race. She had come to the Distaff with 12 lifetime victories in as many starts, and no major American racehorse had retired undefeated in 80 years, since Colin won all 15 of his starts in 1907-08.
She was running for history now. With only the length of a football field to go, she still looked beaten; but now Winning Colors, who had led from the start, began to tire. Suddenly, Personal Ensign was only a length behind, and then it was a neck. Romero was doing the bump and grind to keep her running. Trying with all she had in her. Personal Ensign surged forward, her neck stretched out. Two jumps from the wire, she was cheek by jowl with Winning Colors. And then she stuck out her chocolate nose to win by inches in the final stride.
A kind of joyous pandemonium erupted. McGaughey's assistant trainer, Buzzy Tenney, bolted onto the racetrack, throwing his fist in the air. "God almighty, what a thrill!" he shouted. McGaughey moved excitedly toward the track. "Undefeated," he said, with enormous relief. "One of the most courageous performances I've ever seen."
D. Wayne Lukas, the trainer of Winning Colors, grabbed McGaughey outside the winner's circle and, pumping his hand, said, "That's what it's all about! That's what racing's about!"
McGaughey pumped Lukas's hand right back, grinned and said, "Yeah, but you about ruined my day."