A Derby Story 


Channel surfing, I spot Chris McCarron and Pat Day sitting side by side being interviewed. They are friends, enjoying each other’s company. The interviewer asks them to identify the best horse each has ever ridden. My interest is peaked.

McCarron answers first. He says that Alysheba was the best and most athletic horse he has ever been on. He recalls the 1987 Derby. Going into the race, McCarron knew that since Alysheba was so athletic he had an excellent chance to win. Derby bettors didn’t agree. They made Alysheba the 8/1 fifth choice. During the race itself Alysheba had been boxed in and on the stretch turn clipped the heels of Bet Twice nearly going to his knees. But his athleticism allowed him to recover, then chase and pass Bet Twice to win.

I didn’t know about Alysheba’s exceptional talent. I knew he was a son of Alydar. I had bet on Alydar in each of his Triple Crown duels with Affirmed and, of course, lost each time. I wanted Alysheba to win as some vindication for his “pop”. And Jack Van Berg was Alysheba’s trainer. Van Berg had spent most of his career training “claiming” horses which raced for low purses. He was a working man’s trainer who had been training for 34 of his 50 years. That put me further into Alysheba’s camp.

So I bet on Alysheba. He paid $18.80. It turned out to be one of my three best Derby bets ever. It was not what you’d call a “handicapper’s win”, but it gave me bragging rights for having a Derby winner.

Winning Colors won the Derby in 1988. I didn’t have confidence in the filly. But Wayne Lucas trained her well. She hung on to beat Forty Niner leaving my bet on him unrewarded, not uncommon in my Derby betting career.

I did have confidence going into the 1989 Derby. Another son of Alydar was set to run. His dam was Relaxing, a champion mare. Naming a horse can be an art. When done well, the name pays tribute to both the horse’s sire and dam. Alydar deserved being noted as a “goer”. He gave his all each time he raced. So the offspring of Alydar and Relaxing was fittingly named “Easy Goer”.

Like in 1987, I was attracted to the trainer. Shug McGaughey was a Lexington native. Though he had won many big races, he had not won a Derby, every Kentuckian’s dream.

And Easy Goer was a product of the mythic Claiborne Farm in Paris Kentucky. He was owned by the Phipps family, racing royalty.

In addition, he was ridden that Derby by Pat Day. At the time, Day and his Churchill Downs mounts were as close to betting locks as it gets in racing. The 1989 Derby was the ninth race on the Churchill program. Day had winning mounts on the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth races.

To top it all Easy Goer was in an entry with Awe Inspiring, another very promising colt, making that entry the 4/5 heavy favorite.

With so many stars aligned, I bet much more than usual.

The horses broke from the gate with Houston, a speed horse leading the charge. Easy Goer settled into fifth and kept the leaders in range. Into the stretch Houston started to tire and Easy Goer began to move. But it was Sunday Silence, a west coast shipper, who took the lead. Easy Goer came within a length of catching Sunday Silence but just couldn’t get there finishing second with Awe Inspiring finishing third.

What had gone wrong? Everything had pointed to this son of Alydar winning the Derby.

The simple answer lies with Sunday Silence, his trainer Jack Whittingham and his owner/breeder Arthur Hancock. They had taken a horse bought back at auction and made him a champion.

The real answer is more humbling. It is difficult if not impossible in this world for us to know beforehand whose stars are about to align. This is especially true for thoroughbred racing.

Chris McCarron is now finishing up his answer about Alysheba in the interview I’m watching. It’s interesting to me that he’s chosen Alysheba despite having ridden Sunday Silence in his win over Easy Goer in the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Now it’s time for Pat Day to answer the question. He replies, you guessed it, Easy Goer.

And I still count betting on Easy Goer as one of my best three Kentucky Derby bets ever.

I won again in 1993, with Sea Hero, another of my best three Derby bets. But that’s another story.

Lucky – Derby Fan & small time bettor for over 1/2 century

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