In the mid-1970s, a crafty but achy-armed left-handed pitcher named Tommy John faced the prospect of surgery to extend his career in Major League Baseball. His surgeon, Dr. Frank Jobe, devised a new way to treat John’s ailment, using a tendon elsewhere in his patient’s body to replace a damaged ulnar collateral ligament. The new technique proved a stroke of genius as it not only allowed John to resume his career, it also saved the career of a long list of pitchers in future years.
Today, Jobe’s breakthrough surgical procedure is known as Tommy John Surgery.
While horse racing does not have a surgery that bears the name of one of its famous runners, a case can be made that treatment for an entrapped epiglottis should be called “Alysheba Surgery.”
There could be no better poster boy for the benefits of the minor throat surgery that corrects breathing problems than the fabulous Alysheba.
Early in 1987, Alysheba was a disappointing 3-year-old with an entrapped epiglottis. But after the surgery to clear his breathing passage, Alysheba blossomed into a much-traveled champion who raced at 12 different racetracks and won two-thirds of the Triple Crown plus the Breeders’ Cup Classic to retire as the world's all-time leader in earnings with $6,679,242.
His regular rider, Chris McCarron, a Hall of Famer who won more than 7,000 races as well as six Triple Crown races and five editions of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, called him the most talented horse he ever rode.
Ah, the wonders of “Alysheba Surgery.”
Alysheba was foaled in 1984, a son of the champion sire Alydar and the Lt. Stevens mare Bel Sheba. He was bred by Preston Madden and then was sold as a yearling to Dorothy and Pam Scharbauer, who placed him in the care of Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg at the age of 2.
Alysheba showed some promise in his first year of racing. After finishing fifth in his career debut at Hollywood Park on July 21, 1986, he broke his maiden at Turfway Park in his third career start. After two runner-up finishes in ungraded stakes, Alysheba rallied to finish third behind the victorious Capote at 33-to-1 odds in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
He then concluded his 2-year-old campaign by finishing second in the Hollywood Futurity in an effort that solidified his status as a leading Triple Crown contender.
Alysheba returned at 3 in an allowance race and was sent off as a heavy 3-to-5 favorite, only to finish fourth in the first sign that something was amiss.
After Alysheba finished second in the Grade 1 San Felipe on March 22, Van Berg was certain something was troubling his horse.
"When he was fourth, he ran with his head kind of cocked to the side," Van Berg said in a Los Angeles Times article first published in 1987. "Then in the San Felipe, he ran up to the leaders and threw his head up, like he wasn't getting any air."
An endoscopic exam revealed a problem with Alysheba’s soft palate was affecting his breathing, and two days after the San Felipe veterinarian Scott Merrill performed surgery on the colt’s entrapped epiglottis.
About a month later, on April 23, Alysheba returned to the races, and the Thoroughbred who ran in the Blue Grass Stakes after “Alysheba Surgery” was a completely different runner. After winning just once in his first nine starts, he prevailed by a head in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby prep. He was a disqualified for drifting out and placed third, but the improvement in him was so noticeable that he was sent off at 8-1 in the Derby despite the lack of an official victory in his 3-year-old resume.
On that first Saturday in May in 1987, it was Bet Twice, the Fountain of Youth winner, who owned the lead at the top of the stretch. Coming at him, looking like he would blow past, was Alysheba. But at about at the three-sixteenths pole, Bet Twice swerved out and bumped into Alysheba, who clipped heels with him.
Alysheba stumbled, but in an amazing display of agility by both horse and rider, he regained his stride. Even though Bet Twice drifted out again, McCarron drove Alysheba past him to record a 3/4-length victory in a tumultuous 113th edition of the run for the roses.
“Falling didn't even go through my mind,” McCarron said afterwards. “I kept thinking there's only one horse left in front of us that was going to prevent us from getting the roses. He just did an incredible job of righting himself. I was focused on keeping my balance and trying to stay on his back.”
The Preakness provided a replay of the Derby, without the bumper-car like antics. Bet Twice led in the stretch but Alysheba collared him in the final furlong and edged away to a half-length victory in another memorable finish.
Alysheba was now in position to become the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner and on a warm, June 6 afternoon he was sent off as a 4-5 favorite in his bid to join racing’s immortals and collect a $5 million in purse and bonus money for sweeping the three classic races.
Running without Lasix under New York laws, though, Alysheba never mounted the rally that made him such an impressive winner at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. The showdown between him and Bet Twice never materialized as Bet Twice won by 14 lengths in a laugher.
Adding even more salt to the wound, Alysheba was checked at the top of the stretch which probably cost him second in the race as he finished fourth, just a nose and a head out of the place spot. As a result of finishing off the board, a $1 million bonus for the best overall finish the three Triple Crown races went to Bet Twice.
“It might have cost us second money, but we weren't going to beat the winner,” Van Berg said about the rough trip. “If one guy won every race, there'd be no racing. This is a sport, and you've got to be a sport when you lose.”
The two archrivals met two months later in the Haskell and once again Bet Twice prevailed by a neck.
After a dismal showing on a sloppy track at Saratoga in the Travers, Alysheba won the Super Derby.
The Breeders’ Cup Classic was next and a highly anticipated duel of Kentucky Derby winners with Ferdinand, the 1986 winner, beating Alysheba by a nose in an epic duel.
His accomplishments were good enough to crown Alysheba as the year’s 3-year-old champion, but his heroics were far from over.
At 4, he opened the year with wins in a pair of Grade 1 races, the Strub and Santa Anita Handicap, and the Grade 2 San Bernardino. He finished fourth in the Pimlico Special at 3-5 odds, a race won by his nemesis, Bet Twice. He was then second in the Hollywood Gold Cup in what would be the last defeat of his career.
He cemented both Horse of the Year honors for 1988 and a legacy as one of the sport’s greatest champions by winning the Grade 1 Iselin, Woodward and Meadowlands Cup – each of them in dramatic fashion, with final margins of three-quarters of a length, neck, and neck, respectively.
Then in his final start, he atoned for his loss in the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic despite racing on a muddy track he did not relish. Somewhat fittingly, he overcame a bumpy start to outfinish Seeking the Gold in the gloaming at twilight at Churchill Downs and capture the Breeders’ Cup Classic by a half-length as track announcer Tom Durkin proclaimed, “Alysheba, America’s horse, has done it.”
The victory turned “America’s horse” into the world’s richest horse and provided a fitting conclusion to his brilliant career on the racetrack.
His career at stud was a different tale. He stood at Lane’s End Farm and even with a regal pedigree as a son of Alydar, he produced only 11 stakes winners, the best of the bunch being 1994 Canadian Horse of the Year Alywow. In 1999, he was sold to Saudi Arabian interests, and in 2008 King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia sent the former Horse of the Year back to his home state as a gift to the American fans who loved him.
Alysheba lived out the rest of his life at the Kentucky Horse Park in the stall that once belonged to John Henry. He was a fan favorite at the facility along with Cigar until he fell in his stall and suffered an injury to his femur that was complicated by his advancing age. Unable to ease the champion’s pain, a decision was made to euthanize him on March 27, 2009.
“He could do things you wouldn’t believe,” Van Berg said in an Associated Press report on Alysheba’s passing.
Specifically he was able to do something only the rarest of horse have done, winning 11 of 26 starts, with nine of them Grade 1 stakes.
More precisely, he won 10 of 17 starts after “Alysheba Surgery.”
- Alysheba was No. 1 on the all-time earnings list until he has passed by Cigar in 1996. He is now 25th.
- Alysheba gave Van Berg his only Kentucky Derby victory.
- In 1988, Alysheba set a track record for a mile-and-a-quarter in back-to-back starts. He won the Woodward at Belmont Park in 1:59 2/5 and then the Meadowlands Cup at The Meadowlands in 1:58 4/5.
- He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1993.
- Alysheba and Bet Twice raced against each other nine times, with Alysheba finishing ahead of his archrival five times.
This story was originally published in 2014. It has been updated.