The 1987 Breeders' Cup Classic
It seemed only fitting that Hollywood Park played host of the 1987 Breeders' Cup. For the second time in four years, the showcase event returned to the the Home of Champions. Built on star power thanks to its Tinseltown connections in the 1930s, Hollywood Park had long been the backdrop for some of Thoroughbred racing's most popular and brilliant horses.
On Breeders' Cup Day in 1987, two horses, both popular and brilliant in their own right, would put on a memorable display of heart and effort.
During the second half of the year, Ferdinand had been on a roll. Starting with his win in the Hollywood Gold Cup, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner went on totake the Cabrillo Handicap at Del Mar and the Grade III Goodwood Handicap at Santa Anita. Whereas Ferdinand had spent the first few months of 1987 collecting stakes placings with some off the board finishes, the summer and fall had gone perfectly. A win in the Breeders' Cup Classic would strengthen his case for Horse of the Year.
Just before Ferdinand went on his run of victories, Alysheba had been the talk of the three year old division during the Triple Crown season. Leading up to the Kentucky Derby, the son of Alydar had one victory to his name, accompanied by minor awards and some finishes of fourth or worse. That turned around with a win in the Run for the Roses (while overcoming a stumble in the stretch) and victory in the Preakness before coming up short in his Triple Crown bid in the Belmont. He later added the Grade I Super Derby to his win count while also taking second in the Haskell Invitational and sixth in the Travers Stakes.
If Alysheba were to have a good showing in the Breeders' Cup Classic, that would put him in the hunt for the Top Three Year Old honor at the Eclipse Awards. A win definitely would clinch it, since he would have beaten older horses on one of the sport's biggest stages.
Simply put, there was a lot riding on the race for both Alysheba and Ferdinand.
Although the Breeders' Cup was only in its fourth year, the Classic was historic because it was the first time the previous two Kentucky Derby champions met in the race. Both were well known to Southern California fans, too. Ferdinand had been on the circuit for roughly two years, collecting multiple stakes wins during that time. Alysheba had spent a few months as a two or three year old in the Southland, placing second in the Grade I Hollywood Futurity before starting his Kentucky Derby prep season at three. With Hollywood Park again the site of the Breeders' Cup, those watching live would see a pair of local horses go for not just the win, but quite possibly Horse of the Year. That was big. A Southern California based horse winning a highly prestigious race and maybe Horse of the Year at one of the area's tracks. If that happened. it would join the pantheon of greatest moments in Hollywood Park's history.
That was not the only matchup involving them. On the jockeys' side, there were two respected veterans of the game in the saddle. Bill Shoemaker was aboard for Ferdinand, while Chris McCarron piloted Alysheba. Two masters of their profession would square off in the biggest race of the day. The battle also involved some of the finest horsemen around: Charlie Whittingham, who conditioned Ferdinand, and Jack Van Berg, the guide of Alysheba. The race just became even more intriguing with the additional layers surrounding it. For the Southern California racegoers, the Classic was an event to look forward to.
At post time, the odds indicated each horse had a chance to win. Preference went to Ferdinand, who was sent off at even money. Alysheba settled around 7-2, receiving a fair amount of action. At the start of the race, Ferdinand broke well and settled in around the middle of the pack. He was in no hurry, and was several lengths down to the leader after a few moments. That was not surprising; Ferdinand was well known as an off the pace type of runner. Behind him was Alysheba, who had rallied from off the pace before as well.
While the Kentucky Derby winners moved along, Judge Angelucci and Candy's Gold battled for the lead. That continued into the first turn and down the backstretch, with neither of them backing down. The pace for the Classic moved along, with 23 seconds for the first quarter mile and 46 2/5 for four furlongs. Nearing the far turn, Ferdinand and Shoemaker suddenly appeared, gaining ground swiftly. In a few seconds they moved to third place, commencing another come from behind effort. Alysheba was gearing up for a rally on the track where he made his debut more than a year earlier. He and McCarron were just a couple lengths in back of the favorite, ready to make their bid.
Judge Angelucci and Candy's Gold continued their duel for the front, with Ferdinand in perfect striking distance as they approached the top of the stretch. McCarron urged Alysheba, who found himself in sixth behind the front pack of horses around the far turn. They were on the extreme outside as they began the turn for home, not giving in as the final quarter mile got underway.
After straightening in the stretch, Ferdinand was on the outside of the two leaders, who were not giving up as the Classic was nearing the finish. The Hollywood Park crowd was raucous, wondering who was going to be the winner as the trio continued on. Alysheba was joining them, moving on Ferdinand's right. The first mile was done in 1:35 2/5. With one furlong to run, it was clear that either Alysheba, Candy's Gold, Ferdinand, or Judge Angelucci was going to win. All four were determined as the wire got closer. Ferdinand and Shoemaker moved forward, clearing the two leaders on his inside. As they did so, Alysheba and McCarron delivered one final lunge, rapidly catching up. It looked as if they were going to time it just right and get first place. The two Southern California horses were going for the win, and one of them was going to get it.
With the rumbling of the hooves and the cheers of the crowd, Alysheba and Ferdinand reached the wire in a photo finish. The official margin of victory was a nose, and the winner was Ferdinand. The terrific second half of 1987 was now complete. Shoemaker and Whittingham each had their first Breeders' Cup win, and Charlie followed his son, Michael, as winning trainer of the Classic (Michael saddled Skywalker to the victory the previous year). The popular jockey and trainer had teamed up with the plucky horse for another stirring victory in front of the home crowd, giving Hollywood Park another moment to add to its rich history.
The win was enough for Ferdinand to be voted both Top Handicap Horse and Horse of the Year for 1987. Alysheba's performance was enough to net him Top Three Year Old Male honors, so he actually became a winner even in defeat.
The Classic was the first meeting between Ferdinand and Alysheba, but it would not be the last. More matchups would follow in 1988.
Looking back on that autumn day, only one horse achieved victory. However, each of them raced like the true champions they were. Ferdinand and Alysheba showed their greatness on November 21, 1987, and that greatness continues to captivate many people.