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THE FOUNDER, BELIEVING HIS RACE A FAILURE, TOOK HIS OWN LIFE. BUT HIS CONTEST SURVIVED HIM, ENDURING SEVERAL BRUSHES WITH EXTINCTION TO BECOME AMERICA’S LONGEST-RUNNING SPORTS TRADITION. IT TURNS 125 THIS SPRING.
May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
That horse was Bet Twice, and he was laboring, his stride deteriorating into lazy, irregular footfalls. Alysheba drove at him from the grandstand side, his nose lapping Bet Twice’s tail. Suddenly Bet Twice ducked sharply outward. McCarron saw the enormous churning hindquarters veering into him and knew what was coming. Alysheba reached out just as Bet Twice’s hind legs pushed out behind him. Jockeys say there is a bright, crisp ring as metal-shod hooves connect, or “clip,” an incongruously cheery portent of the wreck that is likely to follow. McCarron can’t remember if he heard it. But as Bet Twice lurched over, he kicked Alysheba’s forelegs out from under him. Alysheba’s front end dropped like a hammer. McCarron saw his colt’s head and neck fall away as the ground heaved up. His hands, clutching the reins, were jerked forward; with fifteen horses behind him, Alysheba was dragging McCarron into a forty-mile-per-hour somersault. “I thought,” the jockey told Sports Illustrated , “I was gone.”
With a speed of thought and action he credits to the importance of the race, McCarron threw himself backward and gripped the reins in a hammerlock, taking weight off Alysheba’s sinking front end. Alysheba, his knees nearly on the ground, whirled his legs forward in one lithe motion; the colt landed violently on one foreleg, catching himself just in time.
McCarron expected his mount, like virtually everv other horse in his experience, to be intimidated by a mishap that easily could have resulted in horse and rider being trampled to death.
He was wrong. Alysheba pinned his ears and took off after Bet Twice, spoiling for a fight.
Alysheba and McCarron charged down the stretch in oursuit of Bet Twice. Again Bet Twice zigged outward. McCarron swerved his colt out sharply just in time to miss a second collision, then had to dodge right again as Bet Twice veered out a third time. With McCarron shouting him home, Alysheba stretched for the finish. The Kentucky ground shivered with the roar of 140,000 voices as man and animal took the lead and hurled themselves under the wire.
The victor is led over the infield bluegrass, walking down a gantlet of men to the winner’s circle. He treads a path ennobled by Secretariat, Citation, Arcaro, Tones, Regret, and Aristides. His hooves rest on earth cultivated by Winn, shaped by the visions of Clark, touched by Boone. They wreathe his shoulders in a rush of roses and the weight of tradition, his name forever amended with the grand words Derby winner .
“This is the moment, the peak, the pinnacle,” wrote Faulkner, “after this, all is ebb.”