Kentucky Derby

250 attend memorial for Alysheba

It turned out to be a chance for his breeder, his trainer and his jockey to remember the wonder horse that none took credit for shaping.

"It was an honor," said Preston Madden, Alysheba's breeder, "to be associated with your greatness."

Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg remembers looking at Alysheba at the Keeneland yearling sale. Reminding everyone that this was in the era "before steroids," this was just "Alysheba in his everyday overalls," Van Berg said. "He was just so smart and so athletic. I didn't train him. He did it all by himself."

Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron agreed, laughing. Then, he added later: "I was blessed to be chosen to ride this horse."

Alysheba, whose fall in his stall late last month resulted in his being euthanized, died as one of America's most successful racehorses. He was 25 and had been diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition before this fall.

The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner in 1987, the Breeder's Cup winner the following year, the 1988 Horse of the Year, an inductee into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame, Alysheba was memorialized Wednesday at the Kentucky Horse Park under beautiful skies with about 250 in attendance. Included were Henry Waits, the farm manager at Hamburg Place who was on hand for his birth and for the birth of his mother, Bel Sheba.

"He was just a nice foal," Waits said of the animal born 25 years ago with the fanfare expected for a colt sired by Alydar. Alysheba was dubbed "America's Horse" in his lifetime, and the small throng in attendance at his graveside gave witness to the truth of the moniker.

Twenty years ago, Carol Mignot drove three days to move herself and all her belongings to Lexington so she could live where horses like Alysheba lived.

So when she knelt at the great horse's grave site Wednesday afternoon and placed a modest bouquet of flowers on his less-than-modest grave, she said it was "the least I could do."

"Some horses speak to us," the New Mexico transplant said. "Some, we just take to more than others."

Alysheba she took to.

Susan Ice came from Louisville to bring him roses. She had picked him to win the Kentucky Derby in 1987, and "when he stumbled twice and still won, he was my special baby ever since."

Both women had been to see him since he was repatriated in 2008 as a gift from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to the horse's homeland — specifically Kentucky, where he was born.

Mignot had come on the day that Alysheba was taken from the van to his new stall, the one previously occupied by John Henry. So many had hoped it would be a long stay.

"I knew I would be emotional. I had almost given up hope that he would be returned to this country," Mignot said.

But there he was. Older but, she said, "he still had that aura."

He remembered who he was.

Also in the crowd Wednesday were two women who had just decided last week to come to Kentucky for the Derby. They had booked a nice package and were staying in Lexington. Luckily, they said, they had gotten on the right horse farm tour and were at the Horse Park at the right time.

"This is such a thrill," said Diane Hensley of Richland, Wash.

With her was DeAnne McCullough, 71, her neighbor, who a long time ago, was one of the first female jockeys in Washington state.

Both women stood throughout the service, respectful. They watched as the shade moved ever so slightly across the great horse's grave near the Hall of Champions where McCullough's own favorite, Cigar, stood alone again.