03/30/2009 12:00AM

Vivid memories of a champ


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Alysheba's death on March 27 stirred memories in two of the men who helped make the 1988 Horse of the Year what he was.

Preston Madden bred Alysheba at his family's historic Hamburg Place and sold him as a yearling for $500,000 to Dorothy and Pamela Scharbauer. Trainer Jack Van Berg, now in the Hall of Fame, saddled the colt to win the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the 1988 Breeders' Cup Classic, and six other Grade 1 races.

Madden and Van Berg both attended the Kentucky Horse Park's ceremony welcoming Alysheba back from Saudi Arabia on Oct. 31, 2008. The news of his death at age 25, after a fall in his barn, reached both men on Saturday morning, just hours after veterinarians at the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute here euthanized the horse.

The three of them - Madden, Van Berg, and Alysheba - first came together at the 1985 Keeneland July select yearling sale. Madden had prepped the bay colt the traditional Hamburg way, by letting him live rough in a 150-acre yearling field where he could gallop and compete with other colts. Alysheba arrived at the sale fit and tough and looking, Van Berg remembered, "like a farmer in his everyday clothes."

"I remember as if it was yesterday," Van Berg said Monday. "I seen him standing out there walking, and I said, 'Wait a minute, let's look at this one.' "

The Scharbauers' advisers told Van Berg they'd already considered him and dropped him from their list, because he was out of an old mare.

"I said, 'We've gotta look at him,' " Van Berg said. "He just stuck out. We went back three times looking at him. He was thin. You could see his rib cage. He'd been out running in that field. Preston did a tremendous job, raised him in the rough, not like a hothouse tomato. He was like a diamond sticking out, the charisma and the looks of him."

Madden also knew he had bred a good horse in Alysheba.

"He was obviously a good foal," Madden said of Alysheba's early months. "You didn't have to be much of a horseman to tell that. Dr. Bob Copelan came out to look at my yearlings about a week before the sale, and he said that Alysheba was not only the best yearling he looked at of the horses I was taking to sale, but he was the best yearling he'd seen that year."

In Van Berg's barn, Alysheba quickly developed the reputation for exceptional smarts.

"You only had to show him something once, and he knew what to do next time," Van Berg said. "When I'd come in the barn at five o'clock every morning, he'd be there watching for me. He got his peppermints from me every day, religiously. But if he had his back to the stall door when I went in the tack room, he'd miss me. Then he'd look for me. He'd wait and listen, and while I was on the phone talking to one of my other outfits or yelling at one of the boys, giving him hell for something, he'd hear my voice and he'd start screaming and hollering until I came out and fed him his mints."

Van Berg confesses he loved Alysheba, and he wasn't the only one. For groom John Cherry, it appeared the feeling was mutual with Alysheba.

"John would walk behind him, and Alysheba might stick a hind leg out at him," Van Berg said. "Most guys would want to hit him on the butt for that. But John would say, 'Sheba, why would you do that?' Just quiet. That horse loved John."

Madden, Van Berg, and Alysheba were reunited again on one of the best days of their lives: May 2, 1987, at the Kentucky Derby.

"I could tell a couple hundred yards out that he was going to win, and was thinking, 'My God, I finally won this race,' " said Madden, who fulfilled a childhood ambition of breeding the Derby winner when Alysheba finished three-quarters of a length ahead of Bet Twice. "It was a tremendous relief. It's a function of luck, and I just thank the lord that I was that lucky.

"What great things he did for me," he added. "I gave him the athletic upbringing, and he did a lot for me, so it's a two-way street."

Chris McCarron, who rode Alysheba for most of his career, called Van Berg at 5:30 a.m. in California on Saturday to break the news to Van Berg.

"I loved that horse dearly," Van Berg said. "That horse was good to me, good to the public, good to the American country, and good to the people who had him in Saudi Arabia. They had it right when they called him 'America's Horse.' "

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