Thoroughbred racing has always been confined to its own small world, safe and protected from the tumultuous events that surround it. There have been individual stars that have transcended the sport and reached out to touch mainstream America. But never before had the Sport of Kings been woven into the often tattered fabric of history.
That is, until the 2001 Breeders' Cup, when racing's biggest day was played out 12 miles from the hell of Ground Zero, where the ashes from what was once the World Trade Center still smoldered.
That was the setting for Tiznow’s amazing second victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
But before we go back to Belmont Park on Oct. 27, 2001, we must begin earlier that winter, as Tiznow embarked on his 4-year-old campaign. With not much more to prove following his first Classic victory and winning Eclipse Awards as leading 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year, Tiznow, nonetheless, was kept in training by Michael Cooper after the death of his his longtime friend and partner Cecilia Straub-Rubens just three days after the Classic.
As told in the first story, Straub-Rubens’ final words to trainer Jay Robbins' wife Sandy were: “Tell Jay to take care of my boy.” As it turned out, that was more difficult of a task than Robbins could have imagined.
The champ appeared to be heading for further glory after romping in the Santa Anita Handicap. But that all changed on the morning of April 12 following a six-furlong workout with Chris McCarron aboard. After the saddle was removed, the colt just stood there and refused to walk. Robbins knew something was wrong, thinking at first that colt had tied up (cramped up).
When Tiznow returned to the track he was unable to jog properly, and was noticeably off in his hind end. Dr. Rick Arthur was called in. A nuclear scan revealed that one of the vertebrae was showing a good deal of heat. That was complicated by muscular problems. Robbins' father, Jack, one of the foremost veterinarians in the country before his retirement, also tried to figure out what was wrong.
"We consulted with other vets around the country," Jay Robbins said, "and they had never seen anything like it. It hurt me to watch him; he could hardly move."
"No one thought he'd ever run again," Jack Robbins added. "He was so off behind, everyone was horrified. If someone had told me at that time this colt would win the Breeders' Cup Classic again this year I wouldn't have believed it. Dr. Arthur put him on a muscle relaxant and prescribed lots of time and rest."
Tiznow began light exercise during the middle of May, but his trainer felt the horse wasn't making much progress. "We poulticed his back and put hot packs on it, then walked him a lot," Robbins said. "He began to show improvement, so we started galloping him. He still didn't look that good and a lot of my peers said, 'Why don't you just retire him?'
But Cooper, still thinking of the courage Straub-Rubens showed by traveling to the Breeders’ Cup to see Tiznow run, was determined to give him every chance to make it back. He had promised himself after the Classic that he’d never complain about anything in racing again.
“After Tiznow won the Breeders’ Cup the way he did, and doing it for Mrs. Rubens, who was so ill at the time, how could I ever ask for anything more than that?” he said. “After 20 years of disappointment in racing, it had all been such a mystical experience.”
One morning in July, Chris McCarron galloped Tiznow and said he didn't feel quite right behind. But Robbins could see improvement and the colt began to show progress. The next time McCarron got on him he told Robbins he felt perfect."
Tiznow was on his way back, and Robbins put him on tranquilizers in order to make it easier to train him. "He's so into what he does, I didn't want him to do too much every day," he said.
Meanwhile, friction was developing between Cooper and Robbins about where to run the horse. Cooper wanted to run him in the Woodward Stakes, but Robbins did not want to send him all the way to New York off a layoff to run against the best horses in the east. He preferred the one-mile Del Mar Handicap, but Cooper did not want to risk getting Tiznow beat by El Corredor, whom he considered a “monster” at a mile. It finally was decided to ship Tiznow back to New York to defend his title.
Tiznow ran gamely in the Woodward, finishing a close third, but didn't seem to have his usual spark. To make matters worse, the race was run three days before 9/11. With the airports shut down, Tiznow was stranded at Belmont Park. As he walked the shed of trainer Shug McGaughey's barn, off in the distance, a deathly shroud still hung over the now-naked skyline of Lower Manhattan. The Statue of Liberty, once nestled under the shadow of the World Trade Center's twin towers, now stood under an ominous ashen cloud that stretched across New York Harbor all the way to New Jersey.
At the Belmont stable gate, a sign was tucked into the window of the booth showing the American flag, with the words: "Pray For America." As Tiznow continued to walk the shed, exercise rider Ramon Arciga said, "We're stuck here. "We were supposed to have left Wednesday, then again on Friday. Now they say Tuesday, but we're not sure when we'll be leaving.
Tiznow finally was able to return home to prepare for the Goodwood Stakes, but instead of improving off the Woodward, he turned in an uncharacteristically dull performance in the Goodwood, behind longshot Freedom Crest and Skimming. Following the Goodwood, Robbins took Tiznow off the tranquilizers, and in the process, unleashed a terror.
Let's just say mornings with Tiznow were not quite as mellow as mornings with Mr. Rogers. The colt became obstinate and cantankerous, lashing out at his lead pony and refusing to train until he was good and ready. Other times, he’d be jogging on the outside fence and suddenly just dart across the track to the inside fence. “I was scared to death he was going to get someone hurt,” Robbins said. “He was doing all kinds of dumb things.”
One morning, it took 45 minutes on the track before McCarron could get him to work. When the colt finally decided he was ready, he turned in a spectacular mile work in 1:35 3/5.
Meanwhile, events were taking place back east that would set the stage for one of the greatest international spectacles in the history of the sport.
America, especially New York City, was still in shock over the cataclysmic events of 9/11, and there was talk about many of the Europeans not showing up. But Ballydoyle trainer Aidan O’Brien assured the Breeders’ Cup that he’d be there with his powerful arsenal.
The first indication that this would not be a normal Breeders' Cup came on Oct. 11 when Sheikh Mohammed’s private 747 jet, which had departed Stanstead Airport in England at 1:30 p.m., touched down at JFK International Airport. On board were three of Godolphin's biggest stars -- the brilliant Sakhee, runaway winner of the Arc de Triomphe and Juddmonte International; the globe-trotting Fantastic Light, a major stakes winner in the United States, Ireland, England, Hong Kong, and Dubai, and third, beaten a neck, in the Japan Cup; and the top miler, Noverre, winner of the Sussex Stakes.
Awaiting the trio upon their arrival at the Saudi Arabian cargo terminal were two FBI agents, four customs agents, and three carloads of Port Authority police. The horses were vanned to Belmont, joining the other Godolphin horses under the care of head assistant Tom Albertrani.
The main question was: in which races would Sakhee and Fantastic Light be entered? It was assumed Sakhee would go for the Turf, with Fantastic Light, who had worked well over the Belmont dirt the year before, headed for the Classic. But Albertrani said he had a gut feeling it would be the other way around, with Godolphin attempting to make history by winning the Arc and the Breeders' Cup Classic with the same horse and in a span of only 20 days. A victory by Sakhee surely would make him the "Horse of the World."
Godolphin also would be converging on Belmont Park from the opposite direction, with top-class 2-year-olds Tempera, Imperial Gesture, Essence of Dubai, and Ibn Al Haitham due to arrive from Eoin Harty's barn at Santa Anita.
A week before the Breeders’ Cup, a Sallee horse van rolled into the Belmont backstretch carrying two Breeders' Cup horses. The first off the van was the freshly clipped Caller One, a leading contender for the Sprint. After him came the familiar tornado-blazed face of Tiznow.
Despite a layer of dust that covered him after his long trip from California, the champ was bursting with dapples. The colt stopped to shake some of the dust off and was led into the grassy area behind Shug McGaughey's barn by exercise rider Ramon Arciga to unwind a little.
A few minutes later, the tranquility was interrupted by the muffled sound of Tom Durkin's voice calling that day's eighth race. In a flash, Tiznow's head sprang up. His eyes widened and he stood like a statue, with his ears cocked, staring off into the distance at the Belmont grandstand. It wasn't until the race was over and all was again quiet that he returned to grazing.
"He knows where the action is," Arciga said. "He knows something big is about to happen.” Arciga then turned to Tiznow and said, "Hey, Papa, we're gonna kick some butt, aren't we?" Tiznow then was led into his stall, took a roll in the wood shavings, and settled in to his new home for the week.
But this moment of bliss would be short-lived. The following morning, Robbins showed up, not knowing what to expect from his temperamental star. Much to his dismay, he would soon find out. Tiznow went out for his clockwise jog around the track just after the renovation break, and immediately turned into a one-horse wrecking crew, balking, kicking, back-peddling, and side-stepping his way around the track. As he walked off, Robbins told Arciga to bring him back on and go around again. "I'm either gonna confuse him or confuse myself," he said. Tiznow was better the second time around, but down the backstretch, he lost it again, and scooted backwards across the width of the track. An outrider finally had to grab the colt and escort him back.
Robbins went out later that day to buy a bottle of vodka to give to Tiznow to help calm him down. It was a practice that had been used by some trainers in the past. But it was Sunday and all the liquor stores were closed, so Robbins was on his own.
He decided to change the colt's schedule, sending him out before the break, when there was much less traffic, and having him go counterclockwise for a change. It seemed to work. Accompanied by Shug McGaughey’s exercise rider Pam York and her pony, Andy, Tiznow improved each day. Robbins, watching from the trainer's stand one morning, crossed both his fingers as Tiznow ambled calmly around the track. His gallops got stronger, and by late week, he was tearing over the track with the same power and authority as he had the year before at Churchill Downs.
At 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 22, an Air Transport International DC-8 taxied up to the same Saudi Arabian terminal at JFK. Veterinarian John Miller boarded the plane and took the blood on the seven Ballydoyle-trained horses arriving from Shannon Airport. The blood would then be flown by Lear Jet to Ames, Iowa, where lab technician John Eli would meet the plane and take the samples to the lab for analysis. Expediting the procedure would allow the Ballydoyle horses to clear quarantine by 10 p.m. the following day.
The Ballydoyle contingent was believed to be the most expensive shipment of Thoroughbred racehorses in history. An insurance company appraised their value at $200 million, with Galileo, winner of the English Derby, Irish Derby, and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, alone valued at $65 million. Also on board were the brilliant undefeated 2-year-old Johannesburg, St. Leger winner Milan, and top-class stakes horses Black Minnaloushe, Bach, Mozart, and Sophisticat.
About an hour after the arrival of the Ballydoyle horses, an Air France 747 pulled up to the Air France terminal, carrying three horses -- Banks Hill, Spring Oak, and Slew the Red, all trained by Andre Fabre in Chantilly.
This three-pronged European force would wind up winning an incredible $3,907,200 in Breeders' Cup purse money.
On Wednesday, Oct. 24, the morning of the entries, Godolphin sent shock waves rippling through the backstretch when it announced Fantastic Light would run in the Turf and Sakhee would go for the Classic in an attempt to climb Mt. Olympus and enter the pantheon of greats.
On the morning of the race, Sandy Robbins, knowing the problems that were brewing between Jay and Cooper, said to her husband, “I want this for you so badly.”
Breeders' Cup Day was unlike anything ever seen at a racetrack. Police dogs were used to search random automobiles entering the track parking lot. Soldiers were stationed throughout Belmont, armed with AKA assault rifles. Snipers were positioned on the roof, observing the crowd with high-powered binoculars. The whole scene was surreal.
As part of the opening ceremonies prior to the races, dozens of jockeys, accompanied by members of the New York Police and Fire departments, lined up, each holding the flag of his country. The National Anthem was sung by Carl Dixon of the New York Police Department following a bagpipe rendition of "Amazing Grace."
On the racing front, Alastair Donald of the International Racing Bureau was expecting a big day from the powerful European brigade. "If we get our asses kicked, we'll have to think up some good excuses," he said.
Walking to the holding barn, Arciga spoke to Tiznow with reassuring words. The colt pinned his ears and "gave me that look," Arciga said. He had seen that same look a year earlier and a wave of confidence came over him. "I said to myself, 'We're gonna do it. I know we're gonna do it.'"
Fast forward to the running of the Classic, as the field nears the quarter pole. Albert the Great is trying to gut it out on the lead, with Tiznow right behind, but not threatening at this point. The all-too familiar silks of Godolphin emerge in the picture, as Sakhee comes charging up on the outside to take a narrow lead. Tiznow is now back in third and still not putting in much of a run, but moves into second when Albert the Great begins to drop back. Still, he appears beaten, as Sakhee has taken a half-length lead with less than a furlong to go.
McCarron thinks he’s beaten. Robbins thinks he’s beaten. Cooper is still hoping his miracle horse could pull out another miracle, but just wants Tiznow to continue to battle. "When Sakhee went by him, I thought, 'Keep going, boy; keep going. Show him you got guts, anyway.'"
To racing fans across America, it was happening all over again, just like the previous year. America was a heartbeat away from being conquered in the Breeders' Cup Classic. This time, however, a defeat would have been an ignominious end to the 2001 Breeders’ Cup. First, it was a thrashing from the French in the Filly & Mare Turf by Banks Hill. Then, it was the Irish who decimated the American youngsters in the Juvenile, as Johannesburg burst clear to win going away. Adding insult to injury, the Turf then went to the English, represented by Godolphin’s Fantastic Light, with the Irish colt Milan finishing off a one-two European coup-de-grace.
Sakhee, with immortality a mere furlong away, reached back to deal the fatal blow. But then something happened, something we'd seen before. McCarron hit Tiznow once left-handed and he surged forward. Right before everyone's eyes, last year's Superman, Tiznow, stripped away the glasses and gray suit he had worn in his previous two races. The Clark Kent of the Woodward Stakes and Goodwood Handicap had emerged from his phone booth and was becoming airborne, just as he had in the 2000 Classic when another European powerhouse, Giant's Causeway, dared to challenge America's dominance on dirt.
Tiznow’s problems were now behind him. All he needed was an opponent, apparently a European, to re-ignite the fire in his eyes. One look at Sakhee about to deal America another crushing defeat and the mild-mannered colt once again became faster than a speeding bullet; once again became more powerful than a locomotive. He reached back into that indefinable reservoir we call heart, and in the shadow of the wire, was able to snatch victory away from Sakhee. America, for a fleeting instant, was as she was before Sept. 11-- untainted and impenetrable. The nation's fighting spirit that emerged in the face of disaster had manifested itself in the form of a magnificent, powerful Thoroughbred who simply refused to be defeated.
By thrusting his nose in front of Sakhee on the wire, a California-bred with relatively obscure bloodlines had become the first two-time winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic. And he did it by defeating the greatest international field ever assembled for a dirt race. His victims included the winners of the English Derby, Irish Derby, Arc de Triomphe, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and Irish Two Thousand Guineas, as well as two Jockey Club Gold Cup winners.
In the stands, Sandy Robbins was in tears. Cooper’s legs went numb and he couldn’t walk for several minutes. He also couldn't help but think of his longtime partner and close friend, Cecilia Straub-Rubens. "She was such a special lady and a special friend," he said. "I wish she had been here to enjoy this. I think Tiz knew in spirit she was here, the way he came back and gutted it out right down on the line, kind of like the way she was, too. Who knows, it could have been Cee kicking him in the ass. I thought about her and thanked her. At least I know she went out with a big smile on her face.”
Frankie Dettori had nothing but praise for Tiznow, and tremendous admiration for his horse. "He's still a winner to me," he said. "For him to run like he did first time on dirt and having run three weeks ago in Paris, he must be a superstar. Full credit to Tiznow. He knuckled down and got me. He has a great reputation and a head like a dinosaur."
Godolphin assistant Laurent Barbarin put it best when he said of Sakhee, "He came a nose away from making history. It would have been something amazing, but we'll be back again."
Back at the barn, Tiznow immediately dove into a pile of alfalfa. Cooper called over to his trainer, "Hey, Robbins, you got the condition book. He's ready to go again." Tiznow was then treated to carrots, apples, and mints by his admiring family. McCarron showed up and wrapped his arms around Tiznow's massive neck. "You are the man!" he said.
As Cooper departed, he told Arciga and groom Carlos Aguilar, "Good night, guys. Once again, wonderful job. I know it hasn't been easy, but you did terrific. There will be Christmas again this year."
One of the last to leave was Robbins’s father Jack, who went over to Tiznow and said, "You got the job done, White Face. You did yourself proud."
The colt also did New York City proud. At a time when so many heroes had surfaced in the Big Apple, Tiznow, in his own way, came to embody the indomitable spirit that had emerged over the past two months.
Soon after the Breeders’ Cup, Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, who were 5-3 at the time and seemingly going nowhere, was looking for something that would inspire his team. He showed them a tape of Tiznow’s Classic and told them the importance of the race, and impressed upon them how victory comes to those who want it the most. So, instead of watching game films, the Patriots watched Tiznow battle back to turn certain defeat into victory. Whether it was coincidence or not, the Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl that year, which began one the great dynasties in NFL history.
That December, Robbins received a Christmas card from Belichick, on which he wrote, “Thanks for the inspiration.” The following February, Belichick presented the Eclipse Award for leading older male to Cooper and Robbins.
In looking for the proper words to describe Tiznow’s 2001 Classic victory, I found them in the form of an old English saying.
Although not the powerful force he had been that winter and the previous fall, Tiznow, despite his injuries and mental foibles and coming off two defeats, somehow was able to rise to the challenge, giving new meaning to the saying, "Spirit shall be the stouter, heart the bolder, courage the greater, as our might lessens."