With the unfortunate retirement of Big Brown, the Breeders’ Cup pre-entries, a weekly column to write, and preparation for the Breeders' Cup Classic occupying most of my time this week, I thought, because of the interest shown in Invasor on my last blog and in several recent e-mails, I would reprint two stories (a commentary and parts of my Classic recap). These stories reflect an owner’s love of a horse, and how that horse enabled another person (me) to experience things he never dreamed of.
To those who have already read these, bear with me. To those who haven’t, I hope you enjoy this look back at a very special horse. I will begin by picking up the recap in the winner’s circle following the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
As a melting pot of humanity converged on the Churchill Downs winner's circle, Americans and Arabs hugged and kissed each other, and from out of the bedlam, came the chant of "Een-vah-SOR! Een-vah-SOR!" with the colt's former co-owner, Pablo Hernandez, accompanied by eight of his friends, proudly holding the Uruguayan flag over his head. Joining in the celebration were media members from Argentina, where Invasor was bred.
"This is unbelievable," a delirious Hernandez shouted above the din. "This is the greatest experience of my life, and always will be. Invasor is still in the hearts of everyone in Uruguay. We are a small, modest country, and we need an idol. We have no idol in football and no idol in politics. Invasor is the idol of Uruguay. He is the 'Horse of the Rio de la Plata (the river that separates Uruguay and Argentina).' "
Also cheering wildly for Invasor were thousands of racing fans who had flocked to Maronas Racetrack in Uruguay, where Invasor made the first five starts of his career, and to San Isidro Race Course in Argentina to watch the Classic via simulcast.
"You can't imagine how excited the fans were about Invasor's victory," Luis Costa Baleta, a horse owner from a long-standing Uruguayan racing family, said after watching the race in Uruguay. "I shouted as if it were my own horse winning the Breeders' Cup Classic. Since Invasor has gone to the United States, every time he's run, all the simulcast halls have been crowded with people who came to see him and bet on him. They shout and cheer for him as if Uruguay was playing in the finals of the World Cup. No one can imagine what it's like. He's become a national hero."
It is in Uruguay that the unlikely story of Invasor began. Hernandez, who owned the son of Candy Stripes--Quendom, by Interprete, in partnership with brothers Juan Luis and Luis Alberto Vio Bado, recalled how his magical journey with Invasor began one morning outside of Buenos Aires.
"We had flown to Argentina and were scheduled to take a small plane to La Biznaga Farm, where we were going to look at horses," Hernandez said. "But the plane had engine failure and the trip was canceled. Our friend, Miguel Ezcurra, from Bullrich Auctioneers, took us by car to visit some smaller farms near Buenos Aires. After having seen some 80 colts and fillies at several farms, we went to Haras Clausan in Areco, a province of Buenos Aires, and that's where we met Invasor. Immediately, it was as if we had been hit with Cupid's arrow. We just fell in love with him."
Sandro Mizeroqui, owner of Haras Clausan, which has since been re-named Haras Santa Ines, was asking $25,000 for the horse. Hernandez and the Vio Bados offered $18,000, and both parties eventually settled for $20,000. "We purchased him and exported him to Maronas Racetrack in Uruguay," Hernandez said. "Our lucky strike had begun."
Invasor took Hernandez and the Vio Bado brothers on a ride they will never forget. In his five races in Uruguay, Invasor, trained by Anibal San Martin, won at five different distances from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 9/16 miles. His average margin of victory was five lengths. His jockey, the veteran Gustavo Duarte, who is one of the leading riders in Uruguay, called Invasor the best horse he'd ever ridden.
Invasor's accomplishments were all the more remarkable considering his winning streak was interrupted by a fractured right hind sesamoid that required surgery. Hernandez attended the surgery and actually held the bone fragments in his hand.
After sweeping the Uruguayan Triple Crown in brilliant fashion, Invasor was sold by Hernandez and his partners to Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell Stable for $1.5 million, which is a great deal of money in Uruguay, considering Invasor's total earnings there were $114,070. It was hoped to run him in the country's big championship race, the Gran Premio Internacional Jose Pedro Ramirez, for 3-year-olds and up, but Shadwell's offer was too lucrative to turn down, although one of the Vio Bado brothers was reluctant to sell.
"I am 42 years old and have faced many challenges and dilemmas in my life," Hernandez said. "But surely, the uncertainty of whether or not to sell Invasor gave me many sleepless nights. To be one of the co-owners of a Triple Crown winner is something that rarely happens to a Thoroughbred owner, especially in Uruguay. After so many decades of not having a Triple Crown winner, to suddenly realize that your horse has become a national hero to the enthusiastic Uruguayan racing fans is very shocking."
In December 2005, Hernandez was contacted by Shadwell, wanting to buy Invasor and fly him to Dubai for the UAE Derby (UAE-II).
"There is no time to think when somebody offers you this kind of deal," Hernandez said. "I was so undecided what to do, but Sheikh Hamdan was waiting for my answer. I called my friend, Miguel Ezcurra, and all he said to me was, 'You know what you have to do.'
"The reason why we sold him was not only about the money. Here in Uruguay there isn't much possibility to develop a great champion, and I wanted to give him the big opportunity to prove that he was a great horse. We would never have been able to go with him to the United States to run; it is too expensive for us. So, I was backed into a corner. I had no other choice.
"I have thousands of images of Invasor in my memory--some that make me weep and others that bring me much happiness. But the bitter memory is the day I had to say farewell to him after traveling with him on the van to the airport. It was a silent farewell, because inside our souls, none of us wanted Invasor leaving our lives. Every time he ran at Maronas, the fans filled the racetrack to watch him run and to try to touch him and take pictures with him. They even tried to get strands of his hair as a souvenir.
"The day he departed reminded me of that day years ago when I, like many Uruguayans, emigrated to Europe. I had graduated from dentistry school and went to Spain for a post-graduate in dental surgery. I remember how my grandmother cried silently the day I left. I can understand how she felt, because I felt the same way the day I had to say goodbye to Invasor. It was like saying goodbye to a son you were never going to see again. Although the plane left very early in the morning, a lot of people showed up at the airport to say their goodbyes to Invasor."
After being sold, Invasor was sent to Kiaran McLaughlin's barn at Palm Meadows in Florida, and then was flown to Dubai, where he finished fourth in the UAE Derby after encountering traffic problems. He actually came on again in the stretch to be beaten a length for second. One of those in attendance was Hernandez, who had flown to Dubai to see the horse run and "share a special moment with him." Now, here he was in Kentucky more than seven months later, sharing the most special moment of them all.
America's richest race had been won by an Argentine-bred colt who had raced in Uruguay, was ridden by a Panamanian, and is owned by an Arab sheikh and trained by a native Kentuckian.
For McLaughlin and his staff, it's been a long, hard climb to reach racing's summit. After six years of training for the Maktoums, McLaughlin began forming a public stable during his summers away from Dubai, leaving most of the horses with other trainers upon his return to Dubai for the winter.
In the quiet of the backstretch following the Classic, longtime assistant Artie Magnuson and Neal McLaughlin, Kiaran's brother and assistant, recalled those early days.
"Remember Desert Falcon and how we used to have to massage his legs after he suffered two saucer fractures, and how thrilled we were when he won for a $35,000 claiming tag?" Neal said to Magnuson. "And then we were even happier when we found out he had been claimed. We didn't know where we were going, and we were scared to death."
"We were going back and forth to Dubai, and then Shadwell started going in another direction and gave their horses to several different trainers," Magnuson said. "This was a year after Kiaran was diagnosed with MS (Multiple Sclerosis), and it was like, 'What are we going to do now?' But Kiaran hustled and hustled to put a stable together, lining up new clients."
Although the stable had success after McLaughlin went on his own for good in 2003, while still training several Shadwell and Darley horses, he wasn't able to land the big horse.
Neal's wife, Trish, who also is an assistant trainer, recalled the day last winter when a van pulled up to their barn at Palm Meadows training center and out walked a light-framed colt, covered in a thick winter coat. All they thought of when they laid eyes on this Uruguayan import was, what kind of conditions can they find for him? But after Invasor returned from Dubai, Nichols and Sheikh Hamdan wanted to throw him right into the deep water in the Pimlico Special, and that was the beginning of what surely looks to be a Horse of the Year campaign.
"After he arrived, we gave him UlcerGard and GastroGard. He got the best of everything--hay at $30 a bale and the best care in the world," Trish McLaughlin said.
Now, here he was, some 10 months later, reunited in victory with his former owner and atop the racing world on two continents. Also sharing in the glory was Diego Mitagstein, the pedigree consultant for Turf Diario in Argentina.
"I can't speak--my heart," he said. "Bayakoa won the Distaff twice and Paseana won the Distaff, but this is the Classic at Churchill Downs, the home of the biggest race in America."
Sheikh Hamdan’s racing manager Rick Nichols said no decision has been made whether or not to retire Invasor. "It's going to be up to Sheikh Hamdan," he said. "After winning the Classic, it would be very tempting to retire him, but it's also very tempting to win the Dubai World Cup next March."
The morning after the race, McLaughlin and his family were already on their way home. Magnuson had an 11 a.m. flight to New York and dreaded having to say goodbye to Invasor, who is off to Palm Meadows, knowing he may never see the colt again. But emotional farewells are nothing new to Invasor.
Also about to bid farewell to him is his groom, Santos Fragoso, whose visa expires Nov. 24, and he will have to return to Mexico.
For Pablo Hernandez, it would be a joyous trip back to Montevideo, Uruguay's capital. But there are still moments of reflection as he looks back at the incredible saga of Invasor.
"My partners are still sad," he said. "They are two old unmarried brothers who have lost the reason to go to the racetrack every weekend. I was melancholy, too, in the beginning, but we have made it possible for Invasor to become famous in the best place in the world. He's gone, but he remains a part of my life, and he will be mine in my heart forever."
Magnuson gathered his belongings and went over to Invasor's stall to give him one final pat on the neck.
"Man, I'm going to miss him," he said. "When you're with them every day, you take it for granted. He's just different from other horses, with that big eye of his and that wonderful personality. Looking back at everything, his story really is incredible, and we've been so lucky to be one of the chapters."
(Fortunately for Magnuson and everyone in racing, that chapter was not over, as Invasor was allowed to add further glory to his already amazing story).
Because of a Horse
The strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” blared over the public address system, as jockey Carlos Mendez, aboard Gran Premio José Pedro Ramírez (Uru-I) winner Rock Ascot, stood up in the saddle, flung his arms up in victory, and tossed rose petals from the victory blanket in the air. The massive crowd at Maroñas Racetrack let out a mighty roar to salute the victors.
With the music still resounding throughout the track, the winning connections—owner, breeder, trainer, and jockey and their friends and families—were driven in antique automobiles to the makeshift winner’s podium on the track in front of the grandstand. Alongside the podium was a mounted military band in decorative uniforms and cascos (headgear) playing drums, bugles, tubas, and other instruments.
With the fans still applauding and taking pictures, the winners were presented their trophies. Standing along the rail, my wife and daughter and I were engulfed by the cheers, the music, and the on-track festivities. It was at this point that my daughter said, “All that’s missing are fireworks.”
Sure enough, seconds later, an explosion of fireworks from behind the podium lit up the darkening blue sky that had already become illuminated by the lights of the racetrack. It was a moment that was both spectacular and surreal—a fitting conclusion to a magical day that saw skydivers rain down on the racetrack carrying banners and flags. Several years ago, one skydiver actually landed on the back of a horse…on purpose. The spectacle of Ramírez day was obvious. The surrealism was due in part to the fact that we were in Uruguay.
Our trip, at the invitation of the Uruguayan Breeders’ Association, included visits to the Riviera-like resort of Punta del Este, where the rich and famous congregate each summer; the amazing Casapueblo, where nature and art meet to form a kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and images nestled along Uruguay’s tranquil coastline; and the historic, charming town of Colonia, where you can see spectacular sunsets and the lights from Buenos Aires across the Rio del la Plata that separates Uruguay and Argentina. Our home base, the capital city of Montevideo, has miles and miles of beaches that come alive each day with people jogging, walking, riding bicycles, and strolling with their dogs along the palm tree-lined Rambla.
It was at some point during the trip that it hit me. Everything I was experiencing was due to one horse. It was through my articles on Invasor and the contacts I had made in Uruguay that all of this was made possible.
I gave a 90-minute talk on Invasor to the media and racing officials at Maroñas, presented the trophy for one of the big stakes on Ramirez day, was interviewed by ESPN South America, had every want and need catered to, and, simply put, was treated like a rock star—all because of a horse.
With Thoroughbred racing in the United States going through perhaps the roughest time in its history, it is reassuring to know that the passion people around the world have for the sport and for the horse still is as strong as ever; even 6,000 miles away in a small country most Americans would have trouble finding on a map.
During Invasor’s career in the United States, I bonded with him as I’ve never bonded with any horse. But I never could have imagined how far that bond would take me. Because of this remarkable animal, I met many people in a faraway land that I now consider close friends. I discovered a new culture, new food, and a new, vibrant world of Thoroughbred racing that re-kindled the feelings I had for the sport back in the late 1960s, when all seemed so pure and innocent.
But most of all I discovered myself. Cloistered away in my home/office every day, I was reluctant to embark on such an adventure, and it was only after my wife’s constant urging that I finally capitulated. So, my self-discovery was due in great part to her.
Although I am back and immersed once again in the Kentucky Derby, I still think of Uruguay often and cannot remove that one thought from my head: it was all because of a horse. Perhaps those are words everyone in the industry should remember.