The following story appears in this week’s issue of The Blood-Horse, October 29. 2011. TVG has put together a terrific video on Tiznow, with the focus on the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Classic, that will air Wednesday at 11:30 p.m. ET.
The year 2001 was not quite what Stanley Kubrick envisioned in his surreal odyssey into space. But that doesn’t mean the year was any less surreal, as evidenced by the tragedy of Sept. 11, a day that still resonates in the soul and gut of every American.
And on the 10th anniversary of that cataclysmic event, Thoroughbred racing also remembers—how the sport bonded as it had never bonded before, from America to Europe to the Middle East. And at a time when so many heroes surfaced in New York City, how one horse, in his own way, came to embody the indomitable spirit that had emerged from the smoldering ashes of lower Manhattan only seven weeks earlier. It was as if that spirit had manifested itself in the form of a magnificent Thoroughbred named Tiznow, who simply refused to be beaten when confronted by an Arab-owned, English-trained invader named Sakhee in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), America’s richest race.
Thoroughbred racing had always been confined to its own small world, safe and protected from the events that surround it. Individual stars 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 was the storyline and setting of the 2001 Breeders’ Cup World Championships, held Oct. 27, some 12 miles from Ground Zero, at Belmont Park, where the surreal became the norm—where police dogs searched random automobiles entering the track parking lot; where military personnel armed with assault rifles were stationed throughout Belmont; where snipers, positioned on the roof, observed the crowd with high-powered binoculars.
But in the end, it was all about Tiznow, who saved the day for America. It was nothing short of a miracle that Tiznow even made it to the Classic, having won the race in a gut-wrenching photo over Irish invader Giant’s Causeway the year before, becoming the first California-bred to win the Classic. Three days after that race Tiznow’s majority owner, Cecilia Straub-Rubens, who had forced herself to attend, lost her battle with cancer.
Her final words to Sandy Robbins, wife of Tiznow’s trainer Jay Robbins, were: “Tell Jay to take care of my boy.”
But her request would not be easily fulfilled. Tiznow appeared to be heading for further glory after romping in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) early in 2001. But that all changed on the morning of April 12 following a six-furlong workout with jockey Chris McCarron aboard. After the saddle was removed, the colt just stood there and refused to walk. Robbins knew something was wrong. 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, 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.”
Jack Robbins added, “No one thought he’d ever run again. 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, I wouldn’t have believed it. Dr. (Rick) Arthur put him on a muscle relaxant and prescribed lots of time and rest.”
As the months went by, a return to the races was beginning to look hopeless, but Straub-Rubens’ partner, Michael Cooper, couldn’t help but think of the courage his longtime friend had shown by traveling to the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs in 2000 to see Tiznow run, and he was determined to give the colt every chance to make it back.
“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. “But after 20 years of disappointment in racing, it had all been such a mystical experience.”
Tiznow did make it back, returning to the East and finishing third in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont. Three days later the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers fell. With the airports shut down, Tiznow became stranded at Belmont, where one could still clearly see the deadly ashen cloud that hung over lower Manhattan and stretched across New York Harbor 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.”
Tiznow finally made it back to California, but when he could only finish third again in the Goodwood Breeders’ Cup Handicap (gr. II) behind 39-1 Freedom Crest, there were major concerns in his camp that he may have lost his competitive spark. Robbins had put Tiznow on tranquilizers, and when he took him off the medication, he unleashed a terror.
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. Those antics continued at Belmont after he returned for the Classic. But he eventually settled into a normal routine and began to train in a professional manner.
Meanwhile, reports surfaced that many of the Europeans would not show up in the wake of 9/11. But Ballydoyle trainer Aidan O’Brien, who had his largest and strongest contingent ever, assured the Breeders’ Cup he’d be there and other Europeans followed.
The first indication that this would not be a normal Breeders’ Cup came 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 Airport later that day. On board were three of Godolphin’s biggest stars, including the brilliant Sakhee, runaway winner of the group I Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe Lucien Barriere and Juddmonte International 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 and the California contingent trained by Eoin Harty.
The main question was which race would Sakhee contest? It was assumed he would go for the Turf (gr. IT), with the globetrotting Fantastic Light headed for the Classic. But Godolphin decided to attempt 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 “Horse of the World.”
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 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 dual classic winner Galileo alone valued at $65 million.
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.
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. Following a bagpipe rendition of “Amazing Grace,” Carl Dixon of the New York Police Department sang the National Anthem.
By the time the Classic was run, the Europeans had rattled off consecutive victories in the grade I Filly & Mare Turf (Banks Hill), Juvenile (Johannesburg), and Turf, in which they finished one-two with Fantastic Light and Milan. Now it was up to Sakhee or Galileo to deliver the coup de grace.
Walking to the holding barn, groom Ramon Arciga spoke to Tiznow with reassuring words. He said the colt pinned his ears and “gave me that look.” Arciga 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.’ ”
While walking to the track, Tiznow gave Robbins that same feeling when he uncharacteristically lashed back with his hind legs and almost nailed the security guard walking behind him.
As the field approached the quarter pole in the Classic, Albert the Great was 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 quickly emerged in the picture, as Sakhee came charging up on the outside to challenge. Tiznow seemed to be going nowhere between horses. After straightening into the stretch, Sakhee began to edge away—by a neck, then a half-length, and seemed on his way to certain victory.
McCarron felt he was beaten. Robbins felt he was beaten. Cooper was still hoping his miracle horse could pull out another miracle, but at this point he just wanted Tiznow to continue to battle. “When Sakhee went by him, I thought, ‘Keep going, boy; keep going. Show him you got guts, anyway.’ ”
Sakhee, with immortality a mere furlong away, reached back to deal the fatal blow. But then something happened; something racing fans had seen the year before. McCarron hit Tiznow once left-handed, and the colt gave one final desperate surge. Tiznow’s fire suddenly reignited, as if he were aware a European was again challenging America’s dominance on dirt.
Having thrust his nose in front of Sakhee on the wire, Tiznow became 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, Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and Irish Two Thousand Guineas, as well as two Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) winners. Track announcer Tom Durkin said it all when he bellowed: “Tiznow wins it for America!”
In the stands Sandy Robbins was in tears as she hugged her husband. 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.”
Sakhee’s jockey, 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.”
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.”
Soon after the Breeders’ Cup, Bill Belichick, coach of the NFL’s New England Patriots, who were 5-3 at the time, 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. The Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl that year, which began one of 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.
Although not the powerful force he had been that winter and the previous fall, and despite his serious injuries, mental issues, and two uninspiring defeats before the Classic, Tiznow somehow was able to rise to the challenge.
Perhaps, then, an old English saying best describes his 2001 victory: “Spirit shall be the stouter, heart the bolder, courage the greater, as our might lessens.”