The New England Patriots are in the Super Bowl for the fifth time since 2002, which means it is time once again to resurrect the story of how a Thoroughbred racehorse inspired the Pats and, whether a mere coincidence or not, helped build a dynasty in the early 2000s.
The Thoroughbred was Tiznow, whose second consecutive courageous victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2001 had a profound effect on a then floundering football team, who on Feb. 5 will attempt to win its fourth Super Bowl, nearly 10 years to the day after upsetting the powerful St. Louis Rams for their first victory.
The day after Tiznow’s memorable victory in the Classic, in which he came again after appearing to be beaten, the Patriots were defeated 31-20 by the Denver Broncos to fall to 3-4 on the season.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, like his former boss Bill Parcells, was a fan of Thoroughbred racing and decided to try something different to motivate his players. He showed them a tape of Tiznow winning the Classic to instill in them that same kind of courage and fighting spirit, and a never-say-die attitude.
Belichick informed his players as to the importance of the Breeders' Cup, in which the greatest equine athletes in the world gather to do battle. There before them was an athlete facing defeat square in the face, as the pride of Europe, Sakhee, appeared on his way to victory. Then, Tiznow, reached back and pulled out that something extra that only champions possess. He dug in and came back to snatch victory in the final strides.
Belichick told his players that their situation was not unlike Tiznow's; that as the season wore on it would come down to which team wanted to win the most.
Word of Belichick’s motivational ploy eventually got back to Tiznow’s trainer, Jay Robbins. ‘It’s been a long time, but the way I remember it, I heard about it from Mike Smith, who was told about it by Patriots linebacker Bryan Cox,” Robbins recalled.
Robbins’ reaction was simple: “(Belichick) couldn’t have picked a better example. I thought it was great of him to honor Tiznow that way.”
Of course, no one can say for sure what kind of impact Tiznow had on the team, but the fact is, the Patriots went on to win 11 of their next 12 games, their only loss coming at the hands of the 2000 Super Bowl champs St. Louis Rams 24-17. The Pats roared through the playoffs and concluded their extraordinary season by upsetting the Rams in the Super Bowl. Their victory, as well as their upset win over the Oakland Raiders in the playoffs, was decided, like Tiznow’s victory, in the final seconds.
The Patriots didn’t make the Super Bowl in 2003, but won it in 2004 after Belichick reached back into his bag of equine tricks and showed the team a tape of Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes. This time the motivation was not courage and determination, but what true greatness looks like. The Pats won the Super Bowl again in 2005, and regardless of how one wishes to look at it, their dominance began after the showing of Tiznow’s Classic, with a little help, of course, from a young quarterback called in to replace the injured Drew Bledsoe named Tom Brady.
During the Christmas holiday of 2001, Jay Robbins received a Christmas card from Belichick that read simply: “Thanks for the inspiration.” The following February, Belichick presented the Eclipse Award for champion older male to the connections of Tiznow, a fitting ending to a remarkable story.
Belichick said at the time, "I am very excited to be participating in this year's Eclipse Awards. As an avid horseracing fan and someone who appreciates greatness in all sports, it is truly an honor to be involved with recognizing the finest horses and owners in the world."
And thanks in part to one of those horses, Belichick and the Patriots were able to reach incredible heights and now are in position to add a fourth Super Bowl by beating Belichick’s former team, the New York Giants, who in 2008, upset the Patriots in the Super Bowl, depriving them of a historic undefeated season.
On four occasions, Tiznow was given the opportunity to exact revenge on a horse who beat him or finished ahead of him, and all four times he turned the tables on his conqueror.
We’ll find out on Sunday whether the Patriots can once again emulate their equine hero.