Two days before September 11, 2001, my family and I were returning from Lexington, where we attended “John Henry Day” at the Kentucky Horse Park. As the plane flew along the Hudson River to Newark Airport, out the window we could see the World Trade Center set aglow by the setting sun. We all commented what a magnificent sight it was to see the two towers glistening like gold. Two days later they were gone.
The following Saturday, I decided to drive to Belmont Park, which had canceled racing, to see how the cataclysmic events of 9/11 had affected horsemen, and how everyone was dealing with this unthinkable tragedy.
Here is what it was like as I first wrote it on that Saturday following 9/11.
View From the Verrazano
Driving over the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn on the morning of Sept. 15, it was apparent why the New York Racing Association decided at the last minute to cancel racing until Sept. 19. Any thoughts of Belmont Park or Thoroughbred racing were obliterated by the sight of the seemingly naked skyline of Lower Manhattan off to the left and the deathly shroud that still hung over it.
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.
After the initial shock of seeing nothing where the Twin Towers used to stand, one had to marvel at how the mighty city could have both its arms ripped out and still retain its ability to embrace.
Throughout New York, millions of hands linked to form an unbreakable chain. And beneath that gaping space where the World Trade Center once filled the sky, many of those hands scraped and clawed through tons of steel, oblivious to the crippled structures standing precariously above them.
With pride and sadness competing for dominance in the mind and heart, there was little room left for celebrations other than the discovery of life among the ruins. So, New York Racing Association officials decided at 10 a.m. Friday that the cheers and the trophies could wait.
Thoroughbred racing, like most everything now, is a mere speck against the cataclysmic events of Sept. 11, and New Yorkers were not quite ready for any diversions to take their mind off the horrific wounds that they, and all Americans, had suffered.
But life did go on at Belmont Saturday morning, as horses and horsemen went about their daily chores. Unlike other athletes across the country, Thoroughbreds have been oblivious to the darkest day in American history. There were no billowing black clouds of smoke or haunting images to obscure their view. They still saw the same wide open spaces before them and felt the same crisp breezes blowing in their face. And on Wednesday, when Belmont reopens, just maybe, for a few hours, they will be able to help people see and feel something beautiful again after a week of unspeakable anguish.
“We understand we need to get back to normal, but unlike the other tracks that are racing, we're just so close to it,” NYRA president Terry Meyocks said. “There's so much tension around here, we felt it wasn't in the best interest of New York to conduct racing so quickly. We were going to race, but then baseball, football, golf, and NASCAR all canceled, and Friday was proclaimed a day of mourning. We’ve developed a good rapport with the communities over the years, and we realized that there's a lot more to life than racing this weekend. It just wasn’t the right thing to do. The employees and the horsemen are still pretty somber, and this will give them another weekend to be with friends and family.”
All around Belmont were sights and sounds that continued to pummel Tuesday’s disaster into our psyche. On the Belt Parkway, just outside the gates of Aqueduct, a funeral procession headed east, escorted by two police cars and a fire engine, strongly suggesting it was for one of the deceased firefighters. On the Staten Island Expressway, another police car escorted a dump truck, filled with debris from the World Trade Center, to the Great Kills dump.
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.”
Media pins no longer wielded the same authority as before. “I can get that in a box of Cracker Jacks,” the security guard said. “Let me see the ID number on the back.” The guard, who wished to remain anonymous, later said, “You can imagine what it’s been like around here. It’s pretty morbid. But everyone has been showing solidarity. Everyone is proud to be an American. A lot of people were very upset when they originally announced they were going to race.”
Tony Pittelli, a security guard directing traffic inside the backstretch, was happy to see planes flying overhead once again. “The mood hasn’t been too good,” he said. “One of my sons lost his sister-in-law, and one of the riders here lost his son-in-law. His daughter and son-in-law had been married for two years and have a one-year-old baby. Unbelievable. It’s just terrible.”
Buzz Tenney, assistant to Shug McGaughey, can’t believe how quiet the backstretch has been. “It feels like it does when a meet is over and you’re just hanging around waiting to move to the next track,” he said. “We're all going through our work, but there’s been only one topic of conversation.”
As Tenney spoke, Tiznow, who has been stabled in their barn, walked down the shed with Ramon Arciga aboard. Last year’s Horse of the Year has been unable to return home to California following his third-place finish in the Sept. 8 Woodward Stakes. “We're stuck here,” Arciga said. “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.”
One barn that has been affected in a much different way is the Godolphin stable of Sheikh Mohammed. The Godolphin grooms are all Pakistanis, and they have been told by assistant trainer Laurent Barbarin to keep a low profile. “It’s a very difficult situation,” Barbarin said. “I spoke to them and told them to stay quiet. It's safer for everybody. But we’re all holding up very well.”
Another trainer, Bobby Frankel, was scheduled to return to California on Monday, following You’s appearance in Sunday’s Matron Stakes.
“It’s tough getting a commercial flight, so I’ll stay through the week and leave after I run Squirtle Squirt in the Vosburgh Saturday,” he said. Frankel ran into racing secretary Mike Lakow, who was driving out of the stable area, and said about canceling the races, “You definitely did the right thing.”
Neil Howard, who had entered Secret Status in Saturday’s Ruffian Handicap, was also forced to remain in New York. He had originally been scheduled to fly out of LaGuardia to Louisville on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. “I'll just stay here for a while and point Secret Status for the Beldame. Even if we had won the Ruffian, how can you go in the winner’s circle and act happy?”
One person who has been doing everything he can to offer assistance is veterinarian Russell Cohen, who purchased two dozen work gloves from True Value and several cases of soda, then brought them to the fire house on 48th Street and Seventh Avenue, which had lost 14 firefighters – one third of its entire crew. He also brought other goods to a police precinct in the Bronx. From 48th Street, he walked down to Canal Street, offering his services in case the police needed any assistance with their horses.
"There’s nothing much we can do, but every little bit helps,” Cohen said. “I’ve done work for the ASPCA before, and was on the Animal Planet (network) once, so a lot of the people know me. I just found out that one horse owner, a member of a syndicate, was killed at the World Trade Center. And there’s probably more that we don't know about.”
So, Belmont Park sits back and quietly waits for the country to return to some sense of normalcy. Because of the timing factor, four of the five stakes scheduled this weekend have been canceled, while the Jerome Handicap will be run next Saturday.
Returning back over the Verrazano, smoke from newly ignited fires continued to rise from the ashes of Lower Manhattan, adding to the hell-like conditions. But beneath the smoke, the Statue of Liberty could be seen, now sparkling like an emerald in the late morning sun, reminding us that there is still a great, powerful city out there waiting to get on with its life.