Derby Stirs Memories of Tiz and the Iron Horse

It’s been 16 years since the epic slugfest between Tiznow and Giant’s Causeway in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and they’re still at it, but this time it’s two against one. In this year’s Kentucky Derby, Giant’s Causeway will have a distinct advantage over his conqueror, when his talented sons, Blue Grass Stakes winner Brody’s Cause and Tampa Bay Derby winner Destin, square off against Tiznow’s late-developing son, Florida Derby runner-up Majesto.

Although it doesn’t appear to be a fair fight, it does bring back very special memories of one of the most memorable battles ever witnessed. And it is wonderful just having these two great stallions represented in the Kentucky Derby so many years later.

I thought this would be an excellent time to revisit that 2000 Breeders’ Cup Classic, and have dug deep into the archives to relive that amazing race as I saw it back then, and pay tribute to these two magnificent Thoroughbreds who provided a finish for the ages.


Both horses had been here before. At first, it seemed like just another brawl, in another alley, in another town. Tiznow and Giant’s Causeway thrived on bare-knuckle street fights, and because of this lust for battle, their reputations preceded them as they strutted into Louisville, Ky. for the 17th Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Sneak up from behind if you have to, but do not under any circumstances look them in the eye. In this skirmish, however, things were different. When Tiznow and Giant’s Causeway looked into each other’s eyes, they saw something they’d never seen before:  a fire that matched their own.

Here was Giant’s Causeway, a chestnut streak of light who brightened many a gray afternoon for racing fans in England and Ireland. They could not recall a horse with the toughness and tenacity of this son of Storm Cat. How fitting that a horse with such a big heart be born on Valentine’s Day. His five consecutive group I victories at five different tracks over a period of only 11 weeks, all of them head-to-head slugfests, was a feat unheard of in Europe. Did the “Iron Horse of Ballydoyle” have any more to give after a grueling campaign and in his first ever attempt on dirt?

Right alongside Giant’s Causeway was a dark chocolate-colored mountain of a horse, with a large splash of white on his face that resembled a tornado. A latecomer to the racing scene due to a stress fracture suffered the previous October, Tiznow was a rapidly building force that was fueled by competition. He had eyeballed eventual Haskell Invitational winner Dixie Union, Belmont Stakes winner Commendable, and Kentucky Cup Classic winner Captain Steve, and none were able to stand up to this new bully on the block.

Tiznow’s fight and spirit did not emerge overnight. It was born in him, with the same blood that flowed through the veins of his bulldog of a brother, Budroyale, who had finished a courageous second in the previous year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. The odds of full brothers, bred in California, and by relatively obscure parents, making it to the Classic in back-to-back years were astronomical.

But here was Tiznow ready to tackle the world. Unlike his brother, however, he had the muscle to go along with the grit. Budroyale had not yet emerged in the national spotlight when his dam, Cee’s Song, gave birth to a massive 144-pound colt on March 12, 1997, at Harris Farms near Coalinga, Cal. Already 25 to 30 pounds heavier than the average foal, Tiznow was placed with a group of youngsters who played particularly hard.

“It taught him not be bullied,” farm manager Dave McGlothlin said. “They all took turns beating on each other and he got used to doing things rough.”

Farm manager Per Antonsen said Tiznow was so strong and competitive he quickly emerged as the leader of the pack. “Dave put him in with a tough bunch to make sure he had horses who could stand up to him,” he said.

The big, burly colt wasn’t much easier on the people trying to break him. “He was always fighting you,” Antonsen said. “He’d bite and snap at you and buck. He was like a big bull, and was such a handful we had to give him extra work before we even took him to the track.”

When Tiznow was turned over to trainer Jay Robbins the following year, all Antonsen said to him was, “This is a big, tough boy.” He had no idea just how tough.

The veteran Robbins, with only eight horses in his stable, had to watch the previous year as Budroyale became a star after having been claimed from him for $32,000.

Fast forward to Oct. 31, 2000, four days before the Breeders’ Cup. Tiznow has just arrived at Churchill Downs and is stabled in the stakes barn. He wants no part of being cooped up in his stall, and after being walked for 40 minutes and jogged once around the track, he refuses to go back in his stall. It takes some pushing and prodding to finally get him in. His coat is resplendent, with dapples peaking out from his neck and shoulders.

“Tomorrow, when we gallop him, I’m going to need an anchor to pull him up,” said exercise rider Ramon Arciga. As predicted, Tiznow galloped like a wild horse the following morning, with Arciga having to pull hard to restrain him.

Robbins knew he was ready, despite making his third start in 35 days. It was a lot to ask of a relatively inexperienced 3-year-old. After shipping to Louisiana and breaking the track record for 1 1/4 miles in the Super Derby (going in 1:59 4/5), Tiznow returned to California, and two weeks later had to slug it out with eventual Dubai World Cup winner Captain Steve in the Goodwood Handicap. Now came the all important decision for owners Cecilia Straub Rubens and Michael Cooper. Do you put up a staggering $360,000 supplementary fee to run your Cal-bred off only 20 days rest against the likes of Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus; Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Albert the Great, who had run the fastest 1 1/4 miles by a 3-year-old in the history of New York racing; Lemon Drop Kid, winner of the Belmont, Travers, Whitney, Woodward, Suburban, and Brooklyn; Cat Thief, winner of the previous year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic; Golden Missile, winner of the Pimlico Special and Stephen Foster; and the mighty Giant’s Causeway, the pride of Europe?

“The whole barn deserved the chance to see what this horse can do,” Cooper said. “Chris (McCarron) gave me the thumbs up, the vet said the horse was doing great, and Jay said we ought to go, so it really was an easy decision.”

Another reason to run was that, unbeknownst to most people, Cecilia Straub-Rubens was suffering from cancer and no one knew how much longer she had to live. She and Cooper had not had much success together in 19 years, running in mostly claiming races. Cooper had been touched by the scene at the 1990 Kentucky Derby when trainer Carl Nafzger called the race for Unbridled’s 92-year-old owner Frances Genter and then said to her, “Oh, Mrs. Genter, I love you.” Cooper had always dreamed of playing out that same scene with Straub-Rubens, who would be celebrating her 84th birthday the following month. His wish would come true.

So, all the reasons were there for Cooper and Robbins to take the gamble and run Tiznow in the Classic. But Robbins knew what he was asking of his colt, and despite outward confidence that he was making the right decision, the questions and doubt remained bottled up in his subconscious. In the middle of the night, his wife Sandy could hear him talking in his sleep, repeating over and over, “20 days…20 days.”

Now those days were down to a precious few. The strong gallops continued. The colt’s coat continued to shine. He became more focused and remarkably displayed all the signs of a horse itching for another fight. The young brute who had left a trail of fallen exercise riders behind him had turned into a seasoned pro, and at just the right time.

Robbins remained in good spirits, and when he was reminded one morning by a member of the West Coast media that the record of Cal-breds in the Breeders’ Cup was 0-for-46, he responded, “I better call to see if they have a flight back tomorrow. Can we get our money back?”

Meanwhile, at the far end of the stable area, Giant’s Causeway had settled into his new home, and when he made his long-awaited appearance the day before the race, it was an odd sight seeing him being ponied to the track by none other than Wayne Lukas, who had Cat Thief primed for another big effort in the Classic.

“Wait until they get my bill,” Lukas said from atop the pony, as he led Giant’s Causeway to the track, with trainer Aidan O’Brien walking briskly behind trying to keep up. Lukas had trained horses for Giant’s Causeway’s owners Michael Tabor (including Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch) and Susan and John Magnier, and he felt it was “the sporting thing to do.” He had met with O’Brien earlier to discuss the shoeing process, the medication rules in Kentucky, and introduced him to starter Roger Nagle.

After the colt’s gallop, O’Brien dashed after Lukas, who told him that Giant’s Causeway “wasn’t a bit concerned about this saddle horse, but I would definitely send a pony with him in the post parade. On the turns, he had a tendency to look at things in the infield, but he’ll be better tomorrow.”

The European media was glowing in their praise of Giant’s Causeway’s toughness and will to win. Adrian Beaumont of the International Racing Bureau stated emphatically, “If you go eyeball to eyeball with him he will win.”

Noted turf writer and commentator John McCririck said, “To see him fight back and beat Kalanisi in the Eclipse Stakes was tear-wrenching. Imagine the constitution of this horse to run in eight group I stakes in the last four months, and he’s still coming back for more. Everything is against the horse (in the Classic). All you’ve got is the guts and the bravery of the animal himself. He has earned a special place in the public’s imagination.”

O’Brien admitted the Classic would be a tough task for Giant’s Causeway, but added, “If any horse can do it he can. We’ve never seen a horse like this. Even though he’s been running hard races every two to three weeks, he’s still bigger and stronger now than he’s ever been. He’s 15 kilos (33 pounds) heavier than he was for his last race. He’s an amazing horse.”

Jockey Mick Kinane added, “He always seems to raise himself up for a fight. I’ve never ridden a horse like this. And I’ve never even gotten to the bottom of him.”

Fast forward once again to the quarter pole of the Classic and to the beginning of the story. Here they were, two of the most rugged, courageous horses seen in America and Europe in many years, battling to the wire, their courage and will to win tested for the first time by a foe of equal character and tenacity. Something had to give. Tiznow had the advantage of being in front, as Giant’s Causeway moved in for the kill. Both horses reached back for everything they had. Still, neither would crack. No one would have expected them to. Kinane went to switch sticks and dropped his right rein. But Giant’s Causeway was relentless and continued to battle on near-even terms right down to the wire. Both colts, fully extended, gave a last desperate lunge, but in the end it was Tiznow who prevailed by a neck. The son of Cee’s Tizzy found himself back at Harris Farms, once again the feisty, precocious kid turning back another challenge and asserting his dominance.

Cooper appeared choked up by the courage of his horse. “He’s got a heart as big as a basketball,” he said. He remembered all the hard times, and that made this victory all the more special.

“Maybe this is our reward for running in all those $12,500 claimers in the ninth at Hollywood Park for 19 years,” he said. “I know it sounds silly to say, but I feel like the luckiest person in the world to have a horse like this. There isn’t a moment that goes by that I don’t think of him. This is the most important thing to happen to me since my daughter was born 24 years ago.”

“And I’m so happy for Cecilia. She’ll be celebrating her 84th birthday this December, and we’ve been doing this for 20 years, with me  making the decisions, and a lot of bad ones. We haven’t been very lucky, and this lady has been nothing but supportive.”

As darkness fell on Churchill Downs, Tiznow returned to his stall after walking the shed and proceeded to attack his hay rack and wolf down mouthfuls of alfalfa and a bag of carrots. Occasionally, he’d lift his head and place it atop the hay rack and just stare at all the activity outside the barn. Once, he even worked his head under the webbing as if he wanted to come out and join in the celebration.

Robbins looked at Tiznow and was amazed how far the colt had come in a short period of time. “What really amazed me today was how he handled all the commotion of the crowd,” he said. “Four months ago he would have flipped out.”

Jay and Sandy, exhausted mentally, left and picked up some sandwiches at Kroger’s before returning to their hotel to pack.

Jeffrey Sengara, owner of Budroyale, had watched the race on TV and was overcome with emotion seeing the horse’s brother win the Classic. He recalled the previous year’s Classic when he and his family, thrilled over “Bud’s” gutsy performance, were leaving the track and were approached by Straub-Rubens.

“Tears were streaming down her face,” Sengara said. “She gave me the biggest hug and said, ‘You must be so proud. I’m so happy for you. I feel like he’s still mine.’ I told her, in many ways he still is. Then I asked myself, ‘Could I be that happy and congenial if I had lost a horse like that?” I guess the racing gods have a way of noticing those kinds of things. Ironically, the last thing I said to her was, ‘I hope his brother you have coming up is as good as he is.’”

Sengara aptly summed up the race and the spectacle he had just witnessed in one short sentence: “It was a day of poetry.”

Sadly, three days after Tiznow’s fairly tale victory, Straub-Rubens passed away while in surgery. Before her operation, she spoke to Sandy Robbins, and the last thing she said was, “Tell Jay to take care of my boy.”

This was only the end of the first chapter in the amazing story of Tiznow. Jay Robbins did indeed take care of the colt through some rough times, and the surreal events of the following year and its remarkable conclusion in the wake of 9/11 is a story for another time.

Tiznow and Giant’s Causeway will be forever linked in the annals of the Breeders’ Cup, and for anyone who witnessed that 2000 Classic, there has to be a place in their heart for Brody’s Cause, Destin, and Majesto, as they prepare to carry on one of the great legacies of The Turf.

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