The year 2000 marked a new era in the history of the Breeders' Cup. Aidan O'Brien, the master of Ballydoyle, had sent a handful of horses to America to compete in the World Championships in 1998 and '99 with little fanfare and no success. But this year was different. This year, O'Brien was bringing his best horse, not to conquer the Mile, Sprint, or Juvenile, as in the past, but the big one - the Breeders' Cup Classic.
That year, I received a VHS tape from Coolmore showing all of Giant's Causeway's races. And they had to be seen to be believed. Other than possibly Affirmed, in this races against arch rival Alydar, had I witnessed a horse with such fight that he defied horses to pass him. One race after the other, there was Giant's Causeway digging in when looked in the eye and refusing to be beaten.
From June to August, he put together one of the most amazing winning streaks seen in Europe, winning five consecutive group 1 stakes at five different racecourses by margins of a head, a head, three-quarters of a length, a head, and a half-length. Whether it was Ascot, Sandown, Goodwood, York, or Leopardstown, no one, not even the top-class Kalanisi, could get by him. In the Juddmonte International at York, it looked as if Kalanisi, who he had beaten a head in the Coral-Eclipse Stakes at Sandown, had him beat, charging up alongside him with all the momentum. But once again, Giant's Causeway fought back, and with his head and neck stretched out as usual, he prevailed by a head.
His winning streak was stopped in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes when Juddmonte's Observatory was wisely kept way out in the middle of the course, well out of range of Giant's Causeway uncanny radar. It was brilliant strategy, as he was able to sneak up on him, winning by a half-length. Giant's Causeway never saw his attacker.
This was Giant's Causeway's ninth start of the year, the last eight of them group 1 races. He became known throughout Europe as "The Iron Horse." Surely, he had done enough for one year. But then came the announcement from Ballydoyle that Giant's Causeway was to be sent to America for the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Awaiting him was the Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus and a number of other top-class horses. But the intriguing foe would be Tiznow, who had proven himself to be, like Giant's Causeway, a tenacious fighter. But physically, he was a brute; big and powerful with muscles on his muscles. Something had to give if these two hooked up. Whoever was in front clearly would have the advantage.
When Giant's Causeway arrived at Churchill Downs for the Breeders' Cup, few Americans knew of his reputation. They were aware of his consistent record and winning streak, but they had no idea the fight he had inside him.
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 1999 Classic winner 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."
Americans got their first inclination just how classy Giant's Causeway was when Kalanisi came charging late to win the Breeders' Cup Turf.
Fast forward to Breeders' Cup day as the Classic field turned for home. The two brawlers, as hoped, were about to go at it, with Tiznow holding the advantage of being in front and Giant's Causeway in the unfamiliar role as pursuer.
Both horses had been here before. Normally, this would seem 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.
The strategy to beat them was simple. You can sneak up from behind if you have to, as Observatory did, 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. Racing fans 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 sort of 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.
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 holding on to win by a neck.
For the next 17 years, O'Brien has been trying to make up that neck, sending one invader after another to the Classic. But he has yet been able to find the winner's circle, coming close on a couple of occasions.
Giant's Causeway's death this week at age 21 came much too soon. He became a world-class sire on both grass and dirt. To Europeans, he will always be "The Iron Horse," indestructible and indefatigable. To American racing fans, he will always conjure up images of one of the greatest battles ever witnessed between two warriors who exemplified the courage and spirit of the Thoroughbred.