Not only is today the 17th anniversary of 9/11, it falls on the same day of the week; that infamous Tuesday. Although I have written about that catastrophic day’s effect on racing, it is something that needs to be addressed from time to time for those who weren’t around and those who need to be reminded of those two gut-wrenching months for the Sport of Kings, from September 11 through the Breeders’ Cup, run in New York. The stories have been melded together and reworked to portray the entire picture from beginning to end.
Two days before September 11, my family and I were returning from Lexington, Kentucky, 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. It was a magnificent sight 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.
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 could only imagine and marvel at what was going on across New York Harbor, as so many heroes emerged, sacrificing their health and possibly their lives by digging through the graveyard of rubble. Family members of those working in or around the World Trade Center clung to the slim hope that perhaps their loved ones had miraculously escaped the tragedy, while many people chipped in to help in any way they could. One had to be amazed at how this 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. Al I could think of as I drove over the bridge was knowing that 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 the celebrating of sports and entertainment. 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, was a mere speck against the cataclysmic events of September 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 on that Saturday morning, as horses and horsemen went about their daily chores. Unlike other athletes across the country, Thoroughbreds had 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 would reopen, just maybe, for a few hours, they would 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 1-year-old baby. Unbelievable. It’s just terrible.”
Buzz Tenney, assistant to Shug McGaughey, couldn’t believe how quiet the backstretch had 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, the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Tiznow, who has been stabled in their barn, walked down the shed with Ramon Arciga aboard. The reigning Horse of the Year had 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 had been affected in a much different way is the Godolphin stable of Sheikh Mohammed. The Godolphin grooms are all Pakistanis, and they were 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 was doing everything he could to offer assistance was 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.”
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, as if everything was normal.
In the weeks ahead, events began taking place back east that would set the stage for one of the greatest international spectacles in the history of the sport; the Breeders’ Cup, which was to be run at Belmont Park. There was talk about many of the Europeans not showing up. But Ballydoyle trainer Aidan O’Brien assured the Breeders’ Cup that he’d be there with his powerful arsenal.
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 International Airport. On board were three of Godolphin's biggest stars -- the brilliant Sakhee, runaway winner of the Arc de Triomphe and Juddmonte International; the globe-trotting Fantastic Light, a major stakes winner in the United States, Ireland, England, Hong Kong, and Dubai, and third, beaten a neck, in the Japan Cup; and the top miler, Noverre, winner of the Sussex 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.
The main question was: in which races would Sakhee and Fantastic Light be entered? It was assumed Sakhee would go for the Turf, with Fantastic Light, who had worked well over the Belmont dirt the year before, headed for the Classic. But Albertrani said he had a gut feeling it would be the other way around, with Godolphin attempting 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 the “Horse of the World.”
Godolphin also would be converging on Belmont Park from the opposite direction, with top-class 2-year-olds Tempera, Imperial Gesture, Essence of Dubai, and Ibn Al Haitham due to arrive from Eoin Harty's barn at Santa Anita.
A week before the Breeders’ Cup, a Sallee horse van rolled into the Belmont backstretch carrying two Breeders' Cup horses. The first off the van was the freshly clipped Caller One, a leading contender for the Sprint. After him came the familiar tornado-blazed face of Tiznow.
Despite a layer of dust that covered him after his long trip from California, the champ was bursting with dapples. The colt stopped to shake some of the dust off and was led into the grassy area behind Shug McGaughey's barn by exercise rider Ramon Arciga to unwind a little.
A few minutes later, the tranquility was interrupted by the muffled sound of Tom Durkin's voice calling that day's eighth race. In a flash, Tiznow's head sprang up. His eyes widened and he stood like a statue, with his ears cocked, staring off into the distance at the Belmont grandstand. It wasn't until the race was over and all was again quiet that he returned to grazing.
"He knows where the action is," Arciga said. "He knows something big is about to happen.” Arciga then turned to Tiznow and said, "Hey, Papa, we're gonna kick some butt, aren't we?" Tiznow then was led into his stall, took a roll in the wood shavings, and settled in to his new home for the week.
At 4:30 p.m. on October 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 blood would then be flown by Lear Jet to Ames, Iowa, where lab technician John Eli would meet the plane and take the samples to the lab for analysis. Expediting the procedure would allow the Ballydoyle horses to clear quarantine by 10 p.m. the following day.
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 Galileo, winner of the English Derby, Irish Derby, and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, alone valued at $65 million. Also on board were the brilliant undefeated 2-year-old Johannesburg, St. Leger winner Milan, and top-class stakes horses Black Minnaloushe, Bach, Mozart, and Sophisticat.
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.
On Wednesday, Oct. 24, the morning of the entries, Godolphin sent shock waves rippling through the backstretch when it announced Fantastic Light would run in the Turf and Sakhee would go for the Classic in an attempt to climb Mt. Olympus and enter the pantheon of greats.
Breeders' Cup Day was unlike anything ever seen at a racetrack. Police dogs were used to search random automobiles entering the track parking lot. Soldiers were stationed throughout Belmont, armed with assault rifles. Snipers were positioned on the roof, observing the crowd with high-powered binoculars. The whole scene was surreal.
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. The National Anthem was sung by Carl Dixon of the New York Police Department following a bagpipe rendition of "Amazing Grace."
On the racing front, Alastair Donald of the International Racing Bureau was expecting a big day from the powerful European brigade. "If we get our asses kicked, we'll have to think up some good excuses," he said.
Walking to the holding barn, Arciga spoke to Tiznow with reassuring words. The colt pinned his ears and "gave me that look," Arciga said. He 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. I know we're gonna do it.'"
Fast forward to the running of the Classic, as the field nears the quarter pole. Albert the Great is 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 emerge in the picture, as Sakhee comes charging up on the outside to take a narrow lead. Tiznow is now back in third and still not putting in much of a run, but moves into second when Albert the Great begins to drop back. Still, he appears beaten, as Sakhee has taken a half-length lead with less than a furlong to go.
McCarron thinks he’s beaten. Trainer Jay Robbins thinks he’s beaten. Owner Michael Cooper is still hoping his miracle horse could pull out another miracle, but just wants Tiznow to continue to battle. "When Sakhee went by him, I thought, 'Keep going, boy; keep going. Show him you got guts, anyway.'"
To racing fans across America, it was happening all over again, just like the previous year. America was a heartbeat away from being conquered in the Breeders' Cup Classic. This time, however, a defeat would have been an ignominious end to the 2001 Breeders’ Cup. First, it was a thrashing from the French in the Filly & Mare Turf by Banks Hill. Then, it was the Irish who decimated the American youngsters in the Juvenile, as Johannesburg burst clear to win going away. Adding insult to injury, the Turf then went to the English, represented by Godolphin’s Fantastic Light, with the Irish colt Milan finishing off a one-two European coup-de-grace.
Sakhee, with immortality a mere furlong away, reached back to deal the fatal blow. But then something happened, something we'd seen before. Chris McCarron hit Tiznow once left-handed and he surged forward. Right before everyone's eyes, last year's Superman again took on the role of superhero, just as he had in the 2000 Classic when another European powerhouse, Giant's Causeway, dared to challenge America's dominance on dirt.
Tiznow’s back problems and erratic behavior that had plagued him all year were now behind him. All he needed was an opponent, apparently a European, to re-ignite the fire in his eyes. One look at Sakhee about to deal America another crushing defeat and Tiznow reached down into that indefinable reservoir we call heart, and in the shadow of the wire, was able to snatch victory away from Sakhee.
America, for a fleeting instant, was as she was before September 11-- untainted and impenetrable. The nation's fighting spirit that emerged in the face of disaster had manifested itself in the form of a magnificent, powerful Thoroughbred who simply refused to be defeated.
By thrusting his nose in front of Sakhee on the wire, a California-bred with relatively obscure bloodlines had become 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, Arc de Triomphe, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and Irish Two Thousand Guineas, as well as two Jockey Club Gold Cup winners.
In the stands, Sandy Robbins, wife of Jay Robbins, was in tears. 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.”
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."
Godolphin assistant Laurent Barbarin put it best when he said of Sakhee, "He came a nose away from making history. It would have been something amazing, but we'll be back again."
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."
One of the last to leave was Robbins’s father Jack, a prominent veterinarian, who went over to Tiznow and said, "You got the job done, White Face. You did yourself proud."
It is now 17 years later. New York City has healed, and a magnificent new structure has been built at the site of the World Trade Center, dominating the Lower Manhattan skyline. Nearby, thousands of visitors visit the new spectacular 9/11 Museum each day.
As for Tiznow, he still resides at WinStar Farm and remains one of the country’s influential stallions, his same appearing in the pedigrees of a number of stakes winners. Yes, he still is the only horse to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic twice, but he will always be remembered as the horse who demonstrated to the world the courage and tenacity of the Thoroughbred…and the American spirit.