When I visited Haras Cuatro Piedras in Uruguay in 2008, I couldn’t have imagined the farm would one day be home to Smarty Jones for several years and then the country’s greatest equine hero, Hall of Famer Invasor, who at the time was residing at Shadwell Farm in Lexington, Kentucky.
Invasor never developed into a top stallion in the United States, due no doubt to a pedigree considered unfashionable, with a predominantly South American female family, and the horse committing the cardinal sin in this country – excelling at a mile and a quarter.
I guess it was only fitting that a horse who had been worshipped, not only in Uruguay, but his place of birth, Argentina, return home to a hero’s welcome.
Judging from recent photos and videos of Invasor, it is apparent from his radiant coat and overall demeanor he is happy and thriving.
“He looks incredible,” said Cuatro Piedras owner Claudia Rosas. “We sold his first crop this year in May, and we are looking forward to seeing them on the racetrack. We cover 25 mares every year with Invasor and 15 mares from other farms, an average of 40 mares each year.
“Many people from other countries that visit Uruguay come to the farm to meet him. He is so special and he loves having his picture taken.”
Kent Barnes, stallion manager at Shadwell Farm, traveled with Invasor to Uruguay. "He was a fun horse to work with and certainly had a unique personality," he said. "I was amazed at the huge turnout on a rainy night at Maronas (Racetrack) when we paraded him in front of the grandstand. He is the country's greatest sports hero and it looked like half of Montevideo turned out that night to see him. When his breeding days are over, he will return to Shadwell Farm to enjoy his retirement."
Seeing the photos and the beautifully produced video of him at stud and showing his major victories, it brought back a flood of memories.
As a reminder, Invasor won 11 of his 12 career starts for earnings of over $7.8 million. He captured group or grade I stakes on three continents, was Horse of the Year on two continents, a Triple Crown winner in Uruguay, a Breeders’ Cup Classic-Dubai World Cup winner, the winner of six consecutive grade 1 stakes (Pimlico Special, Suburban Handicap, Whitney Handicap, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Donn Handicap, and Dubai World Cup), and likely would have broken Cigar’s all-time earnings record had he stayed sound. But a fracture suffered in his final work for the Suburban Handicap forced his retirement.
Invasor was one of the classiest, most intelligent horses I’ve ever been around. As you walked in trainer Kiaran McLaughlin’s barn at Belmont Park, the first face you saw was Invasor, with that big eye of his looking right at you. You rarely had to get his attention. He usually was right there with his head over the webbing as if he were expecting you.
He could hone in on a mint a hundred yards away. And when freelance photographer Dianne Boothe, whom I would meet there every Saturday like clockwork, showed up, he knew from the far-off sound of her voice that his sweet tooth was about to be pacified.
He loved the attention, but also felt compelled to take a nip at you on occasion, especially when you had the audacity to run out of goodies. When Jeannine Edwards of ESPN showed up the day of the Jockey Club Gold Cup to do a segment on him having to miss the race due to illness, she used a token mint to get his attention, but paid the price when she turned to the camera and ignored him. If he wasn’t going to get another mint, he was going to let her know of his displeasure. To his credit, he could have nailed her good, but held back, getting mostly material from her jacket.
Because his craving for mints had gotten out of hand over the winter, Dianne was asked by assistant trainer Artie Magnuson, with whom we had become friendly, to refrain from giving him any, sticking to carrots only.
By the time he was moved to a new stall, on the other side of McLaughlin’s office, following his return from Dubai, Invasor had come up with a new routine, one which was unlike anything we had ever seen. As soon as we approached, Dianne would point to his hay net. Invasor, on cue, would reach over and grab a large chunk of hay, and after stuffing as much as he could in his mouth, he would freeze in that position, with his mouth still locked onto the hay net. He then would turn his eye toward us. It hadn’t taken Dianne long to realize that this was his invitation to be petted, and as long as you’d pet him he’d remain in that odd position without moving. Once you stopped, he’d wait a few seconds and either let go of the hay or rip out a hunk and drop it on the floor. If you pointed to his hay net, he would begin the routine all over again.
Now, I don’t claim to be a horse whisperer or equine psychologist, but I do have a bizarre theory about this behavior. We knew Invasor likes to bite, without being vicious in any way. Perhaps it is more like teething than anything else or an aggressiveness or territorial dominance that needed to come out. We also knew he loved attention and being petted. Now, the only way he could get that attention without biting the hand that was petting him was to occupy his mouth with something else at the same time. It was obvious he had an agenda, because he sure had no interest in eating the hay.
Can a horse think in those kinds of terms? I have no idea, and admit I could be guilty of anthropomorphism, and a touch of romanticism. But we’re all guilty of that to a degree as we always humanize horses.. That’s what made the times spent with Invasor in his barn all the more special. Sure, all the idealistic and romanticized theories mentioned earlier likely have more rational explanations. But, honestly, in today’s high-tech, analytic world, don’t you wish they didn’t?
The point of all this is, Invasor was unlike any horse I’ve ever encountered. He was special in a unique way. He had an “intelligence” and a presence about him that set him apart. He wasn’t the fastest horse; he wasn’t the most powerful horse; and he didn’t blow you away with an explosive move. But he knew how to beat you. And he did it with perhaps the most potent weapon of all – class. Being around him as often as I was, I believe he knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it, whether it was on the racetrack or in his stall.
My most special memory of Invasor was being in the winner’s circle following his victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, in which he upset the heavily favored Bernardini, despite not having raced for three months; the only horse ever to win the Classic off that long a layoff.
If there is anyone who typifies the effect Invasor had on people, it is his former owner in Uruguay, Pablo Hernandez, who became the horse’s one-man groupie, following him all over, from Dubai to Kentucky and back to Dubai. And now to Kentucky. No one was more jubilant following the Classic than Hernandez, who made the trip with several fellow Urugayans. In the winner’s circle, his clothes and hair were disheveled from all the hugging and kissing as he proudly waved the Uruguayan flag. Argentinians also celebrated the “Horse of the Rio de la Plata" (the river that separates Uruguay and Argentina).
A melting pot of humanity had converged on the Churchill Downs winner's circle, where Americans and Arabs and South Americans hugged and kissed each other. And from out of the bedlam, came the chant of "Een-vah-SOR! Een-vah-SOR!" with a delirious Hernandez, accompanied by eight of his friends from Uruguay, proudly holding the Uruguayan flag over his head. Joining in the celebration were media members from Argentina, where Invasor was bred.
”This is unbelievable,” Pablo shouted above the din. “This is the greatest experience of my life, and always will be. Invasor is still in the hearts of everyone in Uruguay. We are a small, modest country, and we need an idol. We have no idol in football and no idol in politics. Invasor is the idol of Uruguay.”
Also sharing in the glory was Diego Mitagstein, the pedigree consultant for Turf Diario in Argentina.
”I can't speak--my heart," he said. “Bayakoa won the Distaff twice and Paseana won the Distaff, but this is the Classic at Churchill Downs, the home of the biggest race in America.”
Also cheering wildly for Invasor were thousands of racing fans who had flocked to Maronas Racetrack in Uruguay, where Invasor made the first five starts of his career, including a sweep of the Triple Crown, before being sold to Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum. It was pure hysteria at the simulcast facilities at Maronas and San Isidro Race Course in Argentina, and at simulcast facilities in Montevideo.
It was by sheer accident and good fortune that Hernandez came to own Invasor, in partnership with brothers Juan Luis and Luis Alberto Vio Bado. He had flown to Argentina and was scheduled to take a small plane to La Biznaga Farm, where he was going to look at horses. But the plane had engine failure and the trip was canceled. A friend, Miguel Ezcurra, from Bullrich Auctioneers, took them by car to visit some smaller farms near Buenos Aires. After looking at approximately 80 colts and fillies at several farms they went to Haras Clausan in Areco, a province of Buenos Aires, and that's where they first laid eyes on a young Invasor. It was love at first sight. Pablo said it was as if he had been “hit with Cupid’s bow.”
Alessandro Miserocchi, owner of Haras Clausan, which has since been re-named Haras Santa Ines, was asking $25,000 for the horse. Hernandez and the Vio Bados offered $18,000, and both parties eventually settled for $20,000.
After Invasor swept the Uruguayan Triple Crown in brilliant fashion, winning all three races with ease, Hernandez and his partners were offered $1.5 million for the horse by Sheikh Hamdan. That was a great deal of money in Uruguay, considering Invasor's total earnings there were $114,070. It was hoped to run him in the country's big championship race, the Gran Premio Internacional Jose Pedro Ramirez, for 3-year-olds and up, but Shadwell's offer was too lucrative to turn down, although one of the Vio Bado brothers was reluctant to sell.
”I am 42 years old and have faced many challenges and dilemmas in my life,” Hernandez explained. “But surely, the uncertainty of whether or not to sell Invasor gave me many sleepless nights. To be one of the co-owners of a Triple Crown winner is something that rarely happens to a Thoroughbred owner, especially in Uruguay. After so many decades of not having a Triple Crown winner, to suddenly realize that your horse has become a national hero to the enthusiastic Uruguayan racing fans is very shocking.”
In December of 2005, Hernandez was contacted by Shadwell, wanting to buy Invasor and fly him to Dubai for the UAE Derby. He had to make a quick decision and was advised by friends that it was something he couldn’t pass up.
”It was not only about the money,” Hernandez said. “Here in Uruguay there isn't much possibility to develop a great champion, and I wanted to give him the best opportunity to prove that he was a great horse. We would never have been able to go with him to the United States to run; it is too expensive for us. So, I was backed into a corner. I had no other choice.
”I have thousands of images of Invasor in my memory--some that make me weep and others that bring me much happiness. But the bitter memory is the day I had to say farewell to him after traveling with him on the van to the airport. It was a silent farewell, because inside our souls, none of us wanted Invasor leaving our lives. Every time he ran at Maronas, the fans filled the racetrack to watch him run and to try to touch him and take pictures with him. They even tried to get strands of his hair as a souvenir.
”The day he departed reminded me of that day years ago when I, like many Uruguayans, emigrated to Europe. I had graduated from dentistry school and went to Spain for a post-graduate in dental surgery. I remember how my grandmother cried silently the day I left. I can understand how she felt, because I felt the same way the day I had to say goodbye to Invasor. It was like saying goodbye to a son you were never going to see again. Although the plane left very early in the morning, a lot of people showed up at the airport to say their goodbyes to Invasor.”
But that was not the last time Hernandez would see Invasor. He traveled to Dubai to watch him run in the UAE Derby, and, of course, he was at Churchill Downs to witness his horse and the pride of Uruguay become an international superstar and Horse of the Year on two continents. When Invasor added the Dubai World Cup the following year, he was crowned Horse of the World.
Ironically, when Invasor first arrived at Kiaran McLaughlin’s barn at Palm Meadows and stepped off the van, the first thought from everyone in the barn was, “What kind of allowance conditions can we find for him?” He was very light-framed and had a thick coat of hair. He was given UltraGard and GastroGard and the best of everything, including the best quality hay. No one at the barn could have imagined the magical ride the colt was about to take them on.
Because of my extensive writing about Invasor and the number of contacts and friends I made in Uruguay, I was invited there for the Ramirez and to visit a number of breeding farms, the first one being Cuatro Piedras, where, like the other farms, the red carpet was rolled out and a special lunch prepared with a number of guests attending. We were chauffered around, stayed at the finest hotels from Montevideo to the “Riviera of South America,” Punta del Este, to the small coastal town of Colonia, one of the most charming, colorful towns you’ll ever visit.
I can still envision the sights and hear the sounds of Maronas Racetrack after the Ramirez. The strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” blared over the public address system, as jockey Carlos Mendez, aboard Ramírez winner Rock Ascot, stood up in the saddle, flung his arms up in victory, and tossed rose petals from the victory blanket in the air. The massive crowd at Maroñas Racetrack let out a mighty roar to salute the victors.
With the music still resounding throughout the track, the winning connections—owner, breeder, trainer, and jockey and their friends and families—were driven in antique automobiles to the makeshift winner’s podium on the track in front of the grandstand. Alongside the podium was a mounted military band in decorative uniforms and cascos (headgear) playing drums, bugles, tubas, and other instruments.
With the fans, squeezed together, elbow to elbow, still applauding and taking pictures, the winners were presented their trophies. Standing along the rail, my wife and daughter and I were engulfed by the cheers, the music, and the on-track festivities. It was at this point that my daughter said, “All that’s missing are fireworks.”
Sure enough, seconds later, an explosion of fireworks from behind the podium lit up the darkening blue sky that had already become illuminated by the lights of the racetrack. It was a moment that was both spectacular and surreal—a fitting conclusion to a magical day that saw skydivers rain down on the racetrack carrying banners and flags. Several years ago, one skydiver actually landed on the back of a horse…on purpose. The spectacle of Ramírez day was obvious. The surrealism was due in part to the fact that we were in Uruguay, a country whose location I had to look up on a map.
Our trip, at the invitation of the Uruguayan Breeders’ Association, included visits to Punta del Este, where the rich and famous congregate each summer; the amazing Casapueblo, where nature and art meet to form a kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and images nestled along Uruguay’s tranquil coastline; and the historic, charming town of Colonia, where you can see spectacular sunsets and the lights from Buenos Aires across the Rio del la Plata that separates Uruguay and Argentina. Our home base, the capital city of Montevideo, has miles and miles of beaches that come alive each day with people jogging, walking, riding bicycles, sipping their mate, and strolling with their dogs along the palm tree-lined Rambla.
In addition to staying in five-star hotels, including the luxurious Conrad in Punta del Este, and being invited to lunch at some of the country’s most prominent breeding farms, I gave a 90-minute talk on Invasor to the media and racing officials at Maroñas that was shown on that night’s evening news, presented the trophy for one of the big stakes on Ramirez day, was interviewed by ESPN South America, had every want and need catered to, and, simply put, was treated like a rock star. It was at some point during the trip that it hit me. Everything I was experiencing was because of a horse.
From a personal standpoint, I never could have imagined how far the bond I formed with Invasor would take me. Because of this remarkable animal, I met many people in a faraway land that I now consider close friends. I discovered a new culture, new food, and a new, vibrant world of Thoroughbred racing that re-kindled the feelings I had for the sport back in the late 1960s, when all seemed so pure and innocent.
But most of all I discovered myself. Cloistered away in my home/office every day, I was reluctant to embark on such an adventure, and it was only after my wife’s constant urging and my daughter’s desire to go that I finally capitulated. So, my self-discovery was due in great part to them.
For Hernandez, it was a journey he will never forget, and it would be a joyous trip back to Montevideo following the Breeders’ Cup. But there still were moments of reflection as he looked back at the incredible saga of Invasor.
”My partners are still sad,” he said in regard to selling the horse. “They are two old unmarried brothers who have lost the reason to go to the racetrack every weekend. I was melancholy, too, in the beginning, but we have made it possible for Invasor to become famous in the best place in the world. He's gone, but he remains a part of my life, and he will be mine in my heart forever.”
Now he is home, and if he never returns to the United States, it is reassuring to know he will have a great life among the people who still worship him. I know how he changed my life and enabled me and my family to experience a whole new world and special people, who became part of our lives. I still think of Uruguay often and cannot remove that one thought from my head: it was all because of a horse. Perhaps those are words everyone in the industry should remember.