The Most Surreal Day in Racing History

What can be more surreal to racing fans than the Kentucky Derby (G1) postponed until Labor Day weekend, racetracks throughout America being shut down, and major stakes like the Curlin Florida Derby (G1) run in front of empty grandstands? That is just a minuscule example of how the Coronavirus has affected the entire world, or should I say ravaged the entire world.

During this time of crisis, which threatens every person on Earth, we seek ways of escape, whether it is dreaming of better times ahead or delving into the past and rekindling special memories.

This column is confined to Thoroughbred racing, and it is in that realm that we attempt to escape into the history books and attempt to relive racing's greatest moments, at least as seen through one person's eyes.

With three major Derbys scheduled to be run over the next five weeks, all in front empty grandstands, what better time to look back at racing's most surreal day of racing. The story of the 2001 Breeders' Cup, most notably the Breeders' Cup Classic, has been told here before, but never under these circumstances. And perhaps writing about it and reading about it in the present atmosphere will put the event in a new light, especially to those who were too young to fully understand how racing managed to go on following the catastrophic events of Sept. 11.

We will start on a personal front as I drove over the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn on the morning of Sept. 15. There, off to my left, I could see the staggering aftermath of 9/11. It was all so unreal to witness the seemingly naked skyline of Lower Manhattan 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. On Sept. 9 while flying back from Lexington, Ky. with my wife and daughter, I called them over to the window to look at a magnificent sight. The evening sun was illuminating the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, which looked like two giant gold bullions sparkling in the twilight. Two days later they were gone.

I was on my way to Belmont Park to see how this unfathomable catastrophe had affected the racetrack and the people who inhabited the backstretch.

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, sadness, and anger 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. on Sept. 14 that the cheers and the trophies could wait. Racing would be canceled.

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 as I showed him my media pin. "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."

The first barn you see in front of as you drive in the stable area is that of Shug McGaughey. I went in and spoke to McGaughey's assistant Buzzy Tenney, asking him what the atmosphere has been like. As we spoke, a towering dark bay colt walked down the shedrow. It was 2000 Horse of the Year Tiznow, who was stabled in McGaughey's barn and had been unable to return home to California following his third-place finish in the Sept. 8 Woodward Stakes (G1). His exercise rider Ramon Arciga had no idea when they would be allowed to leave, as all air travel had been halted.

"We're stuck here," Arciga said from atop the imposing-looking Tiznow "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."

Thoroughbred racing has always been confined to its own small world, safe and protected from the tumultuous events that surround it. There have been individual stars that have transcended the sport and reached out to touch mainstream America. But never before had the Sport of Kings been woven into the often tattered fabric of history.

That is, until the 2001 Breeders' Cup, when racing's biggest day was to be played out 12 miles from  Ground Zero, where the ashes from what was once the World Trade Center still smoldered.

There was talk of canceling the Oct. 27 Breeders' Cup, with many questioning whether any European horses would even show up. But Ballydoyle trainer Aidan O'Brien assured the Breeders' Cup that he would be there with his powerful arsenal, as would the Godolphin horses owned Sheikh Mohammed. It was finally decided to stage the event as planned. Hopefully it would serve as a diversion to the somber atmosphere that existed throughout the country, especially New York.

But how would the horses owned by the Dubai sheikhs be looked at? That Saturday morning at Belmont, things were very different at one barn in particular. In the Godolphin barn, the grooms were all Pakistanis and 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."

The next surreal sight came at JFK International Airport on Oct. 11 when Sheikh Mohammed's private 747 jet, which had departed Stanstead Airport in England at 1:30 p.m., touched down at the Saudi Arabian cargo terminal. 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 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."

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, making his return visit. Tiznow, despite not being in the best of form, would be trying to repeat his Classic victory of 2000 when he out-dueled the English and Irish champion Giant's Causeway. Could he rebound from a pair of defeats and defend America's honor once again?

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 McGaughey's barn by 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 into his new home for the week.

Tiznow had been giving trainer Jay Robbins fits with his antics in the morning, mainly his refusal to train and his unpredictable behavior on the track.

Those antics continued at Belmont when Tiznow wheeled on the backstretch and dashed perilously across the entire track, fortunately avoiding other horses. That evening, Robbins went out to buy a bottle of vodka to give to Tiznow to help calm him down. It was a practice that had been used by some trainers in the past. But it was Sunday and all the liquor stores were closed, so Robbins was on his own.

He decided to change the colt's schedule, sending him out before the break, when there was much less traffic, and having him go counterclockwise for a change. It seemed to work. Accompanied by McGaughey's exercise rider Pam York and her pony, Andy, Tiznow improved each day. Robbins, watching from the trainer's stand one morning, crossed both his fingers as Tiznow ambled calmly around the track. His gallops got stronger, and by late week, he was tearing over the track with the same power and authority as he had the year before at Churchill Downs.

At 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 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 French-trained horses -- Banks Hill, Spring Oak, and Slew the Red, all trained by Andre Fabre in Chantilly.

This three-pronged European force was the strongest and deepest ever sent to the Breeders' Cup.

On 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 AKA 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."

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.

By the time the Classic rolled around, America was a heartbeat away from being embarrassed by the European horses, and 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.

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. The final dagger is about to be plunged into the heart of American racing.

Jockey Chris McCarron thinks he's beaten. 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. All he kept saying to himself was, "Keep going, boy; keep going. Show him you got guts, anyway."

Sakhee, with immortality a mere furlong away, reached back to deal the fatal blow. But then something happened, something we'd seen the year before. McCarron hit Tiznow once left-handed and he surged forward. Reaching down into that indefinable reservoir we call heart, Tiznow gave one final surge and snatched victory away from Sahkee, winning by a nose.

The great defender of American racing had done it again. Track announcer Tom Durkin said it all when he bellowed proudly, "Tiznow wins it for America!"

Here we are nearly two decades later in another surreal situation and another life-threatening battle. This time there are no equine heroes to step up and save the day for racing, which like the rest of the world is facing perilous times and an unknown future.

We can only look elsewhere for solace. It is hoped that these glimpses back to the past can for a brief instance alleviate some of the anguish by capturing many of racing's most memorable and profound moments.

For now, bring on the Florida Derby.


Recent Posts


More Blogs