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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.