Because of a Horse

Thoroughbred racing is facing a crisis unlike anything it has faced before, and it is something those in high positions cannot see or fathom. The country is in a desperate, bordering on panicky, state right now and it has every right to be, because we are dealing with a faceless enemy whose life span is unknown, as is its power of destruction.

But in our cloistered world of Thoroughbred racing we must be resilient and forge ahead, even at great risk, in order to protect the one thing that sustains us: the horse.

Every person who loves horses and makes their living from horses has been touched by this noble creature and has had their lives affected by them in some way. The discovery of horses and horse racing changed my life. No, it gave me my life. I see the result of that change every time I look at my wife and my daughter, and now my 2-year-old grandson, none of which I would have if it weren't for horses and racing.

I have shared so much with my family over the past four decades, and now as I ponder the future of racing, and of the world, I can only think back to some of those precious moments and how they came to be.

So I look at a photo album and relive a moment in time that best serves the purpose of this column at this time. I can still see the images now, as I saw them then and it puts the impact of horses on our lives in proper perspective

As I look at the photos I can hear the strains of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" blaring over the public address system, as jockey Carlos Mendez, aboard Gran Premio José Pedro Ramírez winner Rock Ascot, stands up in the saddle, flinging his arms up in victory, and tossing rose petals from the victory blanket in the air. The massive crowd at Maroñas Racetrack lets 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-are driven in antique automobiles to the makeshift winner's podium on the track in front of the grandstand. Alongside the podium is a mounted military band in decorative uniforms and cascos (headgear) playing drums, bugles, tubas, and other instruments.

With the fans still applauding and taking pictures, the winners are presented their trophies. Standing along the rail, my wife Joan and daughter Mandy and I are engulfed by the cheers, the music, and the on-track festivities. It was at this point that my daughter says, "All that's missing are fireworks."

Sure enough, seconds later, an explosion of fireworks from behind the podium light up the darkening blue sky that has already become illuminated by the lights of the racetrack. It is a moment that is both spectacular and surreal-a fitting conclusion to a magical day that saw skydivers rain down on the racetrack carrying banners and flags. The surrealism is due in part to the fact that we were in Uruguay.

Our trip, at the invitation of the Uruguayan Breeders' Association, included visits to the Riviera-like resort of 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, and strolling with their dogs along the palm tree-lined Rambla.

It was at some point during the trip that it hit me. Everything I was experiencing was due to one horse. It was through my articles on Invasor and the contacts I had made in Uruguay that all of this was made possible.

I gave a 90-minute talk on Invasor to the media and racing officials at Maroñas that was shown later on the 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-all because of a horse.

It was reassuring to know that the passion people around the world have for racing and for the horse still was as strong as ever; even 6,000 miles away in a small country most Americans would have trouble finding on a map.

During Invasor's career in the United States, I bonded with him as I've never bonded with any horse. But I never could have imagined how far that bond would take me.

This was a horse who was found by accident in a paddock in Argentina and sold to three Uruguayans who had traveled to Argentina with the intention of flying to a farm to look at horses. But when their flight was canceled due to engine trouble they were driven to a smaller farm and fell in love with a bay colt they wound up buying for $20,000. That horse would become a national hero in Uruguay, sweeping the Triple Crown, each race by huge margins, while remaining undefeated. People flocked to the racetrack to see him, touch him, take pictures with him, and attempt to get locks of his hair.

Realizing he would never gain the international fame he deserved, they reluctantly sold him to Sheikh Hamdan for $1.5 million, which was an enormous amount of money in Uruguay.

The day he left, part owner Pablo Hernandez said, "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 Hernandez was not prepared to bid farewell to his horse and he traveled around the world from Dubai to Churchill Downs to watch him run. I had corresponded with Pablo for months, and when we finally met in the winner's circle following Invasor's victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic, it was like a reunion of old friends as we hugged each other and posed for photos with his friends, holding up a large flag of Uruguay. It was a scene of pure delirium.

After coming to America, Invasor won six consecutive grade 1 stakes, including the Breeders' Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup, and was inducted into the racing Hall of Fame in 2013. I visited him at trainer Kiaran McLaughlin's barn every time I went to Belmont, feeding him carrots and observing an intelligence you rarely see in a Thoroughbred.

Because of this remarkable animal I met many people in a faraway land that I still 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 the excitement of my daughter at the thought of such a trip that I finally capitulated. So, my self-discovery was due in great part to them.

Now here I am in my office immersed again in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), which this year will not be run until September. It is during crises like this that we tend to think of better times. I think of Uruguay and of Invasor and all the memorable moments we shared as a family far from home and all the new friends we met, and I cannot remove that one thought from my head: it was all because of a horse. Perhaps those are words everyone should remember, including those who jeopardize these magnificent creatures. Horses are what we are, what we have always been, and what we strive to be. For many in the industry they are our lives.

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