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Belmont a stage for sport's highs, lows
ELMONT, N.Y. - The Breeders' Cup will be run in New York for the fifth time, and the fourth at majestic Belmont Park, when the 22nd World Thoroughbred Championships are held Oct. 29.
When the Cup was held at Aqueduct in 1985, the event was still in its infancy and lacked the drama of its inaugural a year earlier at Hollywood Park. But the three previous Cups at Belmont Park have provided indelible moments, reflections of the best the sport can offer, and reminders of its grim realities.
Breeders' Cup VII
Oct. 27, 1990
The biggest day in American racing turned into a nightmare, with the specter of Ruffian's death eerily recalled. Two horses, including champion Go for Wand, died in accidents, and a third had to be euthanized because of injuries suffered in the first accident.
Go for Wand and Bayakoa, Eclipse Award winners in both 1989 and 1990, were locked in a spirited battle from the start of the Distaff and were still right together with a sixteenth of a mile remaining. Suddenly, one of the greatest matches of the year ended with the sickening sight of Go for Wand fracturing her right front ankle, nosediving to the ground and pitching jockey Randy Romero.
As a crowd of 51,236 looked on in horror, Go for Wand struggled to her feet and ran down the stretch before collapsing near the finish line. A screen was put up to try to shield the crowd from seeing the inevitable. Go for Wand was administered a fatal dose of a barbiturate, just yards from where Ruffian is buried.
Go for Wand was buried the next week at Saratoga, at the request of her owner, Jane duPont Lunger.
Bayakoa was winning the Distaff for the second straight year, but her trainer, Ron McAnally, felt like he had been punched in the stomach.
"I can't cope with something like this," McAnally said in the winner's circle. "I can hardly talk right now. I feel terrible. They give their lives for our enjoyment, and when something like this happens, you can't do anything about it."
In a recent interview, McAnally admitted that he initially "wasn't sure which filly it was."
The day began with a tragic and bizarre running of the Sprint. Mr. Nickerson apparently suffered a heart attack heading into the far turn and fell, with jockey Chris Antley fracturing his clavicle. Shaker Knit could not avoid Mr. Nickerson and crashed into him. Then, with 50 yards remaining in the Sprint, Dayjur cost himself an apparent victory when he jumped shadows cast by the grandstand and lost his action, allowing the filly Safely Kept to re-rally and win.
Shaker Knit was euthanized later because of paralysis in his hind end. His jockey, Jose Santos, dusted himself off and won the Juvenile Fillies with Meadow Star in the next race.
There were moments of great joy, too. English racegoers were thrilled by the sight of jockey Lester Piggott, at age 54, getting Royal Academy up for a win in the Mile. Piggott had been back riding for one year after spending a year in prison for tax evasion.
The day ended with Unbridled, that year's Kentucky Derby winner, rallying to capture the Classic. But any celebration was muted.
"This is rather anticlimactic in view of what happened today," said Pat Day, who rode Unbridled. "No matter how long you're in the game, you never get used to that."
Breeders' Cup XII
Oct. 28, 1995
After winning a pair of races to close out 1994, Cigar fashioned in 1995 one of the great single-season campaigns in racing history, both in terms of races won and miles traveled.
After winning an allowance race, Cigar took the Donn Handicap and Gulfstream Park Handicap in Florida, went to Arkansas and won the Oaklawn Handicap, to Maryland and won the Pimlico Special, then went to Suffolk Downs and captured the Massachusetts Handicap.
Cigar flew to California and demolished the West's best in the Hollywood Gold Cup, then returned to New York and scored victories in the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. He came into the Breeders' Cup having won 11 straight races, with a 9-for-9 record in 1995. But as perfect as the year had gone, there were concerns percolating as race day neared.
"I felt like I was on needles and pins that whole week," Cigar's trainer, Bill Mott, said recently. "I thought he was the best horse if everything went well. But he cut an eyelid in his stall 10 days before the race, and then a week before he broke out in hives. And then it rained the night before, and he had never run in the mud."
The raw weather kept the crowd down. Only 37,246, the smallest crowd in Breeders' Cup history, came to Belmont Park that afternoon.
"I trained him a little that morning," Mott said. "At 8 a.m., I took him up to the training track, and he seemed like he was enjoying it. The slop hit him in the belly, and he enjoyed it. I thought, 'I don't think it's going to bother him one bit.' "
It didn't. A few hours later, Cigar and jockey Jerry Bailey splashed through the muddy track for a 2 1/2-length victory in the Classic. Track announcer Tom Durkin encapsulated the race, and the year, perfectly. "The incomparable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar," Durkin said as Cigar flashed under the wire.
"Every race leading up to that, it felt more like relief when he won," Mott said. "But that, that was really exciting. He brought us up out of our seats when he made that move on the turn. I remember thinking to myself, 'Why not? Why not have it this way? Why not finish it off?' I felt like he was deserving. It seemed like the perfect ending."
Mott usually watches a race stoically, but he led the cheers, with his fist pumping, as Cigar neared the wire.
"It had been building up," Mott said. "I might as well release it. It was certainly worth it.
"Every race, he had to overcome something. There was a different challenge every time. Pace. Track condition. He handled it all. A perfect 10 for 10, and winning the Breeders' Cup. It doesn't get better than that."
Also that day, the Phipps family and trainer Shug McGaughey won a pair of races. My Flag captured the Juvenile Fillies, and Inside Information won by a Breeders' Cup-record 13 1/2 lengths in the Distaff. A raucous, flag-waving celebration broke out amongst the Irish when their filly Ridgewood Pearl won the Mile. But the day belonged to Cigar, who would be named Horse of the Year.
Breeders' Cup XVIII
Oct. 27, 2001
Only 45 days before the Breeders' Cup, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks resulted in thousands of deaths. The proper way to move forward was uncharted territory, especially for a major sporting event only 25 miles from the World Trade Center.
D.G. Van Clief Jr., the president of Breeders' Cup Ltd., "was unwavering in his support that the event should stay in New York," said Bill Nader, the senior vice president of the New York Racing Association. "He asked if we were prepared, and we said, 'Yes.' It was a quick decision that showed the commitment and courage of D.G. and the Breeders' Cup. They didn't abandon New York."
Neither did the 52,987 who came to Belmont Park that day. There was still a great deal of anxiety in the air. Security was unprecedented, with snipers positioned all along the roof of the track. "On one hand, it was intimidating, but on another, it was comforting," Nader said. And yet the quality of racing that day was at a high level, providing, for a few hours, an escape from the grim reality of what the world had become.
The day began with a parade of colors that honored New York's fallen firefighters and police. Jockeys were introduced and carried flags representing their home country, as well as the United States. There were skydivers, a bagpipe band, and mounted police.
"It was a very moving opening ceremony," Nader said. "We knew we were the first international event since 9-11. It was important. It was something everyone rallied behind - the owners, the trainers, and the jockeys."
The best race of the day was the Classic, which Tiznow won for the second straight year, this time bravely re-rallying to defeat Sakhee. He became the first horse to win the Classic twice, and only the fifth horse to repeat in a Breeders' Cup race, joining Bayakoa, Da Hoss, Lure, and Miesque.
"I really had my doubts that he could get back to Sakhee, but he's very game, very game," said winning trainer Jay Robbins, who expertly guided Tiznow back to action after the colt injured his back in the spring.
Sheikh Mohammed's Dubai-based Godolphin Racing Inc. just missed with Sakhee, but won two other races, the Juvenile Fillies with Tempera and the Turf with Fantastic Light. The Irish-based colt Johannesburg completed an undefeated season with a stirring victory in the Juvenile, his first start on dirt.
"There was relief and satisfaction," Nader said. "It was a great day of racing. It was a great day for New York. There was a great turnout. People weren't afraid. They were celebrating a great day of racing, at one of the great tracks in the world. The fact that people were willing to take part in the event was very gratifying. Thoroughbred racing did some small part to relieve the pain of 9-11, not just for racing, but for a national audience."