Emotions have run high the three previous times Belmont Park has hosted the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. They have run the gamut, too, from the pain and sorrow experienced when three runners died in 1990, to the exhilaration of Cigar's captivating run down the stretch in 1995, to the enduring human spirit shown in 2001, when Americans were still reeling from the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Not since the ill-fated Ruffian had a filly touched the hearts of Americans the way Go for Wand did in the 1990 Distaff (gr. I). In the heat of a stretch battle with Bayakoa, the daughter of Deputy Minister fell heavily to the track after suffering a devastating injury to her leg. To the horror of everyone, the courageous filly attempted to get back on her feet and finish the race--a scene replayed over and over on the NBC telecast. She was euthanized almost immediately.
But Go for Wand was not the day's only tragedy. Two horses--Mr. Nickerson and Shaker Knit--died in the Sprint (gr. I) from an incident that occurred on the backstretch.
That same race featured one of the most bizarre incidents in Breeders' Cup history. In the final 70 yards, as favored Dayjur appeared to be taking control from a stubborn Safely Kept, Dayjur was spooked by bright sunlight and shadows and suddenly leapt into the air, losing his action when he landed and ultimately losing the race. His jump was a moment frozen in time.
So was Cigar's victory in the 1995 Classic (gr. I), a race that capped a perfect 10-for-10 Horse of the Year season for the son of Palace Music. Though the on-track crowd of 37,246 was the lowest in Breeders' Cup history, those in attendance let out a roar that shook the grandstand when Cigar, the 7-10 favorite, surged to the lead at the top of the stretch.
Tiznow's determined triumph in the 2001 Classic put the final punctuation mark on a day that was unlike any other in the sport's history. As the World Trade Center still smoldered a few miles away in Manhattan, heavily armed security forces stood watch over Belmont Park at the city's first major sporting event following 9/11. People wore their emotions and their patriotism on their sleeves in what will be remembered as a day of triumph.
Belmont Park has been a fair track for participants. In the 22 Breeders' Cup races run there, seven winners had their final preps at Belmont; three each at Keeneland, Santa Anita, and in England; two each at Del Mar and in France; and one at Louisiana Downs and in Ireland.
American-owned horses have won 15 of the 22 races, with three victories by the Maktoum family of Dubai, three by European connections, and one by Saudi Prince Khalid Abdullah.
Favorites won seven of the first 14 races in 1990 and '95, then went one-for-eight in 2001 when the average payoff was $17.10. The longest-priced Belmont Breeders' Cup winner was Desert Stormer, who paid $31 when she won the Sprint as part of the mutuel field in 1995.
My favorite New York Breeders' Cup moments don't involve pari-mutuel payoffs. They include such things as the rainbow that appeared over the infield as Mike Smith circled Inside Information in front of the winner's circle after her Distaff victory in 1995. There was the brilliance of veteran jockey Lester Piggott for one last ride when Royal Academy took the 1990 Mile (gr. IT). It's difficult to forget the inheritable desire displayed by 1995 Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) winner My Flag, who ran so much like her dam, Personal Ensign, when the latter capped a perfect career with an improbable victory in the 1988 Distaff.
But none of those memories stand up to Cigar's performance. He was, as track announcer Tom Durkin said, incomparable, invincible, and unbeatable.