It could have been any Saturday last summer and fall. Whenever I was at Belmont Park to cover a race, there was always a stop I had to make first. The routine was always the same. I would park alongside Nick Zito’s barn and walk across the road to Kiaran McLaughlin’s barn. I had a friend there who I had to see or the day wouldn’t be complete.
As you walked in the barn, the first face you saw was Invasor, with that big eye of his looking right at you, and in some ways right through you. You rarely had to get his attention. He usually was right there with his head over the webbing as if he were expecting you.
He could hone in on a mint a hundred yards away. And when freelance photographer Dianne Boothe, whom I would meet there every Saturday like clockwork, showed up, he knew from the far-off sound of her voice that his sweet tooth was about to be pacified.
He loved the attention, but also felt compelled to take a nip at you on occasion, especially when you had the audacity to run out of goodies. When Jeannine Edwards of ESPN showed up the day of the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) to do a segment on him having to miss the race due to illness, she used a token mint to get his attention, but paid the price when she turned to the camera and ignored him. If he wasn’t going to get another mint, he’d substitute her upper arm. To his credit, he could have nailed her good, but held back, getting mostly material from her jacket. His biting seemed more about attention than intent to injure.
This introduction to Invasor through his personality has a point, which will soon become evident, so bear with me. The horse had style; and he endeared himself to everyone who came in contact with him. Because his craving for mints had gotten out of hand over the winter, Dianne was asked by assistant trainer Artie Magnuson, with whom we had become friendly, to refrain from giving him any, sticking to carrots only.
By the time he was moved to a new stall, on the other side of McLaughlin’s office, following his return from Dubai this year, Invasor had come up with a new routine, one which was unlike anything we had ever seen. As soon as we approached, Invasor would reach over and grab a large chunk of hay from his hay rack. After stuffing as much as he could in his mouth, he would freeze in that position, with his mouth still locked onto the hay rack. He then would turn his eye toward us. It hadn’t taken Dianne long to realize that this was his invitation to be petted, and as long as you’d pet him he’d remain in that odd position without moving. Once you stopped, he’d wait a few seconds and either let go of the hay or rip out a hunk and drop it on the floor. Dianne also discovered that all you had to do was point to his hay rack and he’d start the routine all over again.
Now, I don’t claim to be a horse whisperer or equine psychologist, but I do have a bizarre theory about this, as ill-equipped as I am – or anyone else is -- to give it. We know Invasor likes to bite, without being vicious in any way. Perhaps it is more like teething than anything else or an aggressiveness or territorial dominance that needs to come out. Who knows? We also know he loves attention and being petted. Now, the only way he could get that attention without biting the hand that was petting him was to occupy his mouth with something else at the same time. It was obvious he had an agenda, because he sure had no interest in eating the hay.
Can a horse think in those kinds of terms? I have no idea, and admit I could be guilty of anthropomorphism, and a touch of romanticism. But we’re all guilty of that to a degree, like when we say a horse is posing for photographs. Although we know a horse has no concept of what a camera is or what it does, we still say it.
The point of all this is, Invasor was unlike any horse I’ve ever encountered. He was special in a unique way. He had an “intelligence” and a presence about him that set him apart. He wasn’t the fastest horse; he wasn’t the most powerful horse; and he didn’t blow you away with an explosive move. But he knew how to beat you. And he did it with perhaps the most potent weapon of all – class. Being around him as often as I was, I believe he knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it, whether it was on the racetrack or in his stall.
I could go into his race record in detail, but we’re all very much aware what he accomplished, winning 11 of his 12 career starts for earnings of over $7.8 million. All one has to know is that he won group or grade I stakes on three continents, was Horse of the Year on two continents, a Triple Crown winner, a Breeders’ Cup Classic-Dubai World Cup winner, and likely would have broken Cigar’s all-time earnings record had he stayed sound.
This remembrance of Invasor, an Argentine-bred son of Candy Stripes, is mostly about what he accomplished off the racetrack. If there is anyone who typifies the effect he had on people, it is his former owner in Uruguay, Pablo Hernandez, who has since become the horse’s one-man groupie, following him all over, from Dubai to Kentucky and back to Dubai. No one was more jubilant following the Breeders’ Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I) win than Hernandez. In the winner’s circle, his clothes and hair were disheveled from all the hugging and kissing as he proudly waved the Uruguayan flag. Argentinians also celebrated the “Horse of the Rio de la Plata" (the river that separates Uruguay and Argentina).
In Uruguay, he was “Een-Vah-Sor,” the country’s greatest equine hero and horse of the people. Whenever he raced, following his sale, he sent fans storming to Maronas Racetrack and other simulcasting facilities to cheer him on with wild abandon. In Argentina, he became the poster child for that country’s breeding industry. In the United States, he was known by many as “Invayzer,” the Horse of the Year who defeated the mighty Bernardini, blocking the Darley colt’s entrance into the pantheon of the greats, while reserving his own place there. In Dubai, he was revered by horse lovers of all nationalities, as he won the world’s richest race in front of his present owner Sheikh Hamdan.
As crushing as his retirement is, perhaps it is fitting that a horse who left such an indelible mark all over the world should end his career where the Thoroughbred was born more than three centuries ago.
OK, I admit that’s a stretch, but we have to put some kind of positive spin on this or else there would be nothing left to say other than Invasor’s unexpected retirement has ripped the heart right out of racing at a time when the sport desperately needs one, especially one as big as his. Yes, we still have the star-studded group of 3-year-olds to look forward to, but racing could not afford to lose a horse like Invasor, who had the ability to ignite flames of passion all over the world.
That’s what made the times spent with him in his barn all the more special. Sure, all the idealistic and romanticized theories mentioned earlier likely have more rational explanations. But, honestly, in today’s high-tech, low-return racing world, don’t you wish they didn’t?