Driving 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.
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.
At the Belmont stable gate, a sign was tucked into the window of the booth, showing the American flag, with the words “Pray For America.”
As I spoke to Buzzy Tenney, assistant to Shug McGaughey, Tiznow , who was stabled in their barn, walked down the shed with exercise rider Ramon Arciga aboard. The 2002 Horse of the Year had been unable to return home to California following his third-place finish in the Sept. 8 Woodward Stakes (gr. I) and Arciga had no idea when they would be allowed to leave.
This was the scene that played out at Belmont leading up to the Oct. 27 Breeders’ Cup.
Thoroughbred racing had always been confined to its own small world, safe and protected from the events that surround it. Individual stars 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.
The Breeders’ Cup was being held 12 miles from Ground Zero, where some 3,000 Americans lost their lives. Breeders’ Cup day was surreal to say the least, as police dogs searched random automobiles entering the track parking lot; military personnel armed with assault rifles were stationed throughout Belmont, with snipers, positioned on the roof, observing the crowd with high-powered binoculars.
As for the actual racing itself, the day was turning into a nightmare for America, which had fallen in succession to the Irish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) and the English in the Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT). That was followed by a victory by the Arab-owned Fantastic Light, who ran for Godolphin. Finally, it was time for the Classic – America’s race.
But in the field were the Irish-trained superstar Galileo, the pride of Ballydoyle, and Godolphin’s runaway Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fra-I) winner Sakhee, both trying the dirt for the first time. Although he had won the previous year’s Classic, Tiznow had missed a good portion of the year due to back problems, and was coming into the Classic off two defeats in the fall.
But just like in 2000, it was Tiznow who was given the responsibility of defending America. Sakhee had picked off the American horses one by one on the turn, including Tiznow, and was about to storm home and deliver the coup de grace.
As the field approached the quarter pole, Albert the Great was 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 quickly emerged in the picture, as Sakhee came charging up on the outside to challenge. Tiznow seemed to be going nowhere between horses. After straightening into the stretch, Sakhee began to edge away—by a neck, then a half-length, and seemed on his way to certain victory.
Sakhee, with immortality a mere furlong away, reached back to deal the fatal blow. But then something happened; something racing fans had seen the year before. McCarron hit Tiznow once left-handed, and the colt gave one final desperate surge. Tiznow’s fire suddenly reignited, as if he were aware a European was again challenging America’s dominance on dirt, just as Giants’ Causeway had done the year before. He lunged forward and stuck his nose in front of Sakhee right on the wire as track announcer Tom Durkin bellowed, “Tiznow wins it for America!”
It was one of the most memorable moments I’ve ever had in racing. Tiznow became the first two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And he did it by defeating the greatest international field ever assembled for a dirt race.
I look back at that incredible day and that incredible finish, and I never fail to get emotional. Shortly after the race, Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, who were struggling at the time, showed his team a video of Tiznow’s victory to demonstrate what true courage and determination could achieve. The Patriots didn’t lose another game that year and won the Super Bowl to begin one of football’s great dynasties.
Later that year, Tiznow’s trainer Jay Robbins received a Christmas card from Belichick, saying, “Thanks for the inspiration.”
Can the fighting spirit of a city and of a nation manifest itself in the form of a racehorse? All I know is that on this day, Tiznow came to exemplify the spirit of the Thoroughbred by refusing to be beaten. And those unforgettable words from Tom Durkin – “Tiznow wins it for America” – still remain frozen in time.