Weather seemed to be the primary topic of conversation around Arlington Park the morning of Oct. 26. It was foot-stomping, self-hugging cold, especially when Chicago's trademark winds roared into the faces of fans seated outside in the apron boxes, the temporary bleachers, or the boxes and seats in the main grandstand.
Then Azeri stepped onto the racetrack and turned in a performance that could only warm the hearts of the 46,118 on hand, showing brilliance, toughness, and class. She was the type of racehorse the late Allen Paulson loved: "Come and catch me if you want to win, but you might break your heart trying."
The aviation wizard is responsible for breeding six winners of Breeders' Cup races, more than any other individual, all but one of them sired by stallions who stood at the Brookside Farm he established less than 20 years ago. That record of accomplishment over such a short period speaks volumes for Paulson's commitment and resolve to succeed where so many others have failed.
The chills returned a short time later, but this time not from the weather. Storm Flag Flying put on a spine-tingling display in the Long John Silver's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I), the kind of never-say-die effort that symbolized her granddam, the unbeaten superstar and heroine of the 1988 Distaff (gr. I), Personal Ensign. For many, the filly's half-length victory over Composure was the highlight of the afternoon.
The win was a three-peat for the family of the Juvenile Fillies winner, whose dam, My Flag, won the same race in 1995. Three generations of the Phipps family have nurtured the bloodlines that created these Thoroughbred champions, and the fourth generation seems destined to carry on the tradition with similar dedication well into the 21st century. Combined, the family has now bred its sixth Breeders' Cup winner in the name of the late Ogden Phipps, Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps, and the Phipps Stable.
The Flaxman Holdings operation of the Niarchos family, first through the late Stavros Niarchos and now his daughter Maria Niarchos-Gouaze, bred its third Breeders' Cup winner when Domedriver upset Rock of Gibraltar in the NetJets Mile (gr. IT). He was the first of three European-bred winners, all victorious on the turf. Starine, bred in France by Catherine Dubois, won the Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) for her owner and trainer, Bobby Frankel, officially signaling that Frankel's Breeders' Cup training slump is over. John Deere Turf (gr. IT) winner High Chaparral was the second winner bred in Ireland by Sean Coughlin, following 1995 Mile (gr. IT) winner Ridgewood Pearl.
Virginia Kraft Payson's Payson Stud bred Vindication, the Bessemer Trust Juvenile (gr. I) winner whose dominating running style on the front end drew immediate comparisons to his sire, Seattle Slew. With Slew's death earlier this year, racing found itself without a living Triple Crown winner for the first time, but the emergence of Vindication as the early favorite for the 2003 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) will give the sports world a compelling story to follow in the coming months. Payson, with her first Breeders' Cup winner, has prided herself in breeding horses with stamina, and she was represented by another top-class runner when Farda Amiga finished second to Azeri in the Distaff.
The Beck family's Gainesway Thoroughbreds also bred its first winner when tough-as-nails Orientate overtook Thunderello in the NAPA Sprint (gr. I). Illinois racing's finest hour even had a storybook ending, when Chicago native P.G. Johnson, as part of his family's Amherst Stable, became the first breeder, owner, and trainer of a Breeders' Cup winner. Volponi's 43-1 upset in the Classic (gr. I) was greeted warmly by the heavens above. For the first time on the cold, blustery afternoon, the clouds parted, allowing the sun to shine brightly on Johnson's old Chicago home.