The coronation was nearly complete. As Bernardini stormed past the leaders in the Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I), only the long Churchill Downs stretch stood between him and immortality. The crowd of 75,132 prepared to give Bernardini a thunderous ovation worthy of the greatness they were witnessing.
But suddenly, the scene changed. Just when it appeared Bernardini was on his way to another runaway victory, and all the accolades that come with the crowning of a superstar, the ominous presence of Invasor appeared on his outside. It was now obvious the Darley Stable colt was about to be tested for the first time in his career and would have to fight for his rightful place among the all-time greats of the sport.
The battle was on--the pride of America vs. the idol of Uruguay; brother vs. brother--as Sheikhs Mohammed and Hamdan watched their stars clash thousands of miles away in Dubai and England, respectively.
Bernardini briefly responded to the challenge of his older foe, but in the end, he couldn't withstand the power of Invasor, his Belmont Park neighbor who had been living in his shadow all year.
Now, under darkening November skies, Invasor emerged from that shadow to prove to the world that it was he all along who deserved to sit upon the throne.
Despite Invasor's dramatic rise to stardom, sweeping the Uruguayan Triple Crown and then coming to America and winning three consecutive grade I stakes--the Pimlico Special, Suburban, and Whitney Handicaps, this year's Classic had been billed as a showdown between the East's megastar, Bernardini, who had crushed his opponents in the grade I Preakness, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup, grade II Jim Dandy, and grade III Withers, and the West's Cinderella horse, Lava Man, the former $12,500 claimer who had won all seven of his starts in 2006 and had become the first horse ever to win the grade I Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic in the same year.
The poster for this year's Classic, run on Nov. 4, depicted the impending battle between the 3-year-old and the older horse. Forgotten was Invasor, who had been forced to miss his much-anticipated showdown with Bernardini in the Jockey Club Gold Cup due to a fever.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, although a bit apprehensive about having to miss the Gold Cup, was hoping it was a blessing in disguise, and still was looking forward to restoring his star's reputation.
"That's OK," he said on a quiet morning at Belmont, six days before the Classic. "They'll remember him on Saturday."
And did they remember him, as a melting pot of humanity converged on the Churchill Downs winner's circle. Americans and Arabs hugged and kissed each other, and from out of the bedlam, came the chant of "Een-vah-SOR! Een-vah-SOR!" with the colt's former co-owner, Pablo Hernandez, accompanied by eight of his friends, proudly holding the Uruguayan flag over his head. Joining in the celebration were media members from Argentina, where Invasor was bred.
"This is unbelievable," a delirious Hernandez shouted above the din. "This is the greatest experience of my life, and always will be. Invasor is still in the hearts of everyone in Uruguay. We are a small, modest country, and we need an idol. We have no idol in football and no idol in politics. Invasor is the idol of Uruguay. He is the 'Horse of the Rio de la Plata (the river that separates Uruguay and Argentina).' "
Also cheering wildly for Invasor were thousands of racing fans who had flocked to Maronas Racetrack in Uruguay, where Invasor made the first five starts of his career, and to San Isidro Race Course in Argentina to watch the Classic via simulcast.
"You can't imagine how excited the fans were about Invasor's victory," Luis Costa Baleta, a horse owner from a long-standing Uruguayan racing family, said after watching the race in Uruguay. "I shouted as if it were my own horse winning the Breeders' Cup Classic. Since Invasor has gone to the United States, every time he's run, all the simulcast halls have been crowded with people who came to see him and bet on him. They shout and cheer for him as if Uruguay was playing in the finals of the World Cup. No one can imagine what it's like. He's become a national hero."
It is in Uruguay that the unlikely story of Invasor began. Hernandez, who owned the son of Candy Stripes--Quendom, by Interprete, in partnership with brothers Juan Luis and Luis Alberto Vio Bado, recalled how his magical journey with Invasor began one morning outside of Buenos Aires.
"We had flown to Argentina and were scheduled to take a small plane to La Biznaga Farm, where we were going to look at horses," Hernandez said. "But the plane had engine failure and the trip was canceled. Our friend, Miguel Ezcurra, from Bullrich Auctioneers, took us by car to visit some smaller farms near Buenos Aires. After having seen some 80 colts and fillies at several farms, we went to Haras Clausan in Areco, a province of Buenos Aires, and that's where we met Invasor. Immediately, it was as if we had been hit with Cupid's arrow. We just fell in love with him."
Sandro Mizeroqui, owner of Haras Clausan, which has since been re-named Haras Santa Ines, was asking $25,000 for the horse. Hernandez and the Vio Bados offered $18,000, and both parties eventually settled for $20,000. "We purchased him and exported him to Maronas Racetrack in Uruguay," Hernandez said. "Our lucky strike had begun."
Invasor took Hernandez and the Vio Bado brothers on a ride they will never forget. In his five races in Uruguay, Invasor, trained by Anibal San Martin, won at five different distances from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 9/16 miles. His average margin of victory was five lengths. His jockey, the veteran Gustavo Duarte, who is one of the leading riders in Uruguay, called Invasor the best horse he'd ever ridden.
Invasor's accomplishments were all the more remarkable considering his winning streak was interrupted by a fractured right hind sesamoid that required surgery.
After sweeping the Uruguayan Triple Crown in brilliant fashion, Invasor was sold by Hernandez and his partners to Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell Stable for $1.5 million, which is a great deal of money in Uruguay, considering Invasor's total earnings there were $114,070. It was hoped to run him in the country's big championship race, the Gran Premio Internacional Jose Pedro Ramirez, for 3-year-olds and up, but Shadwell's offer was too lucrative to turn down, although one of the Vio Bado brothers was reluctant to sell.
"I am 42 years old and have faced many challenges and dilemmas in my life," Hernandez said. "But surely, the uncertainty of whether or not to sell Invasor gave me many sleepless nights. To be one of the co-owners of a Triple Crown winner is something that rarely happens to a Thoroughbred owner, especially in Uruguay. After so many decades of not having a Triple Crown winner, to suddenly realize that your horse has become a national hero to the enthusiastic Uruguayan racing fans is very shocking."
In December 2005, Hernandez was contacted by Shadwell, wanting to buy Invasor and fly him to Dubai for the UAE Derby (UAE-II).
"There is no time to think when somebody offers you this kind of deal," Hernandez said. "I was so undecided what to do, but Sheikh Hamdan was waiting for my answer. I called my friend, Miguel Ezcurra, and all he said to me was, 'You know what you have to do.'
"The reason why we sold him was not only about the money. Here in Uruguay there isn't much possibility to develop a great champion, and I wanted to give him the big opportunity to prove that he was a great horse. We would never have been able to go with him to the United States to run; it is too expensive for us. So, I was backed into a corner. I had no other choice.
"I have thousands of images of Invasor in my memory--some that make me weep and others that bring me much happiness. But the bitter memory is the day I had to say farewell to him after traveling with him on the van to the airport. It was a silent farewell, because inside our souls, none of us wanted Invasor leaving our lives. Every time he ran at Maronas, the fans filled the racetrack to watch him run and to try to touch him and take pictures with him. They even tried to get strands of his hair as a souvenir."
Sad farewells were nothing new to Hernandez. On the last occasion, however, it was he who was leaving and the bitter memories belonged to his grandmother.
"The day Invasor departed reminded me of that day years ago when I, like many Uruguayans, emigrated to Europe," Hernandez recalled. "I had graduated from dentistry school and went to Spain for a post-graduate in dental surgery. I remember how my grandmother cried silently the day I left. I can understand how she felt, because I felt the same way the day I had to say goodbye to Invasor. It was like saying goodbye to a son you were never going to see again. Although the plane left very early in the morning, a lot of people showed up at the airport to say their goodbyes to Invasor."
After being sold, Invasor was sent to Kiaran McLaughlin's barn at Palm Meadows in Florida, and then was flown to Dubai, where he finished fourth in the UAE Derby after encountering traffic problems. He actually came on again in the stretch to be beaten a length for second. One of those in attendance was Hernandez, who had flown to Dubai to see the horse run and "share a special moment with him." Now, here he was in Kentucky more than seven months later, sharing the most special moment of them all.
This year's Classic promised to be an unforgettable event, with not only Bernardini, Lava Man, and Invasor, but European stars George Washington and David Junior, last year's Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Giacomo, 2005 Travers (gr. I) winner and Breeders' Cup Classic runner-up Flower Alley, Woodward (gr. I) winner Premium Tap, stakes-winning older horses Sun King and Suave, brilliant 3-year-olds Brother Derek and Lawyer Ron, and, finally, the 7-year-old warrior, Perfect Drift, running in his fifth Classic.
Bernardini was the center of attention, as people along the rail stopped whatever they were doing to get a glimpse of him on the track. Bloodstock agent Joe Brocklebank described him best after watching him work several days earlier at Belmont.
"He looks like an oil painting," he said. "You look at him and you have it in your mind's eye for the rest of your life."
The fans felt Bernardini stood apart from the others and made him the even-money favorite, with Invasor and Lava Man both 6-1. The temperamental Irish miler, George Washington, received a good deal of support at 9-1, based on his brilliant victories in the Stan James Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-I) and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (Eng-I).
The 13-horse field got off to a clean start, with no one seeming to want the lead. Brother Derek inherited it from the one-post, which to this point had produced the winners of every dirt race on this year's Breeders' Cup card. Lawyer Ron moved up to second, a half-length back, with Lava Man to his outside. Flower Alley was in good position, just outside Premium Tap, with Bernardini right behind.
Fernando Jara, the 18-year-old Panamanian who won the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) this year for McLaughlin on Shadwell's Jazil, had Invasor in excellent position between George Washington and Suave. Down the backstretch, after a quarter in :23.13 and a half in :46.60, the field was pretty well strung out, as Brother Derek led by a length over Lawyer Ron and Lava Man
Javier Castellano, who had been involved in a horrific spill in the Emirates Airline Distaff (gr. I) aboard the ill-fated Pine Island, was nudging Bernardini along just to keep up with the pace. Passing the three-eighths pole, Castellano began pumping hard, and Bernardini took off and quickly inhaled the leaders. But Invasor was full of run, as Jara swung him to the far outside and zeroed in on Bernardini, who was not moving with his usual smooth, effortless strides over a deep, dry track that many horses on the day could not handle.
Soon after straightening into the stretch, it became apparent that Bernardini was in trouble. Invasor, under three right-handed whips from Jara, came charging up alongside nearing the eighth pole. Bernardini also felt the whip, something he wasn't used to, and tried to battle back, but Invasor was too strong. Once he drew clear, Jara eased him nearing the wire, and Invasor threw his ears up and jumped over to his left lead. The margin was a length, with Bernardini finishing 2 1/2 lengths ahead of a stubborn and game Premium Tap. Giacomo closed late for fourth. The final time was 2:02.18.
America's richest race had been won by an Argentine-bred colt who had raced in Uruguay, was ridden by a Panamanian, and is owned by an Arab sheikh and trained by a native Kentuckian. Jara also became the youngest rider ever to win a Breeders' Cup race.
Rick Nichols, racing manager for Shadwell, declared after the race that "the Maktoum family is going to be a force to be reckoned with for a long time to come."
For McLaughlin and his staff, it's been a long, hard climb to reach racing's summit. After six years of training for the Maktoums, McLaughlin began forming a public stable during his summers away from Dubai, leaving most of the horses with other trainers upon his return to Dubai for the winter.
In the quiet of the backstretch following the Classic, longtime assistant Artie Magnuson and Neal McLaughlin, Kiaran's brother and assistant, recalled those early days.
"Remember Desert Falcon and how we used to have to massage his legs after he suffered two saucer fractures, and how thrilled we were when he won for a $35,000 claiming tag?" Neal said to Magnuson. "And then we were even happier when we found out he had been claimed. We didn't know where we were going, and we were scared to death."
"We were going back and forth to Dubai, and then Shadwell started going in another direction and gave their horses to several different trainers," Magnuson said. "This was a year after Kiaran was diagnosed with MS (Multiple Sclerosis), and it was like, 'What are we going to do now?' But Kiaran hustled and hustled to put a stable together, lining up new clients."
Although the stable had success after McLaughlin went on his own for good in 2003, while still training several Shadwell and Darley horses, he wasn't able to land the big horse.
Neal's wife, Trish, who also is an assistant trainer, recalled the day last winter when a van pulled up to their barn at Palm Meadows training center and out walked a light-framed colt, covered in a thick winter coat. All they thought of when they laid eyes on this Uruguayan import was, what kind of conditions can they find for him? But after Invasor returned from Dubai, Nichols and Sheikh Hamdan wanted to throw him right into the deep water in the Pimlico Special, and that was the beginning of what surely looks to be a Horse of the Year campaign.
"After he arrived, we gave him UlcerGard and GastroGard. He got the best of everything--hay at $30 a bale and the best care in the world," Trish McLaughlin said.
Now, here he was, some 10 months later, reunited in victory with his former owner and atop the racing world on two continents. Also sharing in the glory was Diego Mitagstein, the pedigree consultant for Turf Diario in Argentina.
"I can't speak--my heart," he said. "Bayakoa won the Distaff twice and Paseana won the Distaff, but this is the Classic at Churchill Downs, the home of the biggest race in America."
The first person to offer his congratulations to the Shadwell team after the race was Bernardini's trainer Tom Albertrani, who offered no excuses other than the possibility the colt didn't care for the track.
Nichols said no decision has been made whether or not to retire Invasor. "It's going to be up to Sheikh Hamdan," he said. "After winning the Classic, it would be very tempting to retire him, but it's also very tempting to win the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) next March."
Kiaran McLaughlin put it simply when he said, "Bernardini is a great horse, but there was one better today."
The morning after the race, McLaughlin and his family were already on their way home. Magnuson had an 11 a.m. flight to New York and dreaded having to say goodbye to Invasor, who is off to Palm Meadows, knowing he may never see the colt again. But emotional farewells are nothing new to Invasor.
Also about to bid farewell to him is his groom, Santos Fragoso, whose visa expires Nov. 24, and he will have to return to Mexico.
For Pablo Hernandez, it would be a joyous trip back to Montevideo, Uruguay's capital. But there are still moments of reflection as he looks back at the incredible saga of Invasor.
"My partners are still sad," he said. "They are two old unmarried brothers who have lost the reason to go to the racetrack every weekend. I was melancholy, too, in the beginning, but we have made it possible for Invasor to become famous in the best place in the world. He's gone, but he remains a part of my life, and he will be mine in my heart forever."
Magnuson gathered his belongings and went over to Invasor's stall to give him one final pat on the neck.
"Man, I'm going to miss him," he said. "When you're with them every day, you take it for granted. He's just different from other horses, with that big eye of his and that wonderful personality. Looking back at everything, his story really is incredible, and we've been so lucky to be one of the chapters."