Breeders' Cup 2001: A Day of Heroes

The following feature is reprinted from the official Breeders' Cup souvenir magazine.

Thoroughbred racing has always been confined to its own small world, safe and protected from the tumultuous events that surround it. There have been individual stars that 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.

That is, until the 2001 Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, when racing's biggest day was played out 12 miles from the hell of Ground Zero, where the ashes from what was once the World Trade Center still smoldered.

When the New York Racing Association decided to cancel racing in the days following the catastrophic events of Sept. 11, there was a growing concern that the Breeders' Cup would be affected. That rumor was quashed on Sept. 18 when Breeders' Cup president D.G. Van Clief Jr. issued a statement saying: "Obviously, on the morning of Sept. 11, the world changed, and it certainly changed our outlook on the 2001 World Thoroughbred Championships. But it is very important for us to stay with our plan. We'd like it to be a celebration and salute to the people of New York."

With racing at Belmont shut down until Sept. 19 and the area airports closed, horses who had flown to New York from around the country were stranded indefinitely. One of those was the defending Horse of the Year Tiznow, who had shipped to Belmont for the Sept. 8 Woodward Stakes, in which he finished third. The previous year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner had been suffering from back problems since his emphatic five-length victory in the March 3 Santa Anita Handicap, and although he was beaten only 11Ú2 lengths in the Woodward, he did not show that competitive fire that had become his trademark.

Trainer Jay Robbins and managing partner Michael Cooper decided to return Tiznow to Santa Anita and point toward the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap, the same prep the trainer had used for the 2000 Classic, in which the colt scored a gut-wrenching victory over the "Beast of Ballydoyle," Giant's Causeway.

But, here he was on the morning of Sept. 15 walking the shed at Shug McGaughey's barn with regular exercise rider Ramon Arciga aboard, still waiting for the OK to return home. "We're stuck here," Arciga said. "We were supposed to have left Wednesday (Sept. 12), then again on Friday. Now they say Tuesday, but I'm not sure when we'll be leaving."

All around Belmont were signs of 9/11 and stories about friends and relatives lost in the disaster. On the Belt Parkway, only a few miles from Belmont, a funeral procession for one of the deceased firefighters headed east, escorted by two police cars and a fire engine. On the Staten Island Expressway, dump trucks, also escorted by police cars, made their way to the Great Kills dump to discard debris from the World Trade Center.

At the Belmont stable gate, a sign was tucked in the window of the security booth, showing an American flag, accompanied by the words "Pray For America." Inside the backstretch, a feeling of uneasiness pervaded the barn of the Godolphin-trained horses owned by the Maktoum brothers of Dubai. The grooms, mostly Pakistanis, appeared apprehensive as they attempted to get through their morning chores. They were told by assistant trainer Laurent Barbarin to keep a low profile. "It's a very difficult situation," Barbarin said. "I spoke to them and told them to stay quiet. It's safer for everybody."
The Belmont front office was feeling the effects, with more than 100 cancellations coming in from ticket holders who said they were afraid to fly to New York.

Meanwhile, the repercussions from 9/11 were being felt in Europe, and there was concern about the European participation in the Breeders' Cup. This promised to be a landmark year in Breeders' Cup history with the winners of the English Derby, Irish Derby, Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Juddmonte International, Irish Champion Stakes, Irish Two Thousand Guineas, French Two Thousand Guineas, St. Leger, and Hong Kong Cup all scheduled to ship from Europe, as well as the 2-year-old sensation Johannesburg, winner of all six of his starts, including group I victories in Ireland, England, and France.

There was a published report that the powerful Ballydoyle horses of trainer Aidan O'Brien might not make the trip. But O'Brien reassured Breeders' Cup officials, saying, "If everything continues to go as planned, we'll be there."

Van Clief, in turn, reassured O'Brien by stating, "Currently, there are no insurmountable obstacles to running the Breeders' Cup. Like all other sports organizations, we are closely monitoring the situation and are taking every precaution to ensure the security of our patrons and our event participants."

In London, a special service was held at St. Paul's Cathedral honoring the victims of the World Trade Center attack. One of the main participants was U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain William S. Farish, who was joined by Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the royal family, and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The first indication that this would not be a normal Breeders' Cup came on Oct. 11 when Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum's private 747 jet, which had departed Stanstead Airport in England at 1:30 p.m., touched down at JFK International Airport. On board were three of Godolphin's biggest stars-the brilliant Sakhee, runaway winner of the Arc de Triomphe and Juddmonte International; the globe-trotting Fantastic Light, a major stakes winner in the United States, Ireland, England, Hong Kong, and Dubai, and third, beaten a neck, in the Japan Cup; and the top miler, Noverre, winner of the Sussex Stakes.

Awaiting the trio upon their arrival at the Saudi Arabian cargo terminal were two FBI agents, four customs agents, and three carloads of Port Authority police. The horses were vanned to Belmont, joining the other Godolphin horses under the care of head assistant Tom Albertrani.

The main question was, in which races would Sakhee and Fantastic Light be entered? It was assumed Sakhee would go for the Turf, with Fantastic Light, who had worked well over the Belmont dirt the year before, headed for the Classic. But Albertrani said he had a gut feeling it would be the other way around, with Godolphin attempting to make history by winning the Arc and the Breeders' Cup Classic with the same horse and in a span of only 20 days. A victory by Sakhee surely would make him the "Horse of the World."

Godolphin also would be converging on Belmont Park from the opposite direction, with top-class 2-year-olds Tempera, Imperial Gesture, Essence of Dubai, and Ibn Al Haitham due to arrive from Eoin Harty's barn at Santa Anita.

Despite their high-powered arsenal of horseflesh, security was not a concern for Godolphin. "Wherever we travel around the world, we take security personnel, and this time will be no different," said Godolphin's racing manager Simon Crisford.

At 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 22, an Air Transport International DC-8 taxied up to the same Saudi Arabian terminal at JFK. Veterinarian John Miller boarded the plane and took the blood on the seven Ballydoyle-trained horses arriving from Shannon Airport. The blood would then be flown by Lear Jet to Ames, Iowa, where lab technician John Eli would meet the plane and take the samples to the lab for analysis. Expediting the procedure would allow the Ballydoyle horses to clear quarantine by 10 p.m. the following day.

The Ballydoyle contingent was believed to be the most expensive shipment of Thoroughbred racehorses in history. An insurance company appraised their value at $200 million, with Galileo, winner of the English Derby, Irish Derby, and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, alone valued at $65 million. Also on board were Johannesburg, St. Leger winner Milan, and top-class stakes horses Black Minnaloushe, Bach, Mozart, and Sophisticat.

About an hour after the arrival of the Ballydoyle horses, an Air France 747 pulled up to the Air France terminal, carrying three horses-Banks Hill, Spring Oak, and Slew the Red, all trained by Andre Fabre in Chantilly.

This three-pronged European force would wind up winning an incredible $3,907,200 in Breeders' Cup purse money.

On the home front, the American horses for the Classic had been depleted by the retirement of Preakness, Belmont, and Travers winner Point Given and Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos. Also missing would be Whitney and Woodward winner Lido Palace, whose connections decided not to put up the supplementary fee. The always reliable Albert the Great, winner of the Suburban and Brooklyn handicaps, was coming off an uncharacteristically poor performance in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Tiznow finally made it back to California where he was upset in the Goodwood by 39-1 shot Freedom Crest, raising questions about the defending champ, who had become a basket case in the mornings, often refusing to train until he was good and ready. America's big hope was Aptitude, 10-length winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The colt was owned by Saudi Arabia's Prince Khalid Abdullah, who races under the Juddmonte Farm's banner.

New York City, meanwhile, was slowly getting back to some sense of normalcy, thanks to the efforts of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani whose actions and reassuring words were a source of comfort to the grief-stricken city.

Horse racing did its part by establishing the NTRA Charities-New York Heroes Fund and held various auctions to raise money for the families of the 9/11 victims. The fund would take in almost $6 million. Of the $2.6 million generated from purse contributions the day of the event, more than $1.8 million would come from Godolphin's winnings, donated by Sheikh Mohammed.

The morning of the entries, Godolphin caught most everyone by surprise, including jockey Frankie Dettori, when it was announced that Sakhee would be entered in the Classic, with Fantastic Light going in the Turf. That meant the Classic would be the stage for a showdown between an English and Irish Derby winner (Galileo) and an Arc de Triomphe winner (Sakhee), both of whom would be racing on dirt for the first time.

Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships Day was unlike anything ever seen at a racetrack. Police dogs were used to search random automobiles entering the track parking lot. Soldiers were stationed throughout Belmont, armed with AKA assault rifles. Snipers were positioned on the roof, observing the crowd with high-powered binoculars. The whole scene was surreal.

As part of the opening ceremonies prior to the races, dozens of jockeys, accompanied by members of the New York Police and Fire departments, lined up, each holding the flag of his country. The National Anthem was sung by Carl Dixon of the New York Police Department following a bagpipe rendition of "Amazing Grace."

On the racing front, Alastair Donald of the International Racing Bureau was expecting a big day from the powerful European brigade, which was unlike anything ever assembled. "If we get our (butts) kicked, we'll have to think up some good excuses," he said.

Any hopes of the Breeders' Cup card getting off to a positive and uplifting start ended prior to the opening race-the Distaff-when Beldame and Gazelle winner Exogenous reared and flipped leaving the tunnel, slamming her head on the ground. She was brought back to trainer Scotty Schulhofer's barn by ambulance. Every effort was made to save the filly, but she succumbed to her injuries several days later.

Godolphin dominated the next race, the Juvenile Fillies, when stablemates Tempera and Imperial Gesture finished one-two at odds of 11-1 and 53-1, respectively. Another California-based horse, the French-bred Val Royal, formerly trained by Andre Fabre, captured the Mile. Bobby Frankel, who had been winless in 36 previous Breeders' Cup starts, finally got his long-awaited first winner when Squirtle Squirt ran down the pace-setting Xtra Heat to win the Sprint at odds of 9-1.

Then the roof caved in for the Americans. French-trained Banks Hill, owned by Juddmonte Farms, ran off with the Filly & Mare Turf, winning by 51Ú2 lengths, with another Fabre-trained filly, Spring Oak, finishing third.

The Juvenile was supposed to be a coronation for the odds-on favorite, Officer, the undefeated four-time stakes winner trained by Bob Baffert. But it was Ireland's budding superstar, Johannesburg, who charged down the stretch to win going away by 11Ú4 lengths.

With the French and Irish scoring back-to-back victories, it was England's turn, as Godolphin's Fantastic Light made the American turf horses look ordinary by easily opening up a big lead in the stretch and then holding off the late charge of the Ballydoyle-trained Milan. It was the third Arab-owned horse to win that day.

Following an unprecedented three consecutive victories by the French, Irish, and English, there was a feeling of trepidation heading into the Classic. A victory by either of the two European titans, Sakhee or Galileo, or the longshot Black Minnaloushe, would bring Breeders' Cup XVIII to an ignominious conclusion for the Americans.

Through the first three-quarters of a mile, Albert the Great and Tiznow tracked the pacesetting Orientate. Aptitude, the 2-1 favorite, was biding his time, but he had been stuck on the far outside every step of the way, and his powerful kick would never come.

Albert the Great took over the lead nearing the quarter pole, with Tiznow closing in for the kill. But which Tiznow would we see-the tenacious tiger that had outdueled the great Giant's Causeway the year before, or the temperamental colt who had failed to show his usual spark in his two previous races?

Galileo, who had settled in fifth for most of the race, was not taking to the dirt as O'Brien and the Coolmore braintrust had hoped. The same, however, could not be said for Sakhee. Just as Tiznow was about to challenge Albert the Great after turning for home, here came the Godolphin blue silks once again. Sakhee was motoring outside horses and appeared to be going strongest of all. With two Breeders' Cup victories already, Godolphin was about to apply the coup de grace and bring the American team to its knees at a time when the country was attempting to get up off its knees.

With immortality only a furlong away, Sakhee took a half-length lead on Tiznow and looked like a sure thing to deal the home team its fourth consecutive defeat. Inside the final furlong, it was all up to Tiznow to stop this European juggernaut, but he already appeared to be a beaten horse. Then, something happened that defies explanation. The fire that had burned inside Tiznow a year earlier suddenly was reginited by the threatening presence of Sakhee, who was about to deal America its most crushing blow in international competition.

The big, powerful Cal-bred felt a single sting from jockey Chris McCarron's whip and reached back for one final surge. With his teeth clenched and his blood at a boil, he lunged forward in the shadow of the wire and snatched certain victory from the foreign invader, winning by a nose. Up in the stands, Michael Cooper felt as if he were going to pass out. "For five minutes after the race, I couldn't walk," he said. "When my wife said 'let's go,' I told her, 'I can't; I think I'm going to fall down.' This was almost too mystical to explain."

In his own way, Tiznow had come to embody the fighting spirit of all the heroes that had emerged in New York over the past month. Although not the powerful force he had been that winter and the previous fall, he somehow was able to rise to the challenge, bringing to mind an old English saying, "Spirit shall be the stouter, heart the bolder, courage shall be the greater, as our might lessens."

In the end, everyone went home happy-the Americans, the Irish, the French, the British, the Arabs, and the people of New York, who needed a brief escape from the horrific images that still haunted them.

For all those who were a part of Breeders' Cup XVIII, it was a day of pride; it was a day of solidarity. But, most of all, it was a day of heroes.