Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Nightmare in the Daytime by PAUL MORAN
Courtesy of Steve Byk of "At The Races" on Sirius Satellite Radio, and originally published in Newsday, a reprint of Paul Moran's Eclipse-winning piece on Go for Wand's tragic breakdown in the 1990 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Belmont Park, written on deadline.
Wish I wrote this:
A clash of champions unfolded in magnificent fury. Two memorable female thoroughbreds: unbending will and granite courage doubled, four nostrils flared, four eyes bulging, muscles rippling rhythmically in the sunshine beneath the leather whips of frantic riders. Poetry in flight. They raced together into the stretch, everything on the line, a crowd of 51,236 cheering wildly, millions of others frozen before television screens. What was developing was the quintessential confrontation of thoroughbreds, each carrying a jockey and a share of history. What was happening was the Breeders' Cup personified, the essence of the game.
Go for Wand, sublimely brazen in the face of her greatest challenge, had taken the fight to Bayakoa in the $1-million Breeders' Cup Distaff yesterday on a long-awaited Belmont Park afternoon that was painted in sunshine and washed in tears. And while giving herself completely to the pursuit of victory, Go for Wand lost her life in the most tragic moment in racing since the immortal Ruffian gave her life to a match race on this track more than 15 years ago.
You could almost hear the bones snap in the last row of seats in the grandstand. And the gasp seemed to hang in the crisp October air before melting into sobs for the New York heroine.
In full flight coming to the sixteenth pole, she reached forward with the legs that carried her to the most important moment of her career, the race in which she would secure a Horse of the Year title with victory, the race in which victory would have placed Go for Wand among the best fillies ever to grace American racing. She reached out in wanton singlemindedness toward what seemed her destiny, a half-length in front of Bayakoa and on her way to victory when time stopped as if electrocuted and the seventh Breeders' Cup was transformed instantly from a celebration of the thoroughbred into a wake.
Go for Wand's right hoof hit the ground at the sixteenth pole and her ankle snapped. She fell, headfirst, catapulting jockey Randy Romero over her neck, and somersaulted, her legs flailing at the sky as she rolled on her back. The filly, who a year ago established herself as a 2-year-old in the Breeders' Cup at Gulfstream, was mortally injured in pursuit of the moment for which she was destined since conception. She stood again, clumsily, instinctively, on her shattered leg. She struggled wild-eyed in terror toward the wire on a stump of shattered bone, her hoof swinging below the fracture when she lifted it from the ground. By now, she was at the outside fence, looking out imploringly over a crowd with a fist-sized lump in its collective throat, indeed over a world of racing enthusiasts struck dumb by what they watched. Unable to understand that the fragile thoroughbred legs that had carried her to greatness had betrayed her, she limped onward, as if searching for help, as if she had not yet conceded defeat.
They ran four more races at Belmont yesterday after Dr. Neil Cleary administered the fatal injection that would relieve Go for Wand of her misery. One was worth $3 million. But the seventh Breeders' Cup was over at the moment she fell. Racing stopped, at least in spirit, as though it had been stabbed in the heart by a hot knife. Trainer Billy Badgett left the side of his wife of three weeks and rushed to the side of the best filly he ever trained, the best filly he may ever train, for she was truly a once-in-a-lifetime horse. Rose Badgett, who was Go for Wand's exercise rider, stood near the rail at the finish line and wept the tears of one who has seen a friend killed, unable to follow her husband to the filly. She took a few tentative steps toward the crowd of men at the rear of the horse ambulance, stopped and lowered her face into her hands. There still was weeping to do in the midst of turmoil.
The group at the rail before which Go for Wand stood in the final moments of her life fell into shock, which yielded to almost a tear-stained, speechless anger. How could a fate so terrible befall a filly so special, a New York filly performing before those who appreciated her most, who sent her to the post a 3-5 favorite against an older champion from California? And why on this day? Why on this brilliant autumn afternoon graced by the ultimate in equine competition?
"She was going great," said Romero, who was not injured but was shaken visibly by the loss of the filly he rode in each of 10 victories in 13 races. "She was giving it her all. She was in front and when I slapped her she was digging in . . . and her leg just snapped. She was a great filly, one of the best of all time."
There was no triumphant celebration for Ron McAnally, who trains Bayakoa. Tears were in his eyes as he awaited his mare's return to the winner's circle. His lower lip quivered. The words that his wife, Debby, spoke before he left their box for a hollow observance in the winner's enclosure haunted him. "They give their lives," she said, "for our enjoyment."
"I can't cope with this," McAnally said, choking on the words. "That other filly . . . "
Badgett returned, his stare fixed straight ahead, his eyes red, and with his wife strode purposefully past television cameras, photographers and reporters, through the tunnel that leads to the saddling paddock and through the gate. "I just can't say anything" were the only words that came from the man who felt the loss most deeply, even more than Jane duPont Lunger, who owned and bred Go for Wand. Badgett had guided the filly from greenness to greatness, virtually lived with her, and lost her forever in the Belmont stretch. There were no words.
The record will show that Colonial Waters ran second, 6 3/4 lengths behind Bayakoa. Valay Maid was third and the time for 1 1/8 miles was 1:49 1/5. Bayakoa paid $4.20 and earned $450,000 for owners Frank and Jan Whitham. She is the first repeat winner of the Breeders' Cup Distaff and secured her second Eclipse Award as champion older female. In every respect, she is a deserving champion. She saw what would have been her finest hour virtually erased by the outpouring of emotion for her fallen rival.
"I'll remember her winning the Alabama at Saratoga, the Maskette and the Beldame," someone said in the winner's enclosure as the ambulance carrying Go for Wand's corpse passed. "Not this way."