Tuesday, October 19, 2010
A 20-Year-Old Blur
LOS ANGELES, October 19, 2010--Picking a favorite Breeders' Cup automatically leads you to deep water, but I'm going to put on my hipboots and stick with the inaugural year, 1984, when Wild Again, the most improbable of winners, outfooted Slew o' Gold and the ill-mannered Gate Dancer to the wire. Less than a length separated the three, a recipe for high drama that was straight from Indiana Jones: A 31-1 blue-collar horse, whose owners paid $360,000 just to get to the dance; Horse of the Year implications; and a lengthy stewards' inquiry into a $3-million dollar race, at the time the richest ever run in North America.
Sadly, the other bookend for this exercise, the worst Breeders' Cup ever run, is too easy of a choice. It was 20 years ago, at a bone-chilling Belmont Park, where three horses died, including Go for Wand, one of the greatest fillies anybody ever saw. Because of Go for Wand's grisly demise, headlines for another day became Unbridled, who beat older horses in the Classic; Royal Academy, ridden by Lester Piggott, nine days shy of his 55th birthday and not long removed from an English prison; and Bayakoa, winner of a second straight Distaff after her stretch duel with Go for Wand turned ugly.
The whole day was a blur for me. The first Breeders' Cup race, the Sprint, was marred when one horse went down and another stumbled over him, even before the field had reached the far turn. Mr. Nickerson, the lead horse, died of a heart attack, and Shaker Knit, who broke his back, was later destroyed. Chris Antley, who rode Mr. Nickerson, was sent to the hospital with a broken collarbone. Dayjur, a French horse, twice jumped shadows near the wire, just when it appeared he had the race won, and Safely Kept beat him by a neck. We all should have known then that this might not be a ho-hum day at the races. Joe Btfsplk, the rainy-cloud character from the Li'l Abner comic strip, would have been at home there.
We didn't have much time to chase down the story about the Sprint when they ran the Distaff. It was billed as perhaps the best race on the card--the Classic, despite the presence of Unbridled, the Kentucky Derby winner, and Go and Go, the Belmont winner, was not an eye-catcher--and featured Bayakoa, the previous year's winner; Go for Wand, who had won 10 of 12 starts; and Gorgeous, who had once beaten Bayakoa. Gorgeous never made it to the starting gate, however, having chipped a knee the day before.
Billy Badgett, who trained Go for Wand, had considered running his filly against males in the Classic. A win there and she would be voted Horse of the Year. But the Classic would have a full field of 14 horses, an imposing task for a young filly, and they started the race at an odd angle, halfway around the first turn. The Distaff was going to be a seven- or eight-horse race and Go for Wand, half the age of Bayakoa, would carry four fewer pounds.
Looking back, there was a lot of Twilight Zone stuff going on before the race. Jane duPont Lunger, the 76-year-old philanthropist who owned Go for Wand, was superstitious. Badgett, as was their custom, would not watch the race with Lunger in her box, but stand in front of a TV monitor in the grandstand. Lunger would wear the same shoes, still mud-stained, that she had worn for a race at Saratoga and every race since then. There were a lot of comparisons between Go for Wand and Ruffian, who was buried in the Belmont infield after her fatal breakdown in a match race against Foolish Pleasure in 1975.
The day of the race, for some reason, Lunger did not wear her lucky shoes. Go for Wand, who had run most of her races in New York, was sent off the 7-10 favorite, the eighth time in 13 races that the punters had made her less than even money. Bayakoa, after 16 straight races as the favorite, was the 11-10 second choice. The odds shot up to 14-1 for the next horse.
The other five horses were only there to fill out the field. The two favorites battled fiercely all the way around, Bayakoa and Laffit Pincay shadowing Go for Wand and Randy Romero, never letting them get more than a half-length ahead. In the stretch, at the eighth pole, Go for Wand was a half-length to the good, and it was assumed, had the tragic misstep not occurred, that she would have pulled away and won. But Pincay said later that Bayakoa still had some gas left in the tank, and his mare was accustomed to looking other horses in the eye without blinking. I'm not sure which of them would have won.
With a sixteenth of a mile left, Go for Wand's right front ankle gave way. She went down near the inner rail, Romero sent flying. He cracked eight ribs and broke his right shoulder, but told everybody he was all right and rode in the Classic, more than two hours later.
Go for Wand tried to get up. Instinctively, she tried to re-launch herself in the direction of the finish line. But all she could do, on three good legs, was stagger diagonally across the track. Steve Erck, an outrider, held her up for a time, but finally he eased her to the ground, near the outside rail. The crowd was reduced to a whisper. There were cries and groans. Badgett and his new wife, Rosemary, who was also the filly's exercise rider, arrived at Go for Wand's side, but they could see that she was too badly injured to be saved. "Humanely destroyed" is the clinical term, one of the biggest misnomers in the language. Nobody's ever asked the horse.
Some fans left the track, having seen enough. Like on a Bataan death march, a small band of us headed for Badgett's barn. It's what you have to do. A guard there told us that the trainer wouldn't be coming out. A second wave of press arrived an hour later, to be told that Badgett had left the track. During these vigils, I hoofed it back to the race track, and along the way someone, trying to be helpful, said: "Lester Piggott won the race." Uh-huh. And so did Unbridled, and his owner was Frances Genter, and she was 92, and wouldn't that have made some story? But not on this day, thank you.