Life on the Backstretch in the Wake of 9/11

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11 it is only appropriate to reprint from my account of the events from a racing perspective following one of the most tragic days in American history, as well as adding new material pertaining to the 2001 Breeders’ Cup. ~ Steve Haskin

Life on the Backstretch in the Wake of 9/11

By Steve Haskin


It was Sunday evening and I, along with my wife and daughter, were flying back to Newark Airport from Lexington, Kentucky after attending John Henry Day at the Kentucky Horse Park, where I and trainer Ron McAnally signed copies of my book on the then 26-year-old legend. As we approached the airport from the north, flying along the Jersey side the Hudson River, I looked out the window and couldn’t help but be awestruck at the sight of the World Trade Center’s twin towers glistening like diamonds in the evening sun. I called Joan and Mandy to my side of the plane and they too marveled at this dazzling sight. Never before had I seen any structure shine so lustrously. Two days later they were gone.

Like everyone I was shaken and angry, and still numb from the cataclysmic events of September 11 that still seemed surreal several days later. But I was still a writer and almost three years into my job as Senior Correspondent and head writer for Blood-Horse publications. So that Saturday morning, September 15, I decided to drive to the Belmont Park backstretch, a diverse world unto itself, and see how the people, the horses, and the sport were coping with the disaster and how it affected life within its gates.

Although many have read this first part since I first posted it 20 years ago, it is still good to remind racing fans on this anniversary what it was like back then, especially with the Breeders’ Cup scheduled to be run at Belmont Park only 46 days later.

View From the Verrazano

Driving over the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn on the morning of Sept. 15, it was apparent why the New York Racing Association decided at the last minute to cancel racing until Sept. 19. Any thoughts of Belmont Park or Thoroughbred racing were obliterated by the sight of the now-naked skyline of Lower Manhattan off to the left and the deathly shroud that still hung over it.

The Statue of Liberty, once nestled under the shadow of the World Trade Center’s twin towers, now stood under an ominous ashen cloud that stretched across New York Harbor all the way to New Jersey.

After the initial shock of seeing nothing where the twin towers used to stand, one had to marvel at how the mighty city could have both its arms ripped out and still retain its ability to embrace.

Throughout New York, millions of hands linked to form an unbreakable chain. And beneath that gaping space where the World Trade Center once filled the sky, many of those hands scraped and clawed through tons of steel, oblivious to the crippled structures standing precariously above them.

With pride and sadness competing for dominance in the mind and heart, there was little room left for celebrations other than the discovery of life among the ruins. So, NYRA officials decided at 10 a.m. Friday that the cheers and the trophies could wait. Thoroughbred racing, like most everything now, is a mere speck against the cataclysmic events of Sept. 11, and New Yorkers were not quite ready for any diversions to take their mind off the horrific wounds they, and all Americans, had suffered.

But life did go on at Belmont Saturday morning, as horses and horsemen went about their daily chores. Unlike other athletes across the country, Thoroughbreds have been oblivious to the darkest day in American history. There were no billowing black clouds of smoke or haunting images to obscure their view. They still saw the same wide open spaces before them and felt the same crisp breezes blowing in their face. And on Wednesday, when Belmont reopens, just maybe, for a few hours, they will be able to help people see and feel something beautiful again after a week of unspeakable anguish.

“We understand we need to get back to normal and basically get on with our lives, but unlike the other tracks that are racing, we’re just so close to it,” NYRA president Terry Meyocks said. “There’s so much tension around here, we felt it wasn’t in the best interest of New York to conduct racing so quickly. We were going to race, but then baseball, football, golf, and NASCAR all canceled, and Friday was proclaimed a day of mourning. We’ve developed a good rapport with the communities over the years, and we realized that there’s a lot more to life than racing this weekend. It just wasn’t the right thing to do. The employees and the horsemen are still pretty somber, and this will give them another weekend to be with friends and family.”

All around Belmont were sights and sounds that continued to pummel Tuesday’s disaster into our psyche. On the Belt Parkway, just outside the gates of Aqueduct, a funeral procession headed east, escorted by two police cars and a fire engine, strongly suggesting it was for one of the deceased firefighters. On the Staten Island Expressway, another police car escorted a dump truck, filled with debris, to the Great Kills dump.

At the Belmont stable gate, a sign was tucked into the window of the booth, showing the American flag, with the words “Pray For America.” Media pins no longer wielded the same authority as before. “I can get that in a box of Cracker Jacks,” the security guard said. “Let me see the ID number on the back.” The guard, who wished to remain anonymous, later said, “You can imagine what it’s been like around here. It’s pretty morbid. But everyone has been showing solidarity. Everyone is proud to be an American. A lot of people were very upset when they originally announced they were going to race.”

Tony Pittelli, a security guard directing traffic inside the backstretch, was happy to see planes flying overhead once again. “The mood hasn’t been too good,” he said. “One of my sons lost his sister-in-law, and one of the riders here lost his son-in-law. His daughter and son-in-law had been married for two years and have a one-year-old baby. Unbelievable. It’s just terrible.”

Buzz Tenney, assistant to Shug McGaughey, can’t believe how quiet the backstretch has been. “It feels like it does when a meet is over and you’re just hanging around waiting to move to the next track,” he said. “We’re all going through our work, but there’s been only one topic of conversation.”

As Tenney spoke, Tiznow, who has been stabled in their barn, walked down the shed with Ramon Arciga aboard. Last year’s Horse of the Year, has been unable to return home to California following his third-place finish in the Sept. 8 Woodward Stakes. “We’re stuck here,” Arciga said. “We were supposed to have left Wednesday, then again on Friday. Now they say Tuesday, but we’re not sure when we’ll be leaving.”

One barn that has been affected in a much different way is the Godolphin stable of Sheikh Mohammed. The Godolphin grooms are all Pakistanis, and they have been 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. But we’re all holding up very well.”

Another trainer, Bobby Frankel, was scheduled to return to California on Monday, following You’s appearance in Sunday’s Matron Stakes. “It’s tough getting a commercial flight, so I’ll stay through the week and leave after I run Squirtle Squirt in the Vosburgh Saturday,” he said. Frankel ran into racing secretary Mike Lakow, who was driving out of the stable area, and said about canceling the races, “You definitely did the right thing.”

Neil Howard, who had entered Secret Status in Saturday’s Ruffian Handicap, was also forced to remain in New York. He had originally been scheduled to fly out of LaGuardia to Louisville on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. “I’ll just stay here for a while, and point Secret Status for the Beldame. Even if we had won the Ruffian, how can you go in the winner’s circle and act happy?”

One person who has been doing everything he can to offer assistance is veterinarian Russell Cohen, who purchased two dozen work gloves from True Value and several cases of soda, then brought them to the fire house on 48th Street and Seventh Avenue, which had lost 14 firefighters – one third of its entire crew. He also brought other goods to a police precinct in the Bronx. From 48th Street, he walked down to Canal Street, offering his services in case the police needed any assistance with their horses.

“There’s nothing much we can do, but every little bit helps,” Cohen said. “I’ve done work for the ASPCA before, and was on the Animal Planet (network) once, so a lot of the people know me. I just found out that one horse owner, a member of a syndicate, was killed at the World Trade Center. And there’s probably more that we don’t know about.”

So, Belmont Park sits back and quietly waits for the country to return to some sense of normalcy. Because of the timing factor, four of the five stakes scheduled this weekend have been canceled, while the Jerome Handicap will be run next Saturday.

Returning back over the Verrazano, smoke from newly ignited fires continued to rise from the ashes of Lower Manhattan, adding to the hell-like conditions. But beneath the smoke, the Statue of Liberty could be seen, still sparkling like an emerald in the morning sun. Uptown, the Empire State building still stood as tall as ever, with both iconic symbols of New York City reminding us that there is still a great powerful city out there waiting to get on with its life.

A Breeders’ Cup Unlike Any Other

Weeks later, America, especially New York City, was still in shock over the catastrophic events of 9/11, and there was talk about many of the Europeans not showing up for the Breeders’ Cup, whose officials, along with the New York Racing Association, was trying to figure out a way to stage the event under adverse conditions never before seen or even imagined. But Ballydoyle trainer Aidan O’Brien assured the Breeders’ Cup that he’d be there with his powerful arsenal.

The first surreal sight came at JFK International Airport on Oct. 11 when Sheikh Mohammed’s private 747 jet, which had departed Stanstead Airport in England at 1:30 p.m., touched down at the Saudi Arabian cargo terminal. 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 were two FBI agents, four customs agents, and three carloads of Port Authority police. The horses, under the car of head assistant Tom Albertrani, were vanned to Belmont, joining the other Godolphin horses.

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 Stakes, alone valued at $65 million. Also on board were the brilliant undefeated 2-year-old 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 French-trained horses — Banks Hill, Spring Oak, and Slew the Red, all trained by Andre Fabre in Chantilly.

This three-pronged European force was the strongest and deepest ever sent to the Breeders’ Cup.

On Oct. 24, the morning of the entries, Godolphin sent shock waves rippling through the backstretch when it was announced that Fantastic Light would run in the Turf and Sakhee would go for the Classic in an attempt to climb Mt. Olympus and enter the pantheon of greats.

Breeders’ Cup 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.”

Alastair Donald of the International Racing Bureau was expecting a big day from the powerful European brigade. “If we get our asses kicked, we’ll have to think up some good excuses,” he said.

By the time the Classic rolled around, America was a heartbeat away from being embarrassed by the European horses, and a defeat would have been an ignominious end to the 2001 Breeders’ Cup. First, it was a thrashing from the French in the Filly & Mare Turf by Banks Hill. Then, it was the Irish who decimated the American youngsters in the Juvenile, as Johannesburg burst clear to win going away. Adding insult to injury, the Turf then went to Godolphin’s Fantastic Light, trained in England.

With an Arab-owned horse having won the second biggest Breeders’ Cup race, it was up to horses like Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Aptitude and Tiznow and Albert the Great, who both would have to rebound off disappointing efforts in order to close out the event with a much-needed victory for America in the Classic.

But after making a big sweeping move on the far turn, Apitude began to falter. It was now up to Tiznow and Albert the Great. At the top of the stretch, however, it was another Godolphin horse, Sakhee, who came charging up on the outside, having all the momentum. Albert the Great tried to battle back but it was apparent he had fired his best shot. It was now all up to Tiznow, who was between the two in third and still in the mix. But that fire from the previous year seemed to be gone, especially coming off two uncharacteristic defeats. Plagued by severe back problems and behavioral issues in the mornings, this was not the same tenacious fighter we had seen the previous year.

Sakhee gained a narrow advantage and looked as if he were on his way to a sure victory. With immortality a mere furlong away, he reached back to deal the fatal blow. But then something happened, something we’d seen before. A desperate Chris McCarron hit Tiznow once left-handed and the colt surged forward. Right before everyone’s eyes, last year’s Superman again took on the role of superhero, just as he had in the previous year’s Classic when another European powerhouse, Giant’s Causeway, one of the gutsiest horses seen in Europe in many years, dared to challenge America’s dominance on dirt. No matter how hard he tried he could not get by Tiznow, who prevailed by a neck.

Now, in the blink of an eye, that Tiznow was back; his problems behind him. All he needed was an opponent, apparently a foreign invader, to re-ignite the fire in his eyes. One look at Sakhee about to deal America it’s most crushing defeat and Tiznow reached down into that indefinable reservoir we call heart, and in the shadow of the wire was able to snatch victory away from Sakhee. America, for a fleeting instant, at least in the realm of horse racing, was as she was before Sept. 11– untainted and impenetrable. The nation’s fighting spirit that emerged in the face of disaster had manifested itself in the form of a magnificent, powerful Thoroughbred who simply refused to be defeated.

It is now 20 years later. The 24-year-old Tiznow has been retired from stud duty, but is still represented by major stakes winners and dams and sires of major stakes winners. And we are about to embark on another Breeders’ Cup, this year at Del Mar.

But first and foremost it is a time to remember all the heroes, living and dead, who sacrificed their lives and their health to save thousands of others, and also those who lost their lives so senselessly on a gorgeous, cloudless September morning.

And in our own little realm of Thoroughbred racing, we must remember the sport we love and a gallant warrior named Tiznow for shining even a dim light on a world that had turned dark.

Photo courtesy of Racingfotos


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