Secretariat

Invasor – A Life Changing Horse

I am not a collector of memorabilia and have never purchased a single item…until now. When two of the shoes worn by Invasor in the Suburban Handicap came up for sale on eBay from the extensive collection of the Estate of Julie Albright, I approached my friend and fellow Invasor lover Dianne Boothe and mentioned to her I would be willing to go half with her on the pair of shoes. The bidding kept increasing in the final minutes, but a savvy Dianne got the last bid in right at the buzzer and we had our shoes. To understand why these particular shoes were so important to me, you have to read the column to discover the importance of Invasor in my life and learn of his amazing journey that brought us together in such a profound way. ~ Steve Haskin

Invasor – A Life Changing Horse

By Steve Haskin

There are many ways a horse can make an impact on your life. I can think of Damascus, who paved my way into the new and exciting world of Thoroughbred racing and became my newest sports hero replacing every two-legged athlete I had ever idolized. The path that Damascus paved would not only dramatically change my life, but save it in so many ways. I can think of Graustark, whose brief racing career was before my time, but, along with Damascus, was the favorite horse of the person who introduced me to the Sport of Kings, so both became my favorites. When I applied for a job at the old Morning Telegraph and was rejected because of my inability to type, if I hadn’t asked for a copy of Graustark’s past performances and met the head librarian, who eventually took me in as his assistant, I never would have been hired and would have continued on my path to nowhere.

In 1969, there was Arts and Letters and Gallant Bloom who helped me get through a bleak year of unemployment and no hope for the future. They both provided me with an escape from the harsh realities of being a lost 22 year old with no skills. Later that year I was hired as a copy boy at the Morning Telegraph as a stepping stone to becoming assistant librarian.

So, as you can see it was Damascus, Graustark, Arts and Letters, and Gallant Bloom who in their own way joined forces to change my life and open the portal to another world and all the miracles I would encounter there, such as my beautiful wife of 40 years, my amazing daughter, my precious grandson, and a career that reached far beyond my wildest imagination. None of it would have happened without horse racing.

I am not putting Invasor in this elite company, but that doesn’t mean he did not have an impact on my life, as well as the lives of my wife and daughter. I first was introduced to Invasor when I covered his victory in the Suburban Handicap for The Blood-Horse. All I knew was that he was the undefeated Uruguayan Triple Crown winner who had been purchased by Shadwell and brought to America, where he captured the Pimlico Special in his U.S. debut. After the Suburban, I became captivated by Invasor’s story. As he moved closer to the Breeders’ Cup Classic after winning the Whitney, I began researching him extensively, making several connections in Uruguay, mainly his former co-owner Pablo Hernandez, racing historian Luis Costa Baleta, and one of the country’s leading owner-breeders, Ariel Gianola, all of whom I e-mailed with on a regular basis.

By the time the Breeders’ Cup rolled around, I knew everything about the horse and had become very close to my new Uruguayan friends. I do admit, however, I had to look at a map of South America to find out the location of Uruguay, which was no more than a tiny appendage hanging off the southern tip of Brazil, across the Rio de la Plata from Argentina.

Pablo Hernandez and a group of Uruguayans journeyed to Churchill Downs for the Breeders’ Cup, and when Invasor upset the heavy favorite Bernardini in the Classic it was pure bedlam in the winner’s circle, and when Pablo, disheveled and delirious with excitement, saw me he hugged me like I was the long lost brother he hadn’t seen in years. He had me pose with the group, along with media members from Argentina where Invasor was bred, for a photo as they waved the Uruguayan flag, continuously shouting “Een-vah-SOR!”

“This is unbelievable,” Pablo 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.”

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, also 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.”

I remained in contact with my new friends from Uruguay for the remainder of Invasor’s career, which included victories in the Donn Handicap and Dubai World Cup before an injury forced his retirement with six consecutive Grade 1 victories and a Horse of the Year title to his credit.

Later in 2007, I was contacted by Luis Costa Baleta, affectionately known as Panchito, inviting me and my family to come to Uruguay as guest of The Uruguayan Jockey Club. We would spend 12 days there, culminating with the country’s biggest race, the Gran Premio Jose Pedro Ramirez. I was no longer the adventuresome lad of my youth who had traveled to England, Ireland, France, and Dubai, and had no desire to partake in such a long journey, but my wife and daughter were so excited by it I had no choice but to capitulate and embark on the journey.

We now fast forward to the night of the Ramirez. The strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” blared over the public address system, as jockey Carlos Mendez, aboard the Ramírez winner Rock Ascot, stood up in the saddle, flung his arms up in victory, and tossed rose petals from the victory blanket in the air. The massive crowd at Maroñas Racetrack let out a mighty roar to salute the victors.

With the music still resounding throughout the track, the winning connections—owner, breeder, trainer, and jockey and their friends and families—were driven in antique automobiles to the makeshift winner’s podium on the track in front of the grandstand. Alongside the podium was a mounted military band in decorative uniforms and cascos (headgear) playing drums, bugles, tubas, and other instruments.

With the fans still applauding and taking pictures, the winners were presented their trophies. Standing along the rail, my wife and daughter and I were engulfed by the cheers, the music, and the on-track festivities. It was at this point that my daughter said, “All that’s missing are fireworks.”

Sure enough, seconds later, an explosion of fireworks from behind the podium lit up the darkening blue sky that had already become illuminated by the lights of the racetrack. It was a moment that was both spectacular and surreal—a fitting conclusion to a magical day that saw skydivers rain down on the racetrack carrying banners and flags. The spectacle of Ramírez day was all too real. The surrealism was due in part to the fact that we were in Uruguay, the country whose location I had to look up on a map.

Our trip included visits to the Riviera-like resort of Punta del Este, where the rich and famous congregate each summer; the amazing Casapueblo, where nature and art meet to form a kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and images nestled along Uruguay’s tranquil coastline; and the historic, charming town of Colonia, where you can see spectacular sunsets and the lights from Buenos Aires across the Rio del la Plata that separates Uruguay and Argentina. Our home base, the capital city of Montevideo, has miles and miles of beaches that come alive each day with people jogging, walking, riding bicycles, and strolling with their dogs along the palm tree-lined Rambla. Joan and Mandy looked forward to walking to the beach every morning while I sat on the Rambla people watching. With Uruguay being populated by so many people of European descent you could very well feel as if you are in Miami Beach rather than South America.

During our stay, I was treated like a rock star. I gave a seminar at Maronas Racetrack that was later shown on the evening news, was interviewed by ESPN South America, presented the trophy for one of undercard stakes, was given tours of the top breeding farms, where they rolled out the red carpet for us, preparing amazing feasts, and stayed at the finest five-star hotels. Every want and need was taken care of. We also visited the small stable where Invasor resided, which was located right in the middle of the neighborhood surrounding Maronas. Panchito, who seemed to know everyone in the racing community, served as our guide.

It was at some point during the trip that it hit me. Everything I was experiencing was due to one horse. It was through my articles on Invasor and the contacts I had made in Uruguay that all of this was made possible.

It was a joy to witness the passion for the horse and the sport 6,000 miles away in a small country most Americans know little or nothing about. When racing ceased for 10 years in Uruguay because of economic reasons, and there was no pari-mutuel wagering or purse money, the owners still raced their horses just for the sport of it. Although located in a poor neighborhood, Maronas, with its white cement walls, is looked upon as a shrine by the local residents, who would never desecrate it in any way. Inside those white walls is one of the most well-kept, picturesque, and modern racetracks you’ll see anywhere, complete with a high-tech simulcasting facility and even supervised play areas for younger and older children. As you walk through the ornate main entrance and into the beautiful lobby, there in front of you is a bust of Invasor.

To truly appreciate this story, however, you have to know something about Invasor and his remarkable journey that eventually brought us together.

Pablo 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,” he 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 renamed 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,” Pablo 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.

In December 2005, after sweeping the Uruguayan Triple Crown in brilliant fashion, Hernandez was contacted by Shadwell, wanting to buy Invasor and fly him to Dubai, targeting the UAE Derby (UAE-II). Shadwell’s offer was for $1.5 million, which is a great deal of money in Uruguay, considering Invasor’s total earnings there were $114,070. It was Henandez’s hope to run him in the upcoming Gran Premio Jose Pedro Ramirez, for 3-year-olds and up, but Shadwell’s offer was too lucrative to turn down.

“I 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.”

“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.’

Ultimately the deal was finalized and Hernandez came to the realization that Invasor’s future racing conquests would take place in the Shadwell colors.

“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 one 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.

“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.”

So, Invasor was gone, arriving at trainer Kiaran McLaughlin’s barn at Palm Meadows training center in Florida. There to greet him was McLaughlin’s brother (and assistant) Neal and his wife Trish.

Trish, who also is an assistant trainer, recalled that day when a van pulled up to their barn 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 allowance conditions can they find for him. He surely did not look like a stakes horse. But Sheikh Hamdan and his racing manager Rick Nichols wanted to throw him right into the deep water in the Pimlico Special, and that was the beginning of what was to become an extraordinary string of Grade 1 victories.

“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.

Some 10 months later, there was Invasor reunited in victory with his former owner and atop the racing world on two continents. That would become three continents five months later in Dubai.

Early in 2007, I never went to Belmont Park without first stopping in to visit Invasor along with Dianne, who always came with bags of mints. It was during those visits that I discovered what a remarkable horse this was.

As soon as Dianne entered the barn, he knew what was coming. Invasor liked attention and liked being petted, but he also would bite. Somehow, and I may be guilty of anthropomorphism and a touch of romanticism, but he figured out how to avoid one in order to get the other.

As we approached his stall, all Dianne had to do was point to his hay rack. Invasor would reach over and grab a large chunk of hay. After stuffing as much as he could in his mouth, he would freeze in that position, with his mouth still wide open and locked onto the hay rack. He then would turn his eye toward us. As long as you’d pet him he’d remain in that odd position without moving. Once you stopped stroking him, he’d wait a few seconds and either let go of the hay or rip out a hunk and drop it on the floor, indicating he had no desire to eat the hay and was using it almost as a pacifier while being petted.

It seems presumptuous to attempt to interpret a horse’s thought process, so I’ll just conclude by saying this was the most bizarre, almost human-like, behavior I’ve seen from a horse. But we’re all guilty of humanizing animals to a degree.

I never could have imagined how far the bond I formed with Invasor would take me, beginning with the Suburban Handicap. Because of this remarkable animal, I met many people in a faraway land that I now consider close friends. I discovered a new culture, new food, and a new, vibrant world of Thoroughbred racing that rekindled the feelings I had for the sport back in the late 1960s, when all seemed so pure and innocent. But most of all I discovered myself.

I still think of Invasor, and especially Uruguay and sharing such a wondrous experience with my family. And when I do I cannot remove that one thought from my head: it was all because of a horse. Perhaps those are words everyone in the industry should remember.

And now I own one of Invasor’s shoes, with the dirt still on it from that day at Belmont when it all began. Yes, it was my first and only piece of memorabilia, but my collection is complete. I now have a piece of Invasor to go along with the memories.

 

Images courtesy of Breeders’ Cup, Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin, Brian Zipse