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So the Distaff was the race of the day, and until tragedy struck it was the epic race everyone had dreamed it would be. Go for Wand, the 3-5 favorite, dashed to the lead out of Post 2, but Bayakoa quickly joined her on the outside, and the two raced head and head through the first quarter, with Go for Wand a bob in front. They raced as a team down the backside. The filly opened a half-length lead as they passed the five-eighths pole nearing the far turn, but jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. asked Bayakoa for more juice as they made the turn, and the marc, digging down, edged back to within a head of Go for Wand.
Belmont Park was beginning to rock. The two sizzled through six furlongs in 1:10[2/5]. McAnally began chanting under his breath: "Come on! Come on!" Up in the announcer's booth, race caller Tom Durkin's voice rang out: "It's a clash of champions!" Turning for home, Go for Wand poured on more speed, but Bayakoa matched her, stride for agonizing stride, and as the eighth pole loomed in midstretch, Go for Wand inched away again to lead by half a length. She looked as if she had Bayakoa in trouble, but the mare fought back, refusing to yield, and as they neared the 16th pole, she had once again cut Go for Wand's lead to a head. In the grandstand, along the fence near the pole, Badgett strained to see over the crowd as the two horses raced past him. As they rushed past the pole, Go for Wand bobbled once. She grabbed the ground in front of her, as if trying to pick herself up, but then she stumbled again, this time falling to her knees and suddenly spinning, all neck and legs, in the air.
Trainer Mike Freeman was walking toward the paddock and listening to Durkin's call and the rising crescendo of noise when, as if someone had turned off a radio, he could hear nothing. "The place went silent," Freeman says. "Just like that. I knew something had happened."
In the clubhouse box seats, Mrs. Lunger's son-in-law and racing manager, Richie Jones, bolted from his chair and sprinted down the aisle toward the staircase. He was screaming, "Oh, no!" He leaped over the rail onto the track, caught his foot and fell.
As Romero hit the ground, he rolled over and looked up. He saw her mangled leg. "Oh, my god!" he said.
As Badgett watched his filly crash to the ground, he too vaulted over the rail and onto the track. He saw her come to her feet. "Oh, thank god!" Badgett said. "She's all right."
Erck, on his palomino Mikey, was watching the race just past the wire. He saw the filly come to her feet and limp piteously across the track. Erck rode to her side, grabbed her loose left rein and jumped to the ground next to her. Unable to stand, Go for Wand was now on her knees by the outside fence and leaning against Erck. He could see the blood and bone of her dangling right ankle, where the suspensory ligaments had been ruptured and the cannon bone fractured. "I didn't want her fighting and struggling and trying to run off," Erck said. "I didn't want her hobbling around. Also, when horses lie down, they tend to relax." So Erck, standing on Go for Wand's left side, reached across her neck with his right hand, grabbed her nose and pulled the filly over on her side. Then he put his knee on her neck to keep her still.
Jones dashed over to the filly and, seeing the broken foot, put his hands over his ears and reeled back in anguish. Badgett joined him by the filly's side. One look at the injury was enough. "I knew that was it," Badgett said. Turning away, he walked over to Romero, who was lying on a stretcher on the track. The rider, while uninjured, seemed to Badgett to be in shock. "She stepped in a hole, Billy!" Romero cried. "She stepped in a hole."
As he was being loaded into an ambulance, Romero looked at the crowd and raised his right hand in the air, signaling that he was all right. "It was a freaky thing that happened," Romero would say later. "It happened so fast. A 10th of a second, and she was down. I remembered when Ruffian broke down."
Fifteen years ago, on another black afternoon at Belmont Park, the greatest 3-year-old filly of her era, Ruffian, shattered the sesamoid bones in her right foreleg while running head and head with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure in what was billed at the time as the Great Match Race. She was destroyed early the next morning, after unsuccessful surgery, and was buried in the Belmont infield, not 60 yards from where Go for Wand went down. Last Saturday was eerily reminiscent of that Sunday afternoon.