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Go for wand was lying on the racetrack near the winner's circle, her eyes showing panic and rimmed with white, when all at once she stopped struggling and was motionless, except for the rapid rising and falling of her sides, like a bellows.
Outrider Steve Erck was kneeling at Go for Wand's head, his right knee pressed into her neck so that she could not rise, while a woman, crying hysterically, pleaded with him from behind a fence a few feet away: "Help her.... Please help her...." It was chilly in the shade at Belmont Park, and steam rose from the filly's moist, perspiring flank. Erck stroked the 3-year-old's neck and face, and then he reached over and patted her on the nose. "Easy, girl," Erck murmured. "Just relax. It will just be a few minutes now. It'll be over soon."
Trainer Billy Badgett's face was ashen as he stared down at his filly. Her right foreleg, from the ankle down, was broken so badly it was bent upward, like the toe of a ski. Badgett knew what had to be done. He turned his back to the scene, and his eyes rolled up as he walked away. "Damn!" he said. Badgett's bride of three weeks, Rosemary, who is Go for Wand's exercise rider, broke down and cried when she saw what had happened. "My baby," she wept. "Look at my baby.... I can't believe this is even happening."
Indeed, on Breeders' Cup day last Saturday at New York's Belmont Park, an afternoon given over to celebrating the strongest and swiftest performers in thoroughbred racing, the event that everyone had been waiting for, the match between the two best females in the land, champions Go for Wand and Bayakoa, turned into a nightmare, a horror that left horsemen and horseplayers alike weeping openly. Just a few minutes earlier, as she was leading Bayakoa by a head at the 16th pole, with only 110 yards to go in the Distaff, Go for Wand suddenly stumbled. She pitched forward onto her knees, catapulting jockey Randy Romero over her head, and then did a somersault, ending up on her back, half under the inside rail, her feet Hailing in the air as she struggled to turn over. Finally she righted herself and, as if trying to run away from the pain in her shattered leg, she staggered across the track on three legs and nearly fell. The crowd of 51,000 gasped, some averting their eyes while others watched in stony silence, frozen by the horror of the spectacle. Hundreds of fans pressed against the grandstand apron's rail, trying to get near her as Erck caressed her and, finally, as a track veterinarian put her to sleep with a lethal injection.
The Breeders' Cup series of seven races, each with a purse worth at least $1 million, had begun ominously earlier in the afternoon. In the six-furlong Sprint, one of the fastest racehorses in New York, Mr. Nickerson, apparently suffered a heart attack while racing into the far turn. He collapsed directly in front of Shaker Knit, who fell over the dying horse. Jockey Chris Antley, on Mr. Nickerson, suffered a broken clavicle. Shaker Knit's jockey, Jose Santos, was unhurt, but his mount, who sustained a severe spinal injury in the spill, was later destroyed. As if that tragedy weren't enough, the finish of the Sprint was among the most bizarre ever seen in a major stakes event. The fastest sprinter to come out of England in a decade, a burly bullet named Dayjur, had a neck lead over America's champion sprinter of last year, the filly Safely Kept, when he jumped a shadow about 50 yards from the finish. That cost him the lead and, most likely, the race.
Mr. Nickerson was one of the most popular campaigners in New York, and his death left many horseplayers reminiscing sadly about his tenacious stakes victories this year. Go for Wand's death was profoundly shocking, coming as it did at the end of a slow, poignant drama played out in front of the grandstand, in full view of national television cameras and within sight and sound of the crowds. And on this calamitous day the other Breeders' Cup races smacked of sorry anticlimax. Even Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled's heart-thumping, come-from-behind victory in the $3 million Classic, a performance that surely made him 3-year-old of the year and won him some support for Horse of the Year, had a painful afterglow about it because of what had gone before.
The Classic is usually the premier event on the Breeders' Cup card, the richest and most keenly anticipated of the races. But this year, higher expectations attached to the prospect of Go for Wand's battling the 6-year-old Bayakoa for the nine furlongs of the $1 million Distaff. Gorgeous, a gifted 4-year-old, was also given a solid shot to win, but she suffered a bone chip in her left knee on the eve of the race and had to be withdrawn. That left the Distaff a virtual match race between Go for Wand and Bayakoa, two superb females with exceptional speed and aggressive running styles.
Go for Wand was the darling of New York, last year's champion juvenile filly and the winner of $824,948 and seven of eight races this year, including six Grade I stakes. At Saratoga she set one stakes record and tied another, and in her last start, on Oct. 7 in the Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park, she was absolutely brilliant in crushing older mares over nine furlongs to win by almost five lengths in a blazing 1:45[4/5], only two fifths of a second off Secretariat's track record. She had the 3-year-old filly championship wrapped up, of course, and some Eclipse Award voters were saying they would pick her as Horse of the Year if she beat Bayakoa in the Distaff. Badgett actually considered running her against males in the Classic, but he backed away when that field filled with 14 horses; he feared she would get stuck in an outside post position and be knocked around by the older males.
"I didn't want to run her against 13 horses," Badgett said a few days before the Breeders' Cup. "She's only a three-year-old filly. We want to run her next year. We didn't want to jeopardize her with one race." Besides, the filly's 76-year-old owner and breeder, Jane du Pont Lunger, preferred the Distaff. "She's from the old school," Badgett says. "Don't run fillies against colts."
Bayakoa would be more than enough to handle. She is a crooked-legged, parrot-mouthed, off-bred mare who reigns as the queen of California racing. She was last year's champion older female—the winner of the Breeders' Cup Distaff last fall—and made her claim for a second Eclipse Award on Oct. 6 when she whipped Gorgeous to win the nine-furlong Spinster Stakes at Keeneland by three lengths, in 1:47 flat, just a tick off the track record. The winner of $784,407 this year and six of nine races, four of them Grade I stakes, she is one of the toughest, gamest female runners in years. "She is a hypertense mare. The cool weather should help calm her down," trainer Ron McAnally said before the race. "She's probably as good right now as she has ever been."