For 15 years, a granite memorial in the infield of Belmont Park racetrack has symbolized the tragedy of horse racing. It remembers the filly Ruffian, destroyed after breaking a leg in a match race with Foolish Pleasure. Saturday, when horse racing trotted out its $10-million Breeders' Cup races, that tragedy reappeared. Two other thoroughbreds lost their lives, while a third was in grave condition after the day's races.
Mr. Nickerson, competing in the first race of the day, the three-quarters of a mile Sprint, fell to the track and died due either to a ruptured blood vessel or a heart attack. Shaker Knit, trailing him, collided with the fallen horse and also fell to the track, suffering a spinal injury.
Shaker Knit was in shock Saturday night.
Jockey Jose Santos, aboard Mr. Nickerson, was not injured, but Shaker Knit jockey Chris Antley suffered a broken collarbone when he was thrown.
Less than an hour later, in the Distaff, the third race of the day, the filly Go For Wand suffered ruptured ligaments in her right front ankle as she ran neck-and-neck toward the finish line with Bayakoa.
The 3-year-old horse, a candidate for Horse of the Year, got up briefly after tumbling to the ground and limped around the track in front of the 57,195 in attendance. Sobs and gasps built to a roaring wail from spectators packed near the rail and from owners and trainers watching their horses from the boxes.
Moments later, the horse was taken down out of view of spectators and destroyed by lethal injection.
"It was tragic," said Frank E. Whitham, the owner of Bayakoa, the winner of the Distaff. "I hate for the
owners and the public to see that. It sent a shock wave."
Randy Romero, the rider aboard Go for Wand, was helped from the track but was apparently not injured.
"She was going great," Romero said, remembering the final, tragic trip aboard Go for Wand. "She took a bad step. She just took a bad step and snapped her leg. She was giving it her all. She was in front and, when I slapped her, she was digging in. And her leg just snapped."
Go For Wand was a championship filly, having won an Eclipse award as the best 2-year-old last year and 10 of 12 starts in 1990. She was a shoo-in to win the Eclipse for the best older filly this season and maybe become 1990's Horse of the Year, an award voted by sportswriters.
After the race, Gerald McKeon, president of the New York Racing Association, said he offered to have Go For Wand buried in the infield, next to Ruffian. But the horse's owner, 76-year-old Jane du Pont Lunger, was considering other alternatives.
As one might expect McKeon was put on the defensive about the track, especially since there was a spill in a lesser race earlier in the week. But his defense of the track was supported by most of the race's competitors, jockeys and trainers alike.
"I don't feel like the track had any bearing in the accidents," said jockey Pat Day. As a general rule, jockeys band together and decide not to continue if safety is in question.
That was never considered, Day said. Most jockeys pointed to the fact accidents tend to happen in statistical bunches and that these accidents took place in different parts of the track for different reasons.
That didn't lessen the pain. Ron McAnally, Bayakoa's trainer, looked like anything but a winner as people congratulated him. He simply shook his head, the tears welling.
"This is very emotional," McAnally said. "The whole victory, you know, means little. These horses are giving their lives for our enjoyment. God bless Go For Wand."
Trainers and stable people were openly and in some cases uncontrollably weeping when television cameras caught them near the finish line railing waiting for news from the medical vans clustered on the track. Tony Mitchell, the assistant trainer of Go For Wand, mourned, "It's a disaster area down here."
"It's tough to win this way," jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. said after winning with Bayakoa after Go for Wand tripped and fell. "She was a great filly. I feel sorry for the owner and the jockey."
"What happened," said Debby McAnally, the wife of Bayakoa's trainer, "takes away from the pleasure of winning. It's tragic."
Trainer Billy Badgett and his new bride, Rose _ who were looking forward to their honeymoon after the Breeders' Cup _ were racked with sobs as they watched. Nearby was one of the most somber winner's circle ceremonies ever held.
Mrs. Lunger was shown on national television turning away as Go For Wand fell. Just 10 days earlier she was reveling in her horse's wonderful story at the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, the only owner to attend a pre-entry luncheon.
Mrs. Lunger stayed in her box to watch the rest of the races.
Unbridled won the $3-million Classic in 2:02.36, capping a season where the 3-year-old won the Derby, the Classic, and little else.
In the Classic, Unbridled, with Day aboard, waited until the straight to make his run, then thundered near the rail to overcome Thirty Six Red and held off the fast closing Ibn Bey.
But it will be a while before anyone can appreciate that performance, much less the other races.
"For anyone who saw this and loves horses, it's simply going to take some time before we can look at a horse race in the same way again," said Unbridled's trainer Carl Nafzger.
Lester Piggott, the 11-time English champion jockey who just returned from retirement and a jail term for tax evasion, gave the three-year-old Royal Academy a picture perfect ride in the Mile, moving easily on the outside to a come-from-behind win.
The 54-year-old Piggott, who returned to racing last month, brought favorite Royal Academy quickly through the straight to edge Itsallgreektome by a neck.
Royal Academy was crowded on the inside early in the race, then broke wide to win going away.
"I had a good race, a nice run all the way through," Piggott said.
_ Information from the New York Times and Reuters was used in this report.