The North American racing year consists of some 69,000 races, of which 84 are Grade I, meaning they are the very best and should draw the finest runners. Rarely are two Grade I races run on the same day at the same track, but each year at Belmont Park, on an early October Saturday, the Champagne Stakes for 2-year-olds and the Jockey Club Gold Cup for older horses are contested. Usually it's a day of celebration, a day when a young horse steps forward to become the favorite for the classics of the following spring, a day a more mature horse can lay claim to the title of Horse of the Year.
Last Saturday at Belmont, however, a crowd of 27,311, plus millions of television viewers, saw a horror show unique in the annals of Grade I racing. Four entries fell less than a half-mile from the finish of the 1½-mile, $563,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup, strewing jockeys and horses across the track.
The favorite was Timely Writer, a horse to build dreams on. He had been purchased as a yearling for $13,500, and on Oct. 10, 1981 he had run a marvelous race in the Champagne Stakes, winning just as he pleased by 4¾ lengths. Owned by Peter and Francis Martin, two butchers from Boston, Timely Writer became a very popular colt, not only because he was a bargain-basement buy in a market saturated by overpriced horses, but also because his style of running pleased crowds immensely. He would hang back for much of a race and then come rolling through the stretch to victory. After winning last winter's Flamingo Stakes and Florida Derby, he became the favorite for the Triple Crown races.
Then, in late April, Timely Writer became ill with gastroenteritis and nearly died. Stomach surgery saved the colt's life, but nobody expected that he would race again. In mid-August, however, he returned at Suffolk Downs and won The Yankee Handicap by a half-length; 10 days later he won an allowance race at Saratoga and looked very good doing so. Somehow all the bad times seemed over for him. Timely Writer was back. It even appeared possible that he might go on to dominate the major races of autumn.
His schedule was set. He would run in the one-mile Jerome Handicap, the 1-mile Marlboro Cup and the 1½-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. If Timely Writer won two of those races, he could be Horse of the Year. But again bad luck struck him down. On the morning of the Jerome, a prerace test detected the residue of a drug administered 48 hours before to alleviate coughing. Timely Writer was forced out of the race and thus missed an important prep for the Marlboro Cup. In the Marlboro he finished seventh behind the winner, 4-year-old Lemhi Gold. A week before the Jockey Club Gold Cup, however, Timely Writer ran in a 1‚Öù-mile handicap at Belmont and won by 7½ lengths. Once again, the hard-luck horse was back in business. Trainer Dominic Imprescia felt that his horse was coming up to the Gold Cup perfectly, and his exercise rider reported that he was having trouble slowing the horse down in his morning works. New York horseplayers made Timely Writer the 2-1 favorite to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
It was all in vain. With less than a half mile remaining in the race, Lemhi Gold, the eventual 4½-length victor, was about to take the lead from Island Whirl, with Timely Writer only a couple of lengths behind. Timely was "moving easily, moving good," said his jockey, Jeff Fell, after the race. "I thought he would move to Lemhi Gold and win. But in an instant he went down."
Timely Writer's left foreleg had suddenly shattered and he fell. Immediately, horses and jockeys seemed to fill the air. Long shot Sing Sing hurdled over Timely Writer, stumbled badly and unseated his jockey, Miguel Rivera; 4-year-old Johnny Dance tried to slip by the fallen Timely on the inside, but he smashed into the struggling colt, struck the rail and broke a leg; Khatango was clipped by Timely's legs and also fell. Both Sing Sing and Khatango recovered and, riderless, continued to run, but Timely Writer and Johnny Dance were mortally injured, their left forelegs fragmented almost beyond recognition. Both horses were immediately destroyed on the track by Belmont's chief veterinarian, Dr. James Belden. Peter Martin said, with tears in his eyes, "He was the best horse we ever owned, as good a horse as you're ever likely to see. But he was cursed. He just had to be cursed. How else can anyone explain all the things that happened to him in such a short period of time?"
A half-hour before the Gold Cup tragedy a huge field of 13 showed up for the one-mile, $240,000 Champagne Stakes, hoping to outrun 85-year-old Fred Hooper's Copelan. Not only didn't they beat him, they didn't even get close. "Copelan just pulled me right to the lead," said Jockey Jerry Bailey afterward. "I hit him a couple of times, but that was more to keep myself busy than to shake up the horse." Copelan won by 6½ lengths and is clearly the best of the 2-year-old colts. He has won the Hopeful, the Belmont Futurity and the Champagne Stakes and has earned more than $300,000.
Lemhi Gold's Gold Cup victory sent his earnings for the year to $1,060,375 and once again proved what a versatile performer he is. Earlier this year he won the $300,000 San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita, the most important U.S. grass race. In July he triumphed in the Sword Dancer on grass at Belmont and then won both the Marlboro Cup and Jockey Club Gold Cup on dirt.
Laz Barrera, Lemhi Gold's trainer, has great confidence in his horse's future. "While I feel very sad about what happened in the Gold Cup," he said, "I thought we had the best horse going into the race, and Lemhi Gold was moving to the front when the spill occurred. I would think his win should make him Horse of the Year."
And thus, a beautiful autumn afternoon at Belmont Park became the setting for both triumph and tragedy. Lemhi Gold will go on to race in the Washington D.C. International or in California; Copelan runs next month at the Meadowlands. On Tuesday, Timely Writer was to be buried in the Belmont infield not far from the grave of another hard-luck horse, Ruffian.