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 1:45⅘ 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."
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.
Everywhere, then as on this day, people were wandering in a daze, stunned and grieving, many in tears. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, whose Luthier's Launch had finished fifth in the race, looked at Go for Wand as she lay there, then stepped aside and wept into his hands. "It rips your guts out," Lukas said. As Pincay walked Bayakoa in circles on the racetrack, waiting for the winner's circle ceremonies, McAnally choked on his words. "I can't cope with this," he said.
Jones approached a New York Racing Association veterinarian. "Get it done," Jones told him. "Get it done as quickly and painlessly as possible, but get it done." Workers set up a large blue screen between the filly and the crowds, and Dr. Neil Cleary administered the injection. The filly was gone within a minute. Billy and Rosemary Badgett left the racetrack and returned to the barn. Rosemary was inconsolable. Billy was drifting, lost, groping for words. "I don't know what to do," he said. "I don't know where to go. I'm still in shock. This is unbelievable. Just unbelievable. She was so game."
Dr. Jim Belden, former chief veterinarian for the New York Racing Association, later said that Go for Wand had actually fractured her ankle 12 strides before she went down. "Each step compounded the fracture," he said. "Her momentum, heart and determination carried her those last 12 strides. She sealed her own doom by continuing to run. Had she pulled up and said, 'I ain't gonna run no more,' it might have worked out differently. But that wasn't Go for Wand."
"This was the soundest horse I ever had," Badgett said. "I don't know what's going on. They've had too many horses breaking down here lately. Two broke down in races yesterday. Three yesterday morning, including Gorgeous. That doesn't happen at Belmont Park. Maybe they've got the track too hard or something. I don't know."
Badgett stood in the doorway of his shed. Stall 33, Go for Wand's place, had a clean bed of shavings. The door was open and the webbing clipped to the door, as if awaiting her return. "This is not the way it was supposed to end," he said.