Go for Wand broke down in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Belmont Park; she was euthanized where she lay. Sports Illustrated’s William Nack penned a now-famous article entitled “Requiem at Belmont,” with the lede “ON A CALAMITOUS BREEDERS’ CUP DAY, THE CHAMPION FILLY GO FOR WAND SNAPPED HER RIGHT FORELEG, FELL TO THE TRACK AND HAD TO BE DESTROYED.”
“Calamitous,” indeed: Two other horses died at Belmont that day – Mr. Nickerson, of an apparent heart attack (at four), and Shaker Knit, who suffered “a severe spinal injury” after falling over the dying Mr. Nickerson and was subsequently “destroyed” – yes, they still used that word back then. Anyway, here are excerpts from that piece. (Toward the end, the trainer says, “They’ve had too many horses breaking down here lately. That doesn’t happen at Belmont Park. Maybe they’ve got the track too hard or something.” Sound familiar 30 years later?)
“Requiem at Belmont” (Sports Illustrated, 11/5/90)
“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 flailing 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. …
“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. … 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!’ … As Romero hit the ground, he rolled over and looked up. He saw her mangled leg. ‘Oh, my god!’ he said. …
“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. …
“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.’ …
“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. …
“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.”