Racing: Belmont stage set for bittersweet Breeders' Cup

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The planes are flying and soon the greatest team event in what is not essentially a team sport will be underway. The Breeders' Cup, which annually throws together the best of Europe against America's finest, gets its 22nd airing on Saturday.

It is, at this time of the year, quite appropriate that we regularly witness fireworks, but nowhere seems to do the pyrotechnics quite as brilliantly as Belmont Park, the New York setting of the series for the fourth time. The last time we were here, in 2001, the Big Apple had just been poisoned. The Breeders' Cup was the first international sporting event in the area since the atrocities of September 11.

The Maktoum brothers, indeed all the Arab owners, deemed it sensible not to attend. But Sheikh Mohammed and the boys had promised that all their prize money would be diverted to the New York disaster fund. Others made similar undertakings. In the event, US$2.7m (£1.92m) was raised, US$2.5m of it from the Maktoums alone.

It transpired that the Dubaian family missed a bittersweet day (a theme which seems to run through Belmont Park Breeders' Cups) as Tempera and Imperial Gesture provided a 1-2 for Godolphin in the Juvenile Fillies, Fantastic Light won the turf before Sakhee was dramatically touched off by Piznow in the Classic.

Johannesburg won the Juvenile for Aidan O'Brien that day and, six years earlier in the same surrounds, Ireland had captured the Mile with Ridgewood Pearl. Little was left to chance. John Oxx's filly was fortified by a phial of Lourdes' water tipped into her bucket and the refreshment worked. Johnny Murtagh returned after a slog through horrible ground brandishing the Ireland tricolour. Yet, for sheer theatre, nothing beats the Breeders' Cup of 15 years ago, the most dramatic day of equine racing in which Charlton Heston was not a participant.

It was the occasion when an old man by the name of Lester Piggott had just returned to the saddle aged 54. Credibility was stretched to snapping point when the Long Fellow also showed he had a long memory by spiriting up some of the old magic to force home Vincent O'Brien's Royal Academy in the Mile.

Luca Cumani, who flew out to the States yesterday lunchtime to supervise this year's Bedford House prospectors in Alkaased and Starcraft, was represented in that Mile by Markofdistinction.

"It was a highly emotional day, with Lester coming back and storming up the straight on Royal Academy, especially as the Americans think they are better than us with their horses and jockeys," the Italian said. "The Americans couldn't believe it. It was a very difficult day with lots of emotions. A day of ups and downs."

Exactly 37 minutes before Piggott had crossed the line Go For Wand, America's foremost filly, had lost a race, the Distaff, and her life. For a mile, as she duelled with the equally outstanding Bayakoa, it was the best race. In an instant, it became the worst.

At the 16th pole, Go For Wand was in front by a head when her right front ankle snapped. Her mangled leg dangled in the chill October air before she collapsed by the outer rail. "It was something you could never ever figure. Not with a horse like that," Rosemary Badgett, the wife of trainer Bill, said. "I wanted to hold her and touch her and then people were pulling me away. I would halfway listen to them and then I'd go back. It was just kind of a blur. She seemed like she was her old self looking up at me like 'Help me, why did this happen?' She seemed as intelligent as ever, knew what was happening and was scared."

Then came the lethal injection. "It took me a while to try to forget the look in her eyes and that scared feeling upset me," Badgett added. "And the reason is I just remember the grunting and the excitement and the galloping and the travelling and the planes. And the way she used to nudge me."

Occasional disaster and, for the Europeans at least, occasional success. It is what the Breeders' Cup is all about. Let the games begin.

Richard Edmondson

Nap: Le Volfoni (Cheltenham 2.45)

NB: Fluorescent

(Yarmouth 1.50)