- Minor Philly Park Stake Evokes Memories
Sunday's feature at depressing Philadelphia Park was an ungraded stake offering a modest $37,700 purse. Maiden Specials and NY-bred allowances go for more in the 4th at Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga all year long. But at Philly Park, it was the day's highlight. The 6f handicap for 3 year olds and up ended in a thrilling blanket finish taken by 7 year old Night Caller in a solid 1:09.1. The win for the son of Phone Trick was worth $22,260 for trainer John McCaslin, jockey Orlando Bocachica and owners E & G Stables.
Ordinarily, this result would not be notable to anyone other than the connections and Brotherly Love punters that collected $8.20 on their win slips for the race's third choice. But for me, the fact that the event was The Mr. Nickerson Handicap produced a flood of memories dating back to 1989 and a horse that taught me lessons of thoroughbred racing's triumphs and tragedies.
During a year when track pal Phil and I followed Easy Goer around like groupies, I regularly cashed tickets on "The Nick" on 'big day' NYRA undercards. He piled up increasingly impressive sprint tallies for trainer Mark Reid under Jose Santos, and Mr. Nickerson became a favorite. Through '89 and into his 4 year old season, he began to turn the tables on more heralded rivals in Stakes like the Boojum, Bold Ruler and A Phenomenon, and Mr. Nickerson became my horse.
Because he wasn't really a star, the son of Slewpy appealled to me even more than Goer, Sunday Silence, or even Unbridled (on whom I'd made a pile in the Derby). With his A Phenomenon win at Saratoga in August, Mr. Nickerson looked like a prime Breeders Cup Sprint bet as the fall approached. Reid prepared his charge for a 25th, and final, career start. As the progeny of a Seattle Slew sire and Nashua dam, having won in excess of $500,000 and several black type races, Mr. Nickerson had been lined up for a book of 40 mares in his first season at stud. A BC Sprint win would send him home to Kentucky for his second career as a winner of more than $1,000,000.
The anticipation of attending my first Breeders Cup was gleeful. I handicapped extensively for what I believed would be a glorious day in the grandest setting in racing. My plays were carefully indexed for all 7 events on royal blue trimmed Brooks Brothers stationary cards emblazened with my name and 35th Street Manhattan address. Having thoroughly enjoyed my first serious year of following the races, I was sure that Breeders Cup VII would be a most memorable day. And it was. For all the wrong reasons.
If you weren't at Belmont Park that grey October day, you cannot possibly imagine a more haunting and pall-inducing afternoon at a racetrack. The tragic events unfolded, as they always do in the turf world, suddenly, without warning, and on this day, early and more than once. The Sprint was the first event of the day and Mr. Nickerson, now ridden by Chris Antley, went to the post as the 4th choice of the crowd behind European stars Dayjur and Corwyn Bay, and Dancing Spree. I boxed him with those and Safely Kept, who despite 7 wins in 9 starts that year was ignored at 12-1.
The Sprint is always a frenetic heat, and less than a quarter mile into the race the field was bunched as they headed into the turn. If your eyes aren't trained to where it's happening, you only become aware of an "incident" on the track when the public's collective gasp of horror raises the hair on the back of your neck. Two horses and two jockeys lay on the ground as the field continued its way around. When they passed in front of me at the 1/8 pole and I couldn't find Mr. Nickerson among the passersby, I implicitly understood where he was and could only turn toward the finish line.
As numb as you get at the demise of equine stars, the races continue, and you move forward with them... It's the only thing you can do. As the Sprint frontrunners dueled to the wire, leader Dayjur jumped a shadow on the track twice and lost by a neck to Safely Kept. I had a winning exacta ticket, but turned my attention back to the attendence of "Nick" and Antley, and Shaker Knit and Jose Santos, who had fallen as well. The jocks were badly hurt but survived, the horses did not.
A heart attack had felled Mr. Nickerson, and he and Shaker Knit were destroyed. Antley suffered one of the many serious injuries of his star-crossed riding life and Santos sustained an injury that started a downward spiral in his career which he only recently reversed. I offered a silent appreciation of Mr. Nickerson and tried to press on with the day. After all, there was going to be enough triumphant moments to asuage the sadness of the Sprint tragedy, and minutes later we were treated to a rousing performance by Meadow Star, Carl Icahn and Leroy Jolley's Champion Juvenile filly.
That brought us to the wildly anticipated Distaff, and a moment that any race fan of the period will tell you is equalled in dispair only by those that witnessed Ruffian's death nearly 20 years earlier. 1989's Juvenile Filly Champion Go For Wand had blazed a brilliant trail across racing from the moment she stepped foot on the track. I had celebrated her glorious Alabama victory 2 months earlier at Saratoga on a day in which I cashed my first IRS ticket. Everyone loved her, and she was favored to earn her second Breeders Cup victory over the tough racemare Bayakoa in the 9f challenge.
The pair hooked immediately and sparred all the way around the track, Bayakoa never more than a half a length off Go For Wand's flank. The brave filly's misstep happened right below my vantage point in Belmont's third deck. When she went down, there was a scant second of hope that she might somehow have escaped injury. She rose, turned to try and continue, but collapsed again, her leg shattered. Jockey Randy Romero lay motionless yards away. There was no escaping this "incident". It didn't happen out away from our view like Mr. Nickerson and Shaker Knit's deaths.
I turned away quickly. I could not watch the curtain go up for the end of Go For Wand's life as Bill Badgett's sobbing wife caressed the filly's head. I wandered in under the grandstand and exchanged knowing, head-shaking glances with other stunned patrons, all of us unconcerned at seeing each other with tear-streaked cheeks.
Once again the races had to continue. And there were big scores in the Mile thanks to an exacta of Royal Academy and 39-1 bomb Itsallgreektome, as well as the Classic, courtesy of Unbridled at 7- 1. But as much profit as the day produced, it couldn't possibly counter the loss of innocence about the game that I had possessed when I had entered the building hours earlier. I knew horses broke down, but I had never had one of my favorites die on track, let alone two, like I had witnessed that afternoon.
From that day forward, when the opportunity presents itself to educate the unenlightened on the wonders of the track, a portion of my discourse always includes the generosity and fearlessness of the athletes, equine and human alike, that risk their lives daily for our entertainment. And it's to the credit of racing that there is a Mr. Nickerson Handicap to prompt our memories of days like Breeders Cup 1990 and the exceptional heroes that drive our passion for the sport. Whether it's the 8th race on a Sunday at Philadelphia Park or a featured Grade I at Saratoga like the Go For Wand.