“Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment….”

Alan Jay Lerner

In the midst of an unpredictable global pandemic and a contentious American election, it must seem we have always lived in a troubled, disjointed, binary world. That’s especially true if you are a young person still in your twenties or early thirties.

But if you are of a certain age, you’ll recall it wasn’t always this way. There was a time not so long ago when we still lived in an equally—perhaps even more—troubled world, yet found occasion to unite as a people with a common cause, amid equally stark political differences and social disparities.

I was reminded of that time last month when WinStar Farm announced that Champion Tiznow was being relieved of stallion duty and pensioned at the age of 23 to a life of ease he so richly earned both on the racetrack and in the breeding shed.

The memory of racing fans tends to be bookended: older fans recall Triple Crown winner Secretariat, reigning holder of the record times in all three races, while younger fans thrilled to American Pharaoh’s breaking of the 37-year Triple Crown drought and subsequent “Grand Slam” with his victory in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland.

Foaled in 1997, Tiznow (Cees Tizzy out of Cee’s Song by Seattle Song) is the last living direct connection to the sire line of the great Man O’ War and has enjoyed a spectacular career at stud as the stallion who placed WinStar Farm on the breeder’s map.

The super-sized dark bay was bred in California by Cecilia Straub-Rubens who always referred to him as “my boy.” His most distinctive feature other than his size was a snow-white tornado-shaped blaze.

Tiznow never raced as a two-year-old so he was not in the mix when the 2000 Triple Crown season rolled around. Over a four-year racing career, he won eight of 15 starts, finishing 8-4-2 and earning $6,427,830. Seven of his wins were in graded stakes.

When he began racing in California late as a three-year-old, Tiz, as he came to be called, was trained by Jay Robbins. His regular rider was Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron.

That first season racing as a three-year-old is regarded as his best. He won four consecutive graded stakes races in 2000. One of his runner-up losses came in the Swaps Stakes at the hooves of Captain Steve, a horse saddled by a relatively unknown up-and-coming young California trainer who went by the name Robert A. Baffert.

His fourth graded-stakes victory came in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs over the likes of European Champion Giant’s Causeway, Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, Baffert’s own Captain Steve, later a Dubai World Cup winner, and Albert The Great. That victory earned Tiz dual Eclipse Awards as both Champion Three-Year Old and Horse of the Year.

“Where were you when…?”

Tiznow enjoyed a solid start in 2001. He won the Santa Anita Handicap (G1), “The Big Cap,” and followed with two more wins. But that spring, he became virtually immobile as a result of muscle problems in his back and a “hot” vertebrae.

Trainer Robbins gradually brought him back to graded-racing form, but he was not thought to be the same horse. His return was a disappointing third-place finish in the Woodward Stakes (G1) at Belmont that Sept. 8.

Three days later, the world changed in a way from which it seems it has never fully recovered when terrorists piloted four hijacked passenger planes into the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked plane crashed into a farm field in Somerset County, PA, believed to have been retaken by passengers who lost their lives saving a target thought to be the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

9/11—almost no one now calls it by any other name—was one of those events when anyone who lived through it remembers precisely where they were and what they were doing when they learned about it.

Me? I was enroute to New York City, to Brooklyn to visit friends, after spending the previous year teaching journalism classes at the University of Idaho. Up until that day, the most memorable event for me that year was the untimely cancer death of my beloved Maine Coon cat, Lewis Carroll.

I stopped at a motel in Laramie, Wyoming Saturday night, Sept. 8. I had lived there for several years working as a journalism professor at the University of Wyoming, my first faculty post. I was stopping for two days to catch up with acquaintances and “visit” my storage.

A native Philadelphian, I spent that Sunday resting and watching my Eagles and their young coach, a guy named Andy Reid, battle the team they and their new young quarterback, Donovan McNabb, would eventually lose to that day by a score of 20-17. They would lose later in that year’s NFC Championship game to the same team, the St. Louis Rams.

Still, the long-hapless Eagles played well and I saw a bright future.

Then came Tuesday morning.

Checking out of the motel, The Today Show was being broadcast on the lobby’s overhead television. I paraphrase here a recollection of what I heard as I was leaving. “There is a report of a small plane…,” said then host Katie Couric.

“Checking out,” I said to the desk clerk.

“…possibly crashing into one of the World Trade Center Twin Towers….”

I kind of shook my head and thought “Stupid trainee,” and went on my way.

That night, I stopped at a motel in Iowa—I forget exactly which town. What I do remember is being greeted by what we would now call a “socially distanced” middle-aged Indian clerk. It was night and I was more than a little disheveled, so I understood his solitary caution. But as I checked in, I saw a giant plume of smoke rising in the Manhattan night sky seen from Brooklyn on the lobby television overhead.

“Know what happened?” I asked the desk clerk.

“Some terrorists attacked New York City,” he replied.

I now understood his caution towards me. But my next thought was “My friends?!” In those days, I didn’t carry a newfangled ‘flip phone,’ so I asked if there was a phone I could use to call them. He offered the office desk phone. I called and got no answer.

In my room, I did what every journalist was doing then, flipping channels, copying down information—especially casualty figures—and seeing some of the horrific scenes that, quite frankly, most people have become inured to in the years since.

I finally reached my friends early next morning. Being across the river in Brooklyn, they were unharmed,  but understandably shaken. They said they were up most of the night on their outside roof, transfixed by the scene they saw just across the East River.

They cautioned me not to try to come to the city: the tunnels were closed, bridges were filled with stranded pedestrians walking back to what they hoped was still home. I forged an alternate plan. I decided to return immediately to my eventual destination, Columbia, Missouri where I had attended graduate school. There, a long-procrastinated doctoral dissertation awaited. That procrastination would eventually come to pass; not everything that happened that day was bad or evil.

These unearthed girders became known as the Sept. 11 Cross .UNCREDITED

I later learned the unprecedented nature of several things that happened just the day before:

 An estimated 10,000 planes flying over U.S. airspace when the attack occurred were told to land immediately at the closest available airport; American military jets had been authorized to shoot them down if they failed to comply.

The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, thought invulnerable to destruction, collapsed in on themselves, melted from within by the unaccounted-for heat from burning jet fuel.

The United States for the first time invoked Article Five of the NATO Treaty, obliging all NATO members to come to its military aid.

In the city, thousands of stranded New Yorkers aided the distraught and injured. No one in Lower Manhattan near the site cared about the color of their fellow victims—most were an identical gray, covered entirely by the plume of ash that blew through the streets when the Towers fell.

FDNY and NYPD, fire and police, scurried to the site from all five New York Boroughs. It would be the last 911 emergency for many of them. In the months that followed, people worldwide would don the black-with-white lettering ballcaps and tee-shirts of the FDNY and NYPD in tribute. You can find them in thrift stores today; people too young to remember that time wonder what they are and what they mean.

In the days that followed, after the fires had been doused, construction and iron workers spontaneously arrived at Ground Zero in Manhattan with their tools to help begin the long process of reclaiming the space from devastation.

On the day itself, then-Mayor of the city, Rudy Giuliani, went to the site the day of the attacks. He coordinated operations and consoled victims. He was so present and effective, he would come to be called America’s Mayor. President George W. Bush would arrive in the city a few days later. He had been declared winner of a contentious Presidential election, one reminiscent of the current moment.

Speaking to the thousands of assembled workers, he blared to them through a loudspeaker: “The world hears you!” It was the finest moment of his presidency.

I since have been reminded of my time in Japan when the Kobe Earthquake destroyed large swaths of the port city one January morning in 1996. It happened during the semester break at Japanese Universities. Vacationing students spontaneously showed up at train stations with food, gallons of water, clothing and blankets to distribute among the cities victims now homeless and housed in school gymnasiums.

I was working in Tokyo as a UPI journalist at the time. I wended my own way into the stricken city and spent several days interviewing survivors, photographing the devastation, writing with pen and paper and sending my recollections back to Tokyo by fax. I myself spent several nights in one of those school gymnasiums. I would write about that experience a year later, safely home.

Japan Times 1997 – Kobe Earthquake. ©Richard R. Gross photo and story

There is no need to further remind those who lived through that time of their own memories. We all have a collective memory.

To young people, 9/11 is a history lesson, perhaps a class spent viewing a videotaped documentary on DVD.

The one that most evokes that time for me was a film by Ric Burns, brother of Ken Burns. He had wrapped up his PBS Series on the history of New York City when the attacks occurred. He decided to add a final chapter. It’s entitled “The Center of the World,” the eighth and final episode of the definitive DVD documentary history of New York City from 1624, “New York: A Documentary Film.”

“The Center of the World” is both descriptive and inspirational. I’ve used it many times in journalism classes and still revisit it, usually on the 9/11 anniversary. If you haven’t seen it, you should.

Each time I view it, I’m reminded of something as hopefully true now as it was then: For all our flaws and foibles, people the world over are identical in that most unite to aid our fellows in times of difficulty.

A horse can be more than a horse of course

The world returned to a necessary semblance of normality in the days and weeks that followed 9/11. Sports helped.

In a moment that seems scripted by Hollywood, that year’s Breeders’ Cup was held at Long Island’s Belmont Park. The New York Yankees hosted baseball’s World Series.

I was new to horseracing at the time, like most Americans a “fan” only during Triple Crown season in spring. But everyone needed some diversion and sports was more diverting from the moment’s troubles than most.

Many thought the Breeders’ Cup would be cancelled that year. It was scheduled to run little more than 10 miles from the spot of the smoldering wreckage of the attacks.

Exhibiting the stalwart character so often associated with New Yorkers, Breeders’ Cup president D.G. Van Clief Jr. issued a statement Sept. 18: “Obviously, on the morning of Sept. 11, the world changed, and it certainly changed our outlook on the 2001 World Thoroughbred Championships. But it is very important for us to stay with our plan. We’d like it to be a celebration and salute to the people of New York.”

The feeling of relief was mingled with concern for the safety of racegoers, the city, the country itself. Someone had posted a sign on the Belmont entrance gate with a picture of an American flag: “Pray for America” it read.

Horses barned there could not leave since the airports were closed. There was concern bordering on fear among the Godolphin contingent since its horses were owned by the Maktoum family of Dubai and cared for by young, mostly Pakistani, stable hands. They were cautioned to keep a low profile.

Even Europeans, with their large group of entries that year, could sense the hysteria that had enveloped the country.

Notwithstanding the concern, the event went off in good weather and without issues, equine or personal.

An ardent fan now, I don’t recall the outcome of any of the BC races that year save for one, the Oct. 27 Classic, one of the few that truly lives up to its name. The field for that race certainly did.

Head and withers above the rest was Godolphin’s Sakhee, the runaway winner of the recent Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and stablemate Fantastic Light, winner of major stakes races in five countries and on three continents.

The Godolphins arrived at JFK International from England two weeks earlier on Godolphin owner’s Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum’s private 747 jet. They were greeted at the cargo terminal by FBI and U.S. Customs agents and a small army of New York Port Authority police. They traveled from there to their stable’s Belmont barn.

Aidan O’Brien brought the Ballydoyle cluster, valued by their insurance company at over $200 million in 2001, still the most valuable single shipment of horses in racing history. One horse alone, Galileo, winner of the Irish and English Derby and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes was valued at nearly $70 million.

The American horses appeared overmatched. Point Given was retired, as was Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos. By this time, Tiznow was back home in California, finishing third in the Goodwood Stakes (G2) won by a 40-1 longshot named Freedom Crest. Tiz also had seemed to lose some of the great heart for which he was known. He even would refuse to train.

The only real hope for the U.S. was Aptitude, a son of A.P. Indy and winner of both the G1 Jockey Club and Hollywood Gold Cups.

The real surprise came when Sakhee was entered in the Classic. The decision surprised even Sakhee’s jockey Frankie Dettori. It would be his first race on dirt. Ever the competitor, Sheikh Mohammed sought to grab the Golden Ring, an Arc-BC Classic double. It had never been done.

I could describe the race, but it and the call by Belmont legend Tom Durkin, especially at the finish, have assumed a place in the history of the sport that stands on its own merits.


Spoiler alert! Tiznow would go from a middling 8-1 third choice to the only consecutive repeat winner in history of the BC Classic. He would retire and infuse his determination and heart into nearly 80 stakes winners over more than two decades as a stallion.

That determination and heart helped buoy American determination and heart at a time when both were desperately in need of it. They added up to a resolve and unity of purpose we have difficulty seeing today in a fissured America, indeed anywhere in the world.

The designation “hero” is tossed about casually in our time, but in his own time on the racetrack, Tiznow truly became a hero horse at a time when heroism was grimly symbolized by 3,000 lost lives in a nation rocked by a day of terrorism it had never experienced within its continental shores.

The thought that came to me as I am writing this is that young people who were babies on 9/11 will be eligible to vote in the U.S. today, many for the first time. I thought of how different the first Presidential election ballot they cast came at a time far different from the one I cast at their age.

It is an unsavory comparison.

But also a momentary one. It’s been estimated that turnout in this year’s U.S. Presidential election may be the highest percentage in over a century.

Divided as allegiances and opinions may be, Americans continue to be united by their right to make that still-free choice, one many in the world still envy even amid our own present difficulties.

So, whenever I feel the slightest bit doubtful about the future, I “Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot…for one brief shining moment…”

that was known as…

Belmont Park. Oct. 27, 2001

I’m going to go off and vote now.

Feature image: ©BANAMINE/Flickr CC by SA 2.0