Even on one of the saddest days in racing history, there were uplifting moments, though they were all but lost in the gloom that surrounded Breeders' Cup VII. Only 30 or so minutes after the death of Go For Wand, Lester Piggott, the legendary English jockey, completed a wildly improbable comeback to racing, at the age of 54, by riding Royal Academy to a splendid come-from-behind victory in the $1 million Mile.
Asked how it felt to win such an important race after a five-year absence, which included a year spent in an English prison for income-tax evasion, Piggott smiled a wrinkled smile and said, puckishly, "I looked pretty good, didn't I?"
He did, indeed, but no better than Meadow Star had looked earlier in the day while winning the $1 million Juvenile Fillies to run her record to a snappy 7 for 7 and set up the possibility that she might take a crack at next year's Kentucky Derby. However, the really good news about her five-length victory was that her owner, Carl Icahn, the board chairman of TWA, has pledged all her earnings to the Children's Rescue Fund, a New York-based charity dedicated to helping homeless and abused children. Meadow Star's share of the purse was a tidy $450,000, which raised her career earnings to almost $1 million, some of which is already being used to build a 65-unit project in the Bronx for homeless children.
Meadow Star's jockey, Jose Santos, had a scary moment in the first Breeders' Cup race, the Sprint, when his mount, Shaker Knit, fell over the colt Mr. Nickerson, who had collapsed and died. After winning the next race with Meadow Star, Santos said, "My back hurts a little bit, but this makes it feel better." He also won the Juvenile with Fly So Free, making him the only jockey to win two Cup races. Even so, he was upstaged by Piggott in the Mile.
To put it into perspective for American fans, Piggott is the Bill Shoemaker of European racing, with a touch of Pete Rose tossed in, considering his tax troubles and jail time. Before retiring in 1985, Piggott had been Europe's dominant rider for two decades, winning a career total of 4,389 races, including every major stakes race. Many of his best mounts were trained by Ireland's Vincent O'Brien, affectionately known as "The Wizard of Tipperary" for his work with such champions as Nijinsky and The Minstrel.
O'Brien was instrumental in Piggott's decision, made only two weeks ago, to see if there was any of the old magic left. "There was a veterans' race at the Curragh," said O'Brien's son, Charles, who saddled Royal Academy. "Lester rode one of our horses in that race and mentioned that he was interested in riding again, so my father encouraged him." He not only encouraged him, he also expressed the ultimate confidence in Piggott by tapping him to ride Royal Academy in the Mile after the colt's regular rider, John Reid, was injured.
After getting off to a slow start and having to swing wide on the turn for home, Royal Academy came barreling down the stretch under strong righthanded whipping by Piggott and overtook the leaders in the final strides to win by a neck. "It's a dream come true," Piggott said afterward.
It was, indeed, and it came just when racing badly needed a reminder that dreams, not nightmares, are what the sport is all about.
Britain's Piggott (far left) returned to racing in style, winning the Mile on Royal Academy.