A day of joy and sorrow

November, 2, 2013
11/02/13
11:06
PM ET

Emotions are never in short supply at an event like the Breeders' Cup.

Saturday, in the 30th edition of horse racing's world championships, the highs and lows of human life may have converged as powerfully as they ever have on the sport's grand stage.

In the day's very first Breeders' Cup race, the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, Secret Compass suffered a fatal leg fracture, tossing Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez to the ground. Initial thoughts were that Velazquez had avoided serious injury, but while he was being examined at a nearby hospital it was discovered that his injuries were so severe he had to undergo emergency surgery to remove his spleen.

Eight more Breeders' Cup races were run under the backdrop of the tragic events that befell both horse and rider, sapping the celebration in one of the day's most anticipated races, the BC Mile, where Jose Lezcano subbed for Velazquez aboard the victorious Wise Dan.

"I'd like everyone to pray for John," Lezcano said after his winning ride on the reigning Horse of the Year. "This not the way you want to pick up a mount."

But then at the very end, perhaps emotions finally turned in a satisfying manner.

The best memory to come out of the 30th Breeders' Cup Classic will no doubt be remembered as fondly as the thriller witnessed in the very first edition of the race, as a gripping three-horse finish in the $5 million Classic ended the day on as heartwarming a note as anyone could ask.

In a finish that saw three horses separated by a nose and then a head, Mucho Macho Man continued the trend started by the Boston Red Sox as he won by, yes, a whisker, holding off the on-coming Travers winner Will Take Charge, with the European challenger Declaration of War settling for third in the epic result.

Game On Dude, who could have clinched Horse of the Year honors with a win in the 1 ¼-mile Classic, instead finished ninth as the 8-5 favorite and may have watched that award slip back into the hands of 2012 recipient Wise Dan.

Yet for all the drama on the racetrack, the win confirmed the strength of the human spirit in a very heroic trainer and a jockey who, at the age of 50, is riding as capably as he did in his prime.

"

This was a tremendous experience to win this race at my age. This is the ultimate feeling. It's the icing on the cake of my career.

" -- Jockey Gary Stevens
Kathy Ritvo just as easily could have passed away in November 2008, when she had a heart transplant. Her career, too, could have come to an end. But she did not allow the adversity that was dealt to her to stop her from caring for the horses she loves so deeply. Each day, she takes 31 pills a day to medicate her heart and moves forward with the kind of courage few possess.

She not only made it back, but in 2011 she trained Mucho Macho Man to a third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. A year ago, Mucho Macho Man finished second in the Classic. On Saturday, her reward came in a race that served as a test for the determined race horse, 50-year-old jockey Gary Stevens and the new heart that now keeps Ritvo alive.

"I'm happier for my horse," said Ritvo, whose charge was the 4-1 second choice in the wagering [$10]. "He deserves it. I'm excited. If I didn't have the support of my family, I wouldn't be here."

Stevens seemed an unlikely participant in a Breeders' Cup celebration as recently as a year ago, when the Hall of Fame jockey was riding out his retirement and working as a television analyst and actor in the short-lived cable series "Luck." A lead actor in the 2003 movie "Seabiscuit," Stevens was forced to call it quits as a rider in 2005 due to bad knees, but he was coaxed back into the saddle this year in part by trainer D. Wayne Lukas, and in May he won the Preakness for Lukas with Oxbow.

On Saturday, in winning his first BC Classic, he ironically finished a nose in front of a horse trained by none other than Lukas.

We said this was an emotional day.

"This was a tremendous experience to win this race at my age," said Stevens, who had not won a Breeders' Cup race since 2000 but notched bookend wins in the BC Distaff and BC Classic in this year's two-day event. "I never expected to be in this situation. This is the ultimate feeling. It's the icing on the cake of my career."

It was also part of the much-needed sweetness on a tumultuous day for racing that underscored the elements of triumph and tragedy in it.

The 2013 Breeders' Cup didn't unfold perfectly, but there was a happy ending -- in Hollywood, where else?

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.

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