One of the toughest races to pick apart on Belmont Stakes day was one of its stakes on the undercard: The True North Handicap (II), which featured several graded and recent stakes winners with a whole lot of value scattered about. While it was difficult siding with any one particular horse from a gambling perspective, it was easy to find delight with the two towering G1 winners in the field: Smiling Tiger, under new ownership and Mike Smith for the first time, and the New York-bred Giant Ryan, a big winner on the Belmont dirt last year winning the Vosburgh Invitational (I).
Wearing the easily-recognizable Shivananda colors with red bridle, the bay son of Freud was calm and collected in the post parade as the 120-pound high-weight, and would have to fly out of the six post to get away from this field. I put a couple bucks on rail horse Pacific Ocean, who had plenty of late gas and was a recent Rick Dutrow transfer— those frequently do very well right off the bat— and hoped for the best as well as a couple good stills with my DSLR. What happened next was something I always feared to see.
Cursing under my breath as Pacific Ocean gunned immediately to the front, I readied the barrel of the lens to track the leaders into the homestretch, dropping frames all rapid rabbit as Caixa Eletronica collared Justin Phillip in yet another unlucky Zayat run for a stakes. There was an abrupt WOMP! sound of something heavy striking the dirt and the crowd winced with a thousand voices. My first breakdown in person was a mighty sprinter champion, and all my insides shrank inwardly. Giant Ryan was no ordinary, run-of-the-mill horse. With much of his win streak last year commencing in Miami’s Calder Race Course, he felt like my brother similar with how Awesome Feather, Gourmet Dinner, and Fort Loudon gravitated to me. Now here we were, just feet away from each other, two ex-South Floridians in New York. My legs were hurting from standing and sitting, but I imagine his pain eclipsed my own.
I had put down my camera, but then mentally kicked myself to pull it out again. No one following this blog would likely see anything about this outside of a press release, and I knew it was something that was important to document. Not the gore factor, but the caring that went into it. Jockey Willie Martinez, after being thrown to the dirt when Giant Ryan stumbled, picked himself up and immediately went to the horse’s aid. The bay speedster struggled to rise, Martinez steadying him once he did and kept him calm, placing a caring hand on his forehead. The equine ambulance arrived within seconds, with track employees hoisting the ominous black sheet between the injured and the watching eyes in the stands. It didn’t look bad enough for an instant euthanization— I saw no bone or blood that hinted at a compound fracture— but I knew the prognosis was going to be among the toughest odds he’d ever face.
Bisnath Parboo and presumably a Shivananda family member looked distraught as their champion loaded onto the van. Unsurprisingly, with a such a prominent stakes day, there were more than a few on the apron who were not horse people, if they were people at all. There were heartless Alpo jokes and drunken quips that the horse deserved to die for losing them $5, and the valor on the scene only amazed me further because all the attention the connections had to give was to the injured one, who acted the perfect gentleman every limp of the way.
Meanwhile in the winner’s circle, Mike Repole was collecting his trophy for Caixa Eletronica’s stirring win. Despite the chestnut’s effort and probably one of the most impressive runs of the day, the scene was stolen by Giant Ryan. In an impractical, impulsive kind of way, I wanted to blame Repole for the bad karma he left in New York last year, hailing Uncle Mo's second in the King's Bishop (I) as “the lowest of the lows.” While the Shivanandas would win big within hours with Trinniberg, possibly this year’s quickest three-year-old, but the sore spot would remain. This was the lowest of the lows. No one would get to see Giant Ryan again as the horse would succumb to the onset of laminitis while awaiting surgery, but he and his connections personified the heart of the game. With thousands of dollars waiting at the wire, it was the horse that everyone cared about first and foremost without another thought.
While I hope to never have to see this sort of thing happen again— an unfortunately false hope— the experience was a lesson worth learning. Forget the headless presses you read about putting racehorses through a grinder; I have openly scoffed Parboo and Shivananda horses again and again in the past, so to see such a compassionate display convinces me that on every level, where there is bad, there is also much more good. Giant Ryan was fast, brilliant, still a gifted runner at 6 years old, and will be impossible for me to forget even now that he is gone.