One of the great ironies tied into horse racing involves how triumph and tragedy can be woven together.
Even at its most distressing moments, racing can sometimes offer a measure of joy, as muted as it might be.
The 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff will always be remembered for the heartbreaking tragedy of the fatal injury of Go for Wand. Yet on that fateful October afternoon at Belmont Park, what is often overlooked was the triumph that belonged to the gallant mare Bayakoa.
The 1990 Distaff made Bayakoa the first two-time winner of the race and was a crowning achievement that should have cemented her status as one of the great females of her generation. On that day of triumph and tragedy, though, those thoughts were secondary – a position that was in direct contrast to the fanfare that followed Bayakoa throughout a Hall of Fame career.
Bayakoa’s first start came in Argentina as a 3-year-old in 1987. She won two of her first four races but it wasn’t until her eighth start that she won her first graded/group stakes, and she did it in eye-opening fashion. The daughter of Consultant’s Bid out of the Argentine mare Arlucea was a 12-length winner of the Group 1 Premio Palermo in her final start at 3.
She was then sold to Americans Frank and Janis Whitham for $300,000 and was shipped to the United States for a 4-year-old campaign under the care of trainer Ron McAnally. She showed flashes of her South American form that year, such as a 10-length win in an ungraded stakes at Del Mar, but it wasn’t until her 5-year-old season that she emerged as one of the West Coast’s premier runners.
After a runner-up finish in the Grade 2 Santa Maria Handicap in January 1989, she and regular rider Laffit Pincay Jr. reeled off five straight wins in graded stakes, four of them Grade 1s (Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap, Apple Blossom Handicap, Milady Handicap, and Vanity Handicap). A surprising sixth-place finish in the Chula Vista Handicap at Del Mar ended the streak, but when she shipped east to prepare for that year’s Breeders’ Cup at Gulfstream Park, she returned to top form. She captured the Grade 1 Ruffian Handicap at Belmont Park by 3 ½ lengths and then posted a monstrous 11 ½-length romp in the Grade 1 Spinster Stakes at Keeneland.
She was sent off as the 3-5 favorite in the Breeders' Cup Distaff and did not disappoint as she won by 1 ½ lengths over Gorgeous.
She was rewarded for her dazzling campaign with the Eclipse Award as the year’s champion older female.
When she returned to the races at 6 in 1990, Bayakoa continued to dominate her division. She won a pair of Grade 1 races, the Santa Maria and Santa Margarita, by a combined margin of 9 ½ lengths.
Chris McCarron rode Bayakoa in place of the injured Pincay in those two races and raved about her after she won the Santa Margarita by six lengths while carrying 127 pounds.
“I used to say that Glorious Song and Lady's Secret were the best fillies I ever rode,” McCarron said in a Los Angeles Times story. “But this one might be the best now.”
With little else to prove against her own sex, McAnally tested Bayakoa against the boys in the Santa Anita Handicap, but the mare experienced one of her worst days, finishing 10th. After a runner-up finish to Gorgeous in the 1990 Apple Blossom, Bayakoa resumed her winning ways by taking the Hawthorne Handicap and the Grade 1 Milady.
A second-place finish against males in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar followed, but wins in the Chula Vista Handicap and Spinster positioned her as the best older female heading into a return trip to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
There was, though, a formidable challenger awaiting her at Belmont Park.
Go for Wand was a champion at 2 as well as the undisputed leader of the 3-year-old filly division, and the New York-based daughter of Deputy Minister already had proven herself against her elders by taking the Maskette and Beldame Stakes at Belmont.
The showdown between Go for Wand and Bayakoa was the most anticipated matchup of that seventh edition of the Breeders’ Cup and the two great champions did not disappoint.
Go for Wand was sent off as a 3-5 favorite with Bayakoa the 6-5 second choice in a field of seven.
From the start, the race unfolded like a match race, with Bayakoa quickly taking a brief lead before Go for Wand rushed past her from the inside to grab a half-length lead.
“So the battle is joined early,” announcer Tom Durkin said in his call of the race.
Durkin called it a “chess game” on the backstretch as Go for Wand and Bayakoa each moved easily on the front end, bracing for the inevitable stretch duel to come.
On the turn, as they began to pull away from the others, Durkin called it “a clash of champions” with the two Eclipse Award winners running side by side.
As they turned into the stretch locked in a furious battle, Go for Wand held a slim lead along the inside with the older bay mare unwavering outside of her.
It seemed destined to be one of the greatest finishes in Breeders’ Cup history, but then at the sixteenth pole the crowd’s cheers turned to gasps as Go for Wand took a bad step and then tumbled to the ground in a frightening fall.
As Bayakoa went on to record a 6 ¾-length victory, all eyes focused on the injured Go for Wand, who could not be saved.
In the winner’s circle, there were tears in McAnally’s eyes. They were not from the joy of his mare’s victory but because of the heartbreaking loss of her great rival.
At year’s end, 6-year-old Bayakoa was named the champion older female for a second straight year.
She raced at 7, but after losing her first three starts of 1991, she was retired to begin a career as a broodmare.
She left the racetrack with a sterling record. She won 21 of her 39 starts while earning $2,861,701. She was victorious in 12 Grade 1 stakes over the course of just two racing seasons.
Pincay called her the best mare he ever rode in his legendary career.
And on an unforgettable afternoon in 1990, she provided the triumph on a day marred by tragedy.
NOte: This story was originally published in October 2017 and has been updated.
- She was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1998.
- When she was retired in 1991, she was third all-time among fillies and mares in purse earnings, trailing only Lady’s Secret and All Along.
- Bayakoa was supplemented to the Distaff for both of her wins.
- Bayakoa had just four foals, none of whom had distinguished racing careers. But her last offspring, Arlucea, was the dam of 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned. Another of Bayakoa’s daughters, Trinity Place, was the dam of Affluent, winner of the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Keeneland in 2001.
- She was ranked 95th on Blood-Horse magazine’s poll of the top champions of the 20th Century.