NEW YORK - When the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center stood as lofty symbols of New York, you could see them from Aqueduct. After a day at the races, with the sun setting to the west, the Twin Towers formed an unforgettable image in the orange glow.
The majestic towers, of course, fell in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. On Saturday, a horse whose name sprang from that tragedy will compete at Aqueduct in the Wood Memorial Stakes, New York's premier race leading to the Kentucky Derby.
The horse is New York Hero, named for those who died in the attacks and those who tried to save them. Ernie Paragallo, who lives on Long Island, lost a friend in the Twin Towers who was president of a brokerage firm.
Paragallo, a wealthy owner of thoroughbreds, bought a 2-year-old colt - a Maryland-bred son of Partner's Hero and Nin Two - at a Timonium auction last May. Of all his young horses, the colt showed the most determination - "heart," as horsemen call it.
"I wanted to name one of my horses after what happened in New York," Paragallo said. "From the day we got him, he's the one who showed the most heart. A lot of our horses had ability - and he had tremendous ability - but what separated him was his heart."
New York Hero has won three of five races and finished second in the other two. His last race, his first outside New York, garnered national attention and cast him as a contender for the Kentucky Derby.
At odds of 14-1, New York Hero captured the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park in Kentucky. Now, back on his home track, about 10 miles east of where the Twin Towers stood, the colt with the lofty name will run in the Wood.
Jennifer Pedersen, who trains horses for Paragallo, will saddle New York Hero in quest of the biggest win of her career.
"It's a big thrill, being that we're in the midst of a war right now," Pedersen said. "And he was symbolically named, because, you know, we could see the Twin Towers from Aqueduct.
"Personally, I didn't lose anybody. But I think we all lost a piece of ourselves that day. And to be in New York to run a horse this grand in such a prestigious race is very important to me, and I believe to the whole barn."
New York Hero will face Empire Maker and perhaps six others in the Grade I stakes of 1 1/8 miles worth $750,000. The Wood is one of the major stakes Saturday - the Blue Grass at Keeneland and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park being the others - that will serve as final exams for Kentucky Derby admission.
Empire Maker, the top 3-year-old, needs only to run well for his trainer, Bobby Frankel, to send him to Churchill Downs for the Derby the first Saturday in May. New York Hero still must earn his way.
"He's going to have to win the Wood or be right there," Paragallo said. "I ain't going to Kentucky for the mint juleps."
Paragallo has run three horses in the Derby. Adonis finished 17th in 1999, Artax 13th in 1998, and Unbridled's Song fifth in 1996. Unbridled's Song, the Derby favorite and probably the best 3-year-old that year, was compromised by a sore foot.
Never lacking confidence, Paragallo said of Empire Maker, who won the Florida Derby by 9 3/4 lengths: "He's going to have to run to beat New York Hero."
Pedersen, a former exercise rider with limited training experience, isn't so sure. Empire Maker is clearly No. 1, she said.
"It's scary," Pedersen said. "He's the biggest and the best out there. So we'll just have to see what we've got."
New York Hero didn't race as a 2-year-old because of chips in an ankle. They were surgically removed last summer, delaying his debut until Jan. 18.
But from the beginning, Pedersen said, the colt showed he could run.
"He was an incredible mover," she said. "He was big, good-looking. He just did everything right."
In the Lane's End, he proved he could beat top competition. In the Wood, he could prove he's one of the top horses born in 2000.
Pedersen, a New Yorker with an accent and a carefree attitude, said she's trying to have fun in the pressure-packed world of big-time racing.
"Your horses feel what you feel," she said. "And if I'm going to be nervous, they're going to be nervous. So I always try to enjoy myself.
"This is a tough game. It's a tough business. So the best thing to do is be open-hearted and have a good time. I have a motto around my barn: If you're not having fun, you're fired."