When the tall and talented Black Tie Affair was five years old, he was moving through the graded races in the Midwest like a threshing machine harvesting wheat in a flat Illinois field.
The dappled gray colt impressed his trainer as much as he impressed the betting public with a winning streak that reached six straight graded-stakes successes.
The front-running skyscraper’s trainer, Ernie Poulos, said: “This horse has a heart as big as his body.”
Poulos had seen Black Tie Affair begin his long string of wins at Keeneland in April of 1991. That’s when he won his second straight Commonwealth Breeders’ Cup, a Grade III race held on the verdant grounds next to the flowering dogwood and redbud trees.
Next on the list of wins was the Stephen Foster, a Grade III event at Churchill Downs in Louisville. With two in a row in hand, next came the Michigan Mile. And another win there had the winning streak at three.
In Nebraska, Black Tie Affair made it another front-running win in the Grade III Cornhuskers Handicap.
The first Grade I win came back East in the Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park.
Returning to the Midwest at Arlington Park in Illinois, the Black Tie Affair-Poulos team checked off another win in the Grade II Washington Park Handicap.
Five races in a row had been notched with wins.
The sixth would be the most-watched of them all — the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Classic where literally most of the racing world would be paying strict attention.
The one mile-and-a-quarter Breeders’ Cup was held that year at Churchill Downs. Among the would-be victims of Black Tie Affair’s gate-to-wire win were Strike the Gold, Unbridled, and Twilight Agenda.
Jockey Jerry Bailey rode a near-perfect tactical race when he forced a path to the front even before reaching the clubhouse turn.
Once on the lead, Bailey slowed the pace and conserved the gray’s energy. The first quarter mile was done in just more than a pedestrian 24 seconds and the half-mile clicked off in nearly 49 seconds.
Bailey and Black Tie Affair were more than 15 lengths ahead of both Strike the Gold and Unbridled. It was Twilight Agenda that was gliding along about two lengths in back of Bailey.
Rounding the final turn and hitting the beginning of the legendary Churchill Downs stretch, it was Black Tie Affair being made ready by Bailey to repel the possible late runs of Unbridled and Strike the Gold.
Those runs never came.
Only Twilight Agenda challenged in the last 150 yards.
And Black Tie Affair — with Bailey’s considerable help — had won with a tactical duel with his peers in one of the world’s richest races.
Retirement awaited the five-year-old.
He had raced for four years and won at least one graded stakes event in all four years. His win in the last world-class race was enough to tip the scales in his favor and he was selected as the U.S. Horse of the Year for 1991.
Ironically, in the six-race win streak that closed his career there were four different jockeys — Juvenile Diaz, Pat Day, Shane Sellers, and Bailey — that had winning roles in those races.
Years later, after trainer Poulos had died, his widow, Dee, would tell of what Black Tie Affair had meant to both the Poulos’s. “He was just life changing for us. It was such a wonderful experience with him. He was and still will be an inspiration for me. When things got tough, I would think about Black Tie.
“He was my motivator.”
Retirement began in Kentucky, but by 1997 he was in Japan.
By 2003, word of his diminishing number of high-caliber progeny drifted back to America. People were worried he could be the next Ferdinand (a Kentucky Derby champion that was sent to a slaughterhouse in Japan when his stud value had fallen) and Dee Poulos headed a campaign to get Black Tie Affair back to America.
The campaign succeeded. The first destination was the Blue Ridge Farm in Virginia. From there, he went to Randy Funkhouser’s O’Sullivan Farms on Earle Road just outside Charles Town. Black Tie Affair was in Jefferson County from 2005-09 before leg problems caused him to be pensioned.
Michael Blowen at the Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Facility just outside Lexington, Ky. brought him to his place.
At age 24, he was a handsome white addition to Blowen’s ever-growing acreage that had over 100 retirees under his care.
Dee Poulos trekked from Chicago to Lexington to see her “motivator”.
“I felt I just had to see him, and I told my sister we had to go. I spent a lot of time with him that day. We brought him out and he was just grazing, and I was playing with his ears. I always loved the feel of his ears — and he suddenly looked up at me and I thought, “Oh, Black Tie just said goodbye. I didn’t want to think that way, but it was a terrible feeling I had.”
Not much later, Black Tie Affair developed laminitis, a foot disease that eventually won’t allow a horse to put weight on the damaged hoof. He was euthanized. Dee Poulos’ intuition had been a correct telling of the future.
In the short time he was at Old Friends, Black Tie Affair became a favorite of many. He would trot over to the black board fences and stand placidly as Blowen made rounds with his rubber bucket filled with chopped carrots for the horses.
Blowen would linger when he reached the docile and hungry all-white stallion. If Blowen had children with him, Black Tie Affair would slowly lower his large head and let them rub their small hands over his forehead.
He was already a fast-favorite of Blowen, his volunteer staff, and the facility’s many visitors when his end came.
His on-track earnings had totaled well over $3 million. His positive influence seemed worth more than any dollar amount to those who knew him best.