News » If Fate Can Intervene, 9/11 Tribute Horse Aces Mark Will Reign Supreme

September 10, 2010

Fate has to be pulling a few strings here. The horse, a 6-year-old gelding that not too long ago was given little chance of racing again, is called Aces Mark, and he is entered in Saturday's eighth race at Belmont Park.

That would be Saturday, September 11. That would be Aces Mark, a name created in tribute to Garnet "Ace" Bailey and Mark Bavis, two National League Hockey scouts who were killed on that terrible day nine years ago when the United States was attacked by terrorists.

Bailey and Bavis were on United Airlines Flight 175 out of Boston, bound for Los Angeles and the start of training camp. Bailey, still a big, joyful kid at age 53, had done pretty much everything in his 33 years with the NHL, winning two Stanley Cups as a player and five more as a scout, but he still treated every new season as if it were his first. Bavis, only 31, was as Boston as the Freedom Trail, his accent thick, his loyalty to family unbreakable. A star player in high school and later at Boston University, Bavis had a talent for discovering and mentoring players in amateur circles. He was hired in 2000 by the Los Angeles Kings to work as an assistant scout under Bailey, the legend who now was the Kings' director of pro scouting.

That Tuesday morning on the East Coast dawned bright and clear, perfect flying weather. Bailey settled in seat 6F, Bavis took 19F. Some 30 minutes after taking off from Logan Airport, five Al-Qaeda-associated hijackers forced their way into the cockpit, overpowered the pilot and first officer and took command of the controls. Airline records indicate Bailey, using a GTE airphone near the rear of the aircraft, attempted to call his wife Kathleen four times, but they never connected.

At 9:03 a.m. -- time indelibly carved on so many wounded psyches -- Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, killing all 65 people aboard, including the hijackers. The impact, that bright ball of fire colliding with office floors high in the sky, was captured on live television, as were the twin towers' subsequent collapses. The death toll from the coordinated suicide attacks -- American Airlines Flight 11 flew into the North Tower, a third airliner hit the Pentagon in Arlington, a fourth crashed into a rural field near Shanksville, Pa. -- was 2,996.

Nine years later, we've become such a fractured, angry country, bickering over large and tiny issues. How did we lose sight of what we once were? In the months following that awful day so much compassion and decency arose from the ashes, so many tales of communal healing carried us through the pain, and sports played a large role in helping us smile again.

Perhaps we can draw strength from the hundreds of tributes and acts of kindness taking place Saturday, all across the land. There are golf tournaments and bike races in the name of the deceased, potlucks and poker games to raise money for 9/11 charities. There is a team of American and Australian firefighters on the tail end of a cross-country relay run that started Aug. 12 from the Santa Monica Pier, took a slight detour to New Orleans, the participants running six hours, then taking 12 off, then doing it all again, 4,600 miles total. Feet and a higher power willing, the Tour of Duty run will reach the Brooklyn Bridge early Saturday morning, be greeted by former Australian prime minister John Howard, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and 180 bagpipers, and the disparate group, made up of all different backgrounds and beliefs, will cross the bridge as one into Manhattan.

From there the 32 firefighters will go it alone, walking slowly to Ground Zero, thinking of the 343 members of the FDNY who ran into the towers and never came back.

A few miles east, on the turf at Belmont Park, the horse with the melodious name will break from the gate. Aces Mark will be ridden by John Velazquez in the eighth race, with a post time of 4:43 p.m. The horse is 6-1 on the morning line, though the odds could change if punters decide that for one race, on this one momentous day, serendipity will make an appearance.

"He's raring to go," Lew Mongelluzzo, one of Aces Mark's owners, told FanHouse. "You're not supposed to believe in fate in horse racing or in any sport, but maybe it really is fate to have him racing on this day of all days."

Mongelluzzo is the managing partner of Team Power Play Racing, the stable that purchased the 2-year-old Gold Case colt in Ocala, Fla., in April 2006. Mongelluzzo also happens to be a scout for the Ottawa Senators, and over the years he'd see Bailey at games, maybe have coffee or a beer with him. Mongelluzzo was closer to Bavis and his twin brother Mike, their lives intertwining often through the northeast college hockey circuit.

A slew of NHL-related personnel are affiliated with Team Power Play Racing, including Joel Quenneville, the coach of the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks who jokes that it's fun to own a horse for about two minutes. Quenneville knew Bailey through the hockey fraternity; naming a horse after the legend and his bright protege seemed like a fine way to honor them.

But Aces Mark had a rough few years. At first there were breathing issues, then in early 2008 came a throat operation known as a myectomy, followed by a raging infection and a prolonged layoff. It wasn't until noted equine surgeon Dr. Norman Ducharme had performed four surgical procedures that the gelding was cleared for training, though even then the skepticism was thick.

"I remember Joel saying, 'Until the vets say he's done, we're going to stick with him,'" said Mongelluzzo, who reckons he and his partners have put $250,000 into Aces Mark. "Even when he left the farm in February '09 the doctor told us he didn't know if Aces Mark would make it. He was given a 20 percent chance. The horse didn't run for two years and to a lot of people he looked like he didn't have a future."

In 21 starts, Aces Mark has a record of 4-3-3 and earnings of $81,687. No matter how he fares, his future, his legacy is wrapped around his name.

The horse is a constant reminder for folks who knew and loved Ace Bailey, even those old-time New York Rangers fans who still have nightmares of Bailey scoring a ludicrous goal for the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of the 1972 Stanley Cup Finals. With the clock ticking down, Bailey, hardly an offensive threat, kicked the stick from the Rangers' Brad Park and somehow flipped the puck over goaltender Ed Giacomin and into the net. It set the tone for the second of Bailey's two championships with the Bruins; his fine eye as a talent evaluator and advance scout with the Edmonton Oilers led to five more Stanley Cups. Now there's the Ace Bailey Children's Foundation, a family-run organization that raises funds to benefit hospitalized children, infants and their families.

The horse is a fine tribute to Mark Bavis, who turned a dream of playing in the NHL into something far more permanent. Drafted in the late rounds by the Rangers in 1989, Bavis didn't make the team but hockey had been a part of his DNA since age four. So he played a few years in the minors, then turned to coaching (landing jobs with Brown University and Harvard, among others) and somehow found time to work for both the Massachusetts USA Satellite Program and the International Hockey Academy and open a hockey summer camp in Canton, Mass., before becoming a professional scout with the Kings.

Cruise around ice rinks in suburban Boston and you'll find thousands of kids (many of whom are now men) whose lives were touched by Bavis. His work lives on through the Mark Bavis Leadership Foundation, which was created to perpetuate his strong family values and provide financial support to Massachusetts' students so they might better themselves, their school and their community.

Aces Mark, running on September 11, might not win, but imagine if he does. Imagine if fate, luck, love and devotion all blend together on what is expected to be a spectacular late-summer day in New York. Just imagine.