It was the very best of times. As fate had it, my brief tenure at the helm of Canadian Thoroughbred spanned the exploits of the two most outstanding horses in the past half century: Nijinsky and Secretariat.
I descend from a colourful line of Irish horse traders and storytellers and I know my fore-bearers laughed with glee at my good fortune. I was introduced to Nijinsky when he was a yearling. I distinctly recall Harry Green, Windfields legendary stallion manager, saying ‘now here is one I think you will like.’ He was right. In my life I had never seen a more beautiful horse. An equine aristocrat, he was tall, elegant with a high head carriage and a heart-shaped star emblazoned mid-centre of his large intelligent eyes. I was totally smitten.
Seems I still am. Nijinsky is the soul of my latest book The Horse and The Tiger. I settled into the office of editor of Canadian Thoroughbred at about the time Nijinsky was galloping into the history books. The year was 1970. I had been following Nijinsky’s every dynamic stride with uncommon devotion. That he was racing on the other side of the Atlantic was offset by the fact that he was in the care of Vincent O’Brien, the world’s most eminent horse trainer.
It wasn’t simply that Nijinsky was winning the greatest races in the world, but how he was winning that was so exhilarating. Perhaps none more thrilling than his English Derby. At the end of the year it was with button-popping pride I reported that Canada’s Nijinsky, the first horse in 35 years to win the British Triple Crown, was anointed ‘Horse of the Century.’
Earlier that same year, a chestnut colt with a comet-like blaze down the centre of his cheeky face was born in Virginia. They named this one Secretariat and he became so popular there were those who believed he could not only run for President of the U.S.A., but win. The key members of his team, Lucien Laurin and Ron Turcotte, were, of course, Canadian so I tracked this developing story with more than passing interest. By the time they arrived in Canada for the Canadian International in the fall of 1973 I had left the magazine and was focused on writing E.P.Taylor: Horseman and his horses. Clearly all that I learned at Canadian Thoroughbred prepared me for this next challenge.
The best Canadian horse to run in North America during my tenure has to have been Kennedy Road.Bred and owned by Art and Helen Stollery, Kennedy Road was a grand, lanky, temperamental warrior. He dominated Canadian racing; he won the 1971 Queen’s Plate with relative ease; and two years later was in the starting gate up against Secretariat in the International. That afternoon Kennedy Road ran his heart out. The bell clanged, Kennedy Road jumped out of the gate and blasted to the lead. There he stayed for the first mile-or-so with Secretariat pounding along in his wake and Woodbine stands were rocking. But in the stretch Kennedy Road faltered, his tendon had bowed. Still his herculean effort was rewarded with Horse of the Year honours.
Along with the great equine champions my tenure placed me amid many of this country’s horse racing legends. Among the marvelous, and often colourful, owners: Eddie and Winnie Taylor, Conn Smythe, Viscount and Lady Hardinge, Jack and Florence Stafford, Jean-Louis Levesque, Rusand Lois Bennett, George Hendrie, and so many more. There were brilliant jockeys: the inimitable Avelino Gomez, champion Ron Turcotte and a shy young fellow named Sandy Hawley who was quickly establishing himself as one of the greats.
Canadian Thoroughbred took me back and forth across Canada and to all the hotbeds of horse racing and breeding. I traveled from sale to sale with Fasig-Tipton’s famed auction team of John Finney and Laddie Dance. The first distaff editor, I found myself covering events alongside the country’s finest sportswriters: Jim Coleman, Trent Frayne, Milt Dunnell and the rest. They looked out for me and taught me how to sniff out a good story. When I journeyed to the big races the wonderful team of “Gentleman Jim” Bentley (trainer of Kennedy Road) and his pal Joseph ‘Yonnie’ Starr (Fanfreluche’s conditioner) were my selfappointed guardians.
Looking back at all the marvelous memories, makes me feel incredibly blessed. There can be little doubt that it was the very best of times.