They are two of Canada’s most iconic thoroughbred farms and Dave Whitford holds the rare distinction to have had long tenures at both.
“I was 16 years at Windfields and 13 at Sam-Son now,” Whitford said proudly of the two Toronto area nurseries that rank among the greatest producers of runners this nation has ever known.
Today, Whitford is the broodmare/stallion manager at the 200-acre Sam-Son Farm in Milton, ON that is home to an exquisite band of mares. Prior to being hired by the late Tammy Samuel-Balaz in 2003, Whitford was the broodmare division manager at E.P. Taylor’s famed Windfields Farm of Oshawa.
It’s all a long way from Enniscorthy in County Wexford, Ireland, where Whitford grew up surrounded by horses.
“I ended up spending up a lot of time on a relative’s farm in the summer time and getting interested in horses. They were involved in the National Hunt business, which is thoroughbreds, as well, but the ones that go over the steeplechase jumps. I did a bit of pony riding, show riding, fox hunting and got very interested and keen on the whole horse thing through that as I was growing up.”
After high school, Whitford applied to join the equestrian division of the Irish Army, which, at the time, often represented the country on the world show jumping stage. He wasn’t accepted.
“After that, I licked my wounds and decided I would just start working within the horse industry on thoroughbred breeding farms,” he said.
He landed a job working for Woodpark Stud in Dunboyne, County Mead. The farm was owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Whitford worked at Woodpark Stud for a year, then was sent to a private farm where they foaled out the mares and prepared yearlings for the breaking process. That piqued his interest in the stallion game and soon he was offered the chance to work at Aston Upthorpe, a farm in England that stood a few stallions. He applied to the famed Irish National Stud, didn’t get in at first, but was accepted the second year he applied.
“Getting into the Irish National Stud course was a big deal for me. It has a great reputation worldwide. They just take on about 14, 15 students each year. It’s not easy to get in there, so I wasn’t surprised I didn’t get in first off,” Whitford said. “After getting in there, I had great exposure to their whole education system. You get to meet different people from the industry that are students at the course, as well. I made some good contacts.
“From there I decided I was going to do a bit of traveling, maybe try to see different parts of the world and the industry. That was, again, with the reproductive end of things high on my agenda at the time. I did apply to a few different farms in the U.S. and Windfields in Canada. I got an offer at Windfields to go for a year with a work permit. I jumped at the chance to go to the home of Northern Dancer. I was very excited to get over and see that farm and work on it. That’s what I did.”
Wowed by Windfields
Who knows what might have happened if Whitford had arrived at the start of a Canadian winter. Instead, he landed in Oshawa in March of 1987.
“I remember it being cold and people warning me about the cold, but I didn’t think it was so bad. Of course, March would be just the tip of the iceberg with the cold,” he said.
Windfields was a glorious eye-opener. Whitford enjoyed the farm immensely right from the start.
“It was a huge farm, 1,250 acres, and had a huge staff of 80 at different times of year. It had lots of housing. The single guys were put up in a boarding house. There must have been 10 or 12 of us living in that house with a cook. Meals were provided. You might have to share a room, but it was pretty easy living. You could put some of your pay cheque aside and have a bit of fun on the weekends and not have to worry about paying for groceries, too. It was kind of a free and easy life for a young guy.”
It was so much fun, in fact, that Whitford applied, and received, an extension on his work visa.
“Windfields were instrumental, of course, in getting that extension. After that, I sort of made up my mind to stay. Windfields sponsored me to get my landed immigrant status and the rest is history,” he said.
His first year at Windfields, Whitford met his wife, Stephanie, at the farm.
“She was on her last year of a summer job. She was going through university at McGill in Montreal and she had worked at the farm for two previous summers and this was her last summer before finishing university,” Whitford said. “So, that’s when we met. We developed a long-distance relationship for a few years, but ended up getting married.”
Windfields had three main divisions when Whitford first arrived — broodmare, yearling and maintenance. Whitford worked for the broodmare unit, which foaled some 100 horses a year.
“You really got great exposure to the different problems that you would run into — veterinary and horse handling. You had to work with a lot of different people, a lot of different personalities. It was just great exposure. There was a lot of life lessons and fun along the way, too,” Whitford said.
Whitford worked his way up to assistant yearling manager and stayed in that position for three years before taking the farm’s position as broodmare division manager. Whitford retained that title for the next decade or so, until he left Windfields.
“In 1996, all the Windfields stuff was sold and we were left to build the farm back up with client horses. Bernard McCormack was the general manager at that time. Bernard did a fantastic job with a good team behind him to encourage clients to board their horses and breed to our stallions. Our numbers steadily increased again from sort of a low in 1996… But I could see the writing on the wall. They weren’t reinvesting in new stallions.”
Luckily, Sam-Son was looking for a farm manager.
Smitten with Sam-Son
When Whitford arrived at Sam-Son in 2003, he said he was “giddy with excitement” to work on a smaller scale than the behemoth operation that was Windfields.
“The (Sam-Son) broodmare band is 25. The staff, of course, is much smaller. For me it was a lot less headaches, I suppose. Just concentrating on a much smaller group of horses, with a smaller staff was very enticing for me. Of course, the quality of the broodmares at Sam-Son was very, very high,” Whitford said.
He soon relished the chance to see Sam-Son foals grow to make to the racetrack.
“Working for an operation like Sam-Son, you get to see them from the cradle to the grave. You get to see them running at the racetrack. Woodbine is half-an-hour away from me. I can go in there on the weekends and see them run and enjoy the whole spectacle and enjoy it with the Samuel family, the wins especially. The disappointments are disappointments and they’re not always fun, but that just makes the winning all the better,” Whitford said.
Along the way, Whitford said he has been happy to have been part of a Sam-Son team that has won over 75 Sovereign Awards in its history.
“You can take a lot of pride in winning a Sovereign and bring that kind of news back to the staff at home, to the farm. They’re very proud of all of that, as is the family,” Whitford said. “They’re measures of success. Anytime you have a really good year, there’s always pressure to duplicate it. It sure is nice to get the recognition.”
More importantly, 28 years after landing in Canada, Dave Whitford’s own family has grown and almost left the nest.
“We’ve got three kids now. They’re all grown up. I’ve got a couple in university and one in the last year of high school,” he said.
He owes all of it to a love of horses fostered in Ireland and fuly developed in Canada working at two of the biggest names in the game.