Thursday, November 5, 2009

Chapter 1


A New National Hero

May 2, 1964

I am glued to the television as the band strikes up “My Old Kentucky Home”. To this day (forty-one years later) it still brings tears to my eyes. What is it about an eleven year-old boy that would make his eyes well up at the playing of a song at a horse race?

…. Let’s leave that question for a while.

There he is wearing number seven. He certainly isn’t handsome as far as horses go and he looks very small but that hasn’t hurt him to this point in his career. Eleven wins two seconds and a third in fourteen starts (14-11-2-1) is his race record. He has won his last four starts as a three year old including the Flamingo Stakes, Florida Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes. His lack of size probably cost his owner, E. P. Taylor, when he could not find a buyer for his little Canadian colt as a yearling in 1962. Despite the quality of his bloodline and the modest price tag of $25,000 no one wanted the undersized thoroughbred. Mr. Taylor was not regretting that turn of events now. He had a Kentucky Derby contender in the diminutive Northern Dancer, the public’s second choice to the favorite Hill Rise. The majestic Hill Rise was everything a thoroughbred was supposed to be, big, powerful, a perfectly proportioned athlete but our little Dancer was Canadian owned and Canadian bred and that will make this Kentucky Derby even more special for me and the rest of Canada.

It’s not just me. The whole Nation is glued to their television sets.

“They’re off”.

Bill Hartack sits off the early pace with Northern Dancer and negotiates the tough first turn at Churchill Downs. This was Bill Hartack’s second ride on the little horse, he got the mounts after previous rider and hall of fame jockey Willie Shoemaker opted to ride the favorite, Hill Rise.

On the backstretch, the Dancer makes his trademark move, accelerating past the field on the outside. The fractions had been quick as Northern Dancer reeled in the leaders, one by one. Northern Dancer takes the lead at the top of the stretch and it becomes a two horse race with Hill Rise, thundering down the stretch in pursuit of our little guy. The long gliding strides of Hill Rise appeared to be eating up twice the distance of the short choppy strides of Northern Dancer and the stretch seemed to go on forever. “Hang on, hang on, hang on” I was yelling at the top of my lungs as they crossed the wire with our Canadian hero on top by a head. It was a Kentucky Derby record time of two minutes flat for the mile and a quarter. That record time would stand until 1973 when it was broken by another pretty decent horse named Secretariat.

When it comes to these kinds of sports moments, my mother could not understand my intensity in those days any better than my wife understands it today. A love of competition, a strong desire to win, pride (especially Canadian pride) and the historical element are all ingredients but there is still something beyond that, an intangible element I can’t explain. The euphoria of that moment when the Dancer crossed the wire to win the most prestigious race in North America left an indelible mark on me.

An entire country was celebrating that first Saturday in May of 1964.

I always equate the “Run for the Roses” (Kentucky Derby) to the Masters in golf. The Derby is first of the “triple crown” races each year while the Masters is golf’s first Major. It would be thirty-eight years later when another little Canadian would generate the same national pride by winning the “Green Jacket” at Augusta National. Mike Weir would also take his sport’s ultimate prize “north of the border”. That was another emotional sports experience for me and many other Canadians.

In two weeks time it was a repeat performance with Hill Rise again the favorite and Northern Dancer second choice in the second jewel of Racing’s Triple Crown. This time it wasn’t even close as Northern Dancer wins going away by two lengths in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland. The Scoundrel finished second and Hill Rise third. The Dancer was making his mark in horse racing history but a victory in the Belmont Stakes at New York’s Aqueduct in three weeks time could make him just the ninth Triple Crown winner in history and the first since Citation in 1948.

It was not meant to be. The Dancer injured a tendon in the Belmont Stakes and finished third behind Quadrangle and Roman Brother. The next Triple Crown winner would also have to wait for Secretariat. Owner E. P. Taylor wanted his little champion to race one more time on his native soil in the Queen’s Plate, the oldest continuous stakes race in North America.

On June 30, 1964 the Dancer would complete his racing career, winning the Queen’s Plate at Toronto’s Woodbine Race Track by seven lengths. This could have been the end of a great sport’s story and it could rival some of the best sport stories of all time. Our Canadian “Seabiscuit” like story has all the ingredients; a pint size, cast off hero, a colourful owner and the backing of an entire country but in some respects his story was just beginning.

The following is a story about one of the most amazing characters in Canadian history. He wasn’t a human character but this little Canadian hero and his family have had a positive influence on the lives of millions of human beings of every race, religion and culture in every corner of our globe.

It’s a sports story but not a sports story about overpaid professional athletes. This story features amateur athletes, perhaps the epitome of amateur athletes.

It’s about outstanding performances in historic events but it’s also about love and tragedy. The love we have for an animal, a beast of burden that can carry the hopes and dreams of entire nations. It’s about the tragedy of young lives snuffed out before they reach their prime. When you read the epitaphs of some of these animals you will start to understand the emotional attachment we form with these beautiful creatures.

This story is from the perspective of a fan. A fan that loves the history and international aspects of the sport as much as the numbers and statistics it provides for measuring excellence. A fan that loves the underdog but gets shivers down his spine when he witnesses a dominant, record setting performance.

This story is full of plots and sub plots. It has an ensemble cast of thousands but they all have one common thread, our little Canadian hero with his crooked white star, three white legs and over sized heart.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this story is its ending ... it doesn’t have one … it may never have one … not in my lifetime anyway. The hero I admired as an eleven year old boy still never ceases to amaze me as I unravel the never-ending stories of his children, grand children and their offspring.

I hope you enjoy the story of the most significant Canadian of my lifetime as much as I have enjoyed researching and documenting it.

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