Handing over the training of Willie the Kid to Gordon ‘Pete’ McCann didn’t seem a big deal at the time. Indeed, quite the opposite. Yet in many ways the experience altered the destiny of Thoroughbred racing, not only in Canada, but around the world. For had it not been for McCann, and lessons he gleaned from training Willie the Kid, its unlikely there would have been a cheeky little bay dynamo Winnie Taylor named Northern Dancer.
Willie the Kid was unlikely to win any race, much less the 1940 running of Canada’s coveted Kings’ Plate. According to his young trainer, “He had everything wrong with him. He was a cripple; a mixed-up thing.” To compensate McCann, a former jockey, exercised Willie every day over the track at Dufferin Park. Miles and miles of galloping through mud, snow, ice and hail resulted in an extremely fit colt.
The Kings’ Plate was Willie the Kid’s first race. His jockey had to fight to keep the colt focused on the race. At one point Willie seemed to be headed to the stands to visit his owner, Mildred Kane. Yet, in the end, his sheer fitness carried Willie the Kid across the finish and into the history books.
McCann’s very first training assignment netted him a Kings’ Plate winner. The first of many. But possibly more significant, from thereon, McCann rode the horses he trained. Likely the most important, and most challenging, was Nearctic, sire of Northern Dancer.
to be continued…