memories of Windfields

Nijinsky:
Windfields equine royalty

Windfields Farm was not only home to equine royalty, but, on occasion, members of the Royal Family.   The most memorable Royal visit, for me at least, was HRH Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.  Among her staff was the Queen’s Piper who’s job was playing the bagpipes at 9:00 a.m. for 15 minutes beneath the Sovereign’s window.

The aspect of this wonderful and moving ritual that will always stay with me was the warming-up of the bagpipes, which, as it turned out, took place for at least 30 minutes beneath my window.

I was not the only Windfields resident taken aback by the early and discordant sounds.  Despite being chained to his kennel, the gardener’s hound took off across the fields.  We eventually found him – still tethered to his dog house.

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horses, heroics and memories of Windfields part 6

Nearctic

Back when Val d’Argent became a permanent fixture in our lives I was writing for Gallop, the popular weekly Japanese horse racing and breeding magazine with a million-plus readers.  My series, titled Supreme, focused on stories of prominent racehorses and their families.  It was a marvelous assignment and I shall be forever grateful to editor-in-chief, Kunio Serizawa and my translator, Jiro Ohara.

When we sent the van to bring Val d’Argent back to the farm I was working on the story of the great Nijinsky for my Japanese audience.  Since I had written Northern Dancer: the legend and his legacy, I obviously knew a lot about Nijinsky’s sire, Northern Dancer.  However, Nijinsky’s grandsire, Nearctic, proved an enigma.  One, I reasoned, could easily be solved.  I was wrong.

Before long I began to understand that the old mystery and my young, crazed horse were somehow connected.  Still finding the truth about Nearctic proved the most difficult assignment of my career.  It was also the most rewarding.

To conclude there were those who did not want this story told, after the publication of Dark Horse: unraveling the mystery of Nearctic, I received hate mail.  Unsigned, of course…

…. to be continued

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horses, heroics and memories of Windfields part 5

Northern Dancer flies to 8 length win in first race. Jockey Turcotte says..”could easily have been 10 or 15..”

How is it that in 2017 Northern Dancer appears in the family tree of every Thoroughbred in the winners’ circle of the world’s most important horse races?

One reason relates to a preponderance of nervous energy.  A small horse with a short, choppy stride, when Northern Dancer raced he ran a hole in the wind.  Like a Maserati, he could go from zero to 60 in a split second.  While his explosiveness drove our little champion from victory to victory, I would learn that working with a horse brimming with that sort of combustibility would present countless challenges.

My teacher was Val d’Argent.  Initially it didn’t occur to me that, as he was injected with Northern Dancer blood on both sides of his pedigree, he might prove even more challenging than his feisty great-great grandsire.

By the time Val d’Argent became a permanent fixture in our lives he’d been gelded, raced at two, endured an operation to remove cataracts, and spent several months convalescing in a round-pen.  Midway in his 3 year old year he suffered the equine version of a nervous breakdown and was pitching himself again the walls of his stall at the track.

At this point my friend, the late Judith Mappin, and I opted to bring him back to the farm.  In retrospect two things were obvious: the horse was dangerous; and we had no idea what we were getting into.

This story, incidentally, has a happy ending.  It just took a long, long time to get there.  The countless challenges also were a factor in researching and writing the story behind the story of Northern Dancer:  Dark Horse: unraveling the mystery of Nearctic.

… to be continued

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horses, heroics, and memories of Windfields part 2

In the early stages of writing Northern Dancer: the legend and his legacy I had the good fortune to receive advice from Jenny Dereham, the highly-respected British editor.  At the helm of Michael Joseph publishers, Dereham’s most renowned client was former champion jump jockey and author of countless best-sellers, the late Dick Francis.

I had begun working on Northern Dancer in September 1990 and traveled to Maryland at the beginning of October to spend with the subject of my biography.  Beyond what he had accomplished, I wanted to attempt to understand his essential nature.  What made this pint-sized dynamo run a hole in the wind?

“… There was something about his restless patrolling that gave one the sense of an animal in the wild guarding his territory, a feeling that to challenge him would prove dangerous.  Ever on the alert he behaved more like a wild stallion than a horse that had been pampered and fawned over all his life.”

Just sitting on the grass beside his paddock, doing absolutely nothing but observing this, the stallion of stallions, was fascinating and I planned many more visits.  Instead, 6 weeks later, following a severe bout of colic, Northern Dancer was euthanized.  I was devastated.  On all fronts.  I wasn’t certain how to go forward.

The best piece of advice Dereham imparted was borne of my responsibility to the readers.  To that end, I was to take them on a journey throughout the life of this remarkable animal.  In other words, keep him alive until the very last chapter.

When talking this over with Al Kerr, Windfields stallion manager, he suggested I become acquainted with Northern Dancer great-grandson, Silver Deputy.  The young stallion was standing at the Oshawa farm at the time.  Kerr assured me Silver Deputy was the most like Northern Dancer he had experienced.

So it was that throughout the writing of the book I spent many hours sitting under the maple tree next to Silver Deputy’s paddock as he helped to keep the memory of his mighty ancestor alive.

Years later, when Val d’Argent, the yearling colt bouncing from hoof to hoof, caught my attention, I had no idea of his breeding.  All I saw was a Northern Dancer lookalike.  Eventually I would discover that his sire was my old friend Silver Deputy.

…. to be continued…

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horses, heroics and memories of Windfields

Someone once told me that certain horses possess the power to instantly captivate us.  Like falling in love.  We are smitten.  I know Winnie Taylor would agree.  Wife of Eddie (EP) Taylor, master of the magnificent Windfields Farm, Winnie was in the foaling barn the morning after Natalma had given birth to a tiny, bay colt with a narrow white blaze running the length of his face.  The angle gave him a cheeky, impudent look.  Winnie was immediately captivated.  Frequently after dinner she would bring him dinner mints.

Val d’Argent

She named him Northern Dancer and he would grow up to win the Kentucky Derby in record time, and the hearts of Canadians from coast-to-coast.  As a stallion he was considered more valuable than gold.  Throughout it all, the special bond between Northern Dancer and Winnie Taylor never wavered.

Years later I was at Windfields and wandering down a tree-lined lane en route to the farm office.  Off in the distance a bay colt caught my attention.  He was at the gate, bouncing from hoof to hoof, like a boxer at the start of a match.  The closer I got to him, the more he reminded me of Northern Dancer.

I had recently sold the option to the rights to my book, Northern Dancer: the legend and his legacy, to a Canadian film company.  While the bouncing colt didn’t have the crooked blaze, from the perspective of body-type, he appeared perfect to play the role of a young Northern Dancer in the movie.

Named Val d’Argent, his dam French Influence, was a Northern Dancer granddaughter.  His sire, Silver Deputy, a great grandson.  I would learn, the hard way, that this colt not only resembled Northern Dancer in physical appearance, but in his volatility.  Still, little did I know it at the time, but I was hooked.

The movie didn’t materialize – not yet – but this one horse has taught me more than I’ll ever know

…. to be continued

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Irish War Cry

Will Irish War Cry win the Belmont tomorrow?  He certainly has the credentials.  Genetically he is a powerhouse.  Researching my new book, Rivers of Gold, I discovered today’s champion Thoroughbreds, the world over, will find their ancestors in 4 distinct genetic streams.  More significant, to me at least, is they all were found flowing across the Canadian landscape.

From magnificently-bred aristocrats like Nearctic (sire of Northern Dancer), to Bunty Lawless, horseracing’s version of a street fighter, to US blueblood mares brought to Canada to avoid conscription, the bedrock of these streams is composed of an interesting, if not eclectic, collection of remarkable horses.

Irish War Cry’s family tree on both sides features the aristocrat Nearctic.

Irish War Cry’s exceptional sire, Curlin, features mightily in the Rivers of Gold saga.  And Irish War Cry’s dam, Irish Sovereign, a great, great Northern Dancer granddaughter, carries the tenacity of our Canadian hero.

I am, incidentally, not a great handicapper.  On race days, back when I was editor of Canada’s horse racing magazine, people would ask me for my selections so they could eliminate those horses from their bets.  I have, however, picked many winners.  Or more accurately, they chose me.  Often it happens in the walking ring prior to a race.  Some horses are just that spectacular.  I distinctly recall the afternoon I spotted the great mare, All Along.  What an amazing athlete.  She literally took my breath away.  As did Nijinsky and Vice Regal and so many others.

Leading up to the 2017 Kentucky Derby, I was immediately taken with Irish War Cry. Besides winning the Wood Memorial by almost 6 lengths, to me he had the look of a winner.  Yet the Kentucky Derby proved a bit of a disaster for any number of horses.  Among them, Irish War Cry.

Starting for post 17, hence auxiliary gate, Irish War Cry broke poorly and ducked to the inside.  Then he slid across the muddy track toward the rail.  In the meantime, Thunder Snow took to bucking like a rodeo bronc.  At one point his jockey, Christophe Soumillon, appeared to be at right angles to the saddle.  How he managed to stay aboard is a miracle.  Indeed, considering the condition of the track and use of the auxiliary gate, which appeared to propel horses toward the centre of the track, it is an even greater miracle there wasn’t a serious accident.

Needless to say, I am among those joining Hall of Fame jockey, Gary Stevens, in calling for a limit of 14 horses in the Kentucky Derby, thus eliminating the need for the auxiliary gate.

Professional handicappers have chosen Irish War Cry to win.  And while winning the 1-1/2 mile Belmont is no mean feat, Irish War Cry surely and the talent and the guts and the breeding to take him to the Winners’ Circle.

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Northern Dancer

The best part of being Northern Dancer’s biographer?  Following his magnificent descendants.  Most recently Churchill…not only winning English and Irish Guineas, but how he won.  In the English race he reminded me of the great Nijinsky in the 1970 Derby, when, with the finish post in sight, he simply slipped into overdrive.  Both Churchill’s dam and sire are Northern Dancer descendants.

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