Winners’ circle… lessons learned

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…


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winners’ circle… many years ago

The organizers of my recent talk at the library about Rivers of Gold asked me if I could work in some local history.  And so it was that Mildred Kane, first woman to have her horse win the coveted Kings’ Plate down the road at the old Woodbine racetrack, became the focal point for the standing-room only crowd.

While the story of Mildred and her horse Willie the Kid, is part of the fabric the Rivers of Gold saga, on this particular evening I had invited my neighbour, 14-year-old India Kane, Mildred’s great great great granddaughter, to share the stage.

India not only provided the actual Kings’ Plate trophy, photographs, paintings and other memorabilia, when asked about Mildred, India graciously and bravely spoke at length about Mildred.

Willie the Kid, incidentally, was the first training assignment of former jockey, Gordon ‘Pete’ McCann.  Several years later Eddie Taylor would put Pete in charge of the herds of Windfields Farms horses,  Indeed, were it not for the quiet genius of McCann the landscape of the Thoroughbred, world-wide, would be very different….

to be continued…


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Meanwhile back at the Winners’ circle

The winner, in this instance, is Northern Dancer: the legend and his legacy.  While published two decades ago, the book continues to enchant readers… often readers who have little, if any, interest in horse racing.

The catalyst for this blog was an email I received recently: “… I’d like you to know how much I am enjoying “Northern Dancer” and I am, what you may call someone who really does not know the difference between a “fetlock and a forelock” to quote one of your delightful accounts of horses, horse racing and the people involved… Totally impressed with your knowledge of the subject.  Engrossing reading!

I’d mentioned your book to my bridge club members– I’m not lending my book… I’d like them to buy it for themselves!”  Julia Tang

Interestingly the story of the book is not dissimilar to that of its subject.  Initially no one wanted to buy the horse; no one wanted to publish his biography.  Despite the fact I already had one book, E.P.Taylor, under my girth, Canadian publishers were unanimous in their rejections.  “Who wants to read a book about a horse?” they brayed.

Hence, at the suggestion of the late Judith Mappin, proprietor of Montreal’s iconic Doublehook bookstore, we started our own publishing operation-  This, the house that Northern Dancer built, continues to tell tales of our equine heros and heroines and their often colourful human companions.  The latest book – Rivers of Gold.

From the perspective of genetics, Northern Dancer bloodlines dominate Winners’ circles the world over.  His biography, by now read by millions, continues to delight and inspire.

It doesn’t get much better than that…

to be continued



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winners’ circles of the world… the secret formula

Canada, as I may have mentioned once or a thousand times, has produced some of the most powerful Thoroughbred bloodlines in the world.  Yet Canadians appear reluctant to champion this remarkable achievement.

Indeed we might do well to heed the advice of popular US senator, Bernie Sanders, in Toronto recently to speak about health care.  His speech was officially billed “What the US can learn from Canadian health care,” but he covered a wide range of topics.

While on the subject of health care Sanders made a suggestion to his Canadian audience  I now have pinned on the bulletin board:

“I know that Canadians are well known throughout the world as gentle and kind people.  Be a little bit louder.  Stand up and fight for what you have achieved.”

Northern Dancer. 1964 Kentucky Derby(CP photo)

Thank you Bernie Sanders for your insights

and Northern Dancer for your inspiration



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Rivers of Gold…launched

It seems somehow appropriate that Rivers of Gold would be launched amid wild weather conditions.  As I delved further and further into researching and writing the story I felt as if I was being carried along by the sheer force of these genetic streams.

A story, if you are as fascinated with Thoroughbred horses as I am, that took on a life of its own.  Simply, it demanded telling. My job, of course, not only to get the facts straight, but to bring the story to life.  Still, somewhere between the science of breeding astonishingly great hybrid horses and chronicling their tales and those of their significant humans, it felt a bit like white water rafting.

As with the writing of the book, the day of the launch began easily.  But by mid-afternoon the gentle breeze had morphed into gale force winds.  The sunshine had disappeared, replaced by driving rain so fierce windshield wipers could not compete.

The launch of Rivers was hosted by the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame at Woodbine racetrack.  The weather was so wild racing officials were unable to utilize the outdoor walking ring.

Still in some ways the launch felt surreal – as we sat among the installations and photographs honouring our great horses of the past, all the while cheering on their descendants as they braved the elements on the track.

Is it possible, Rivers of Gold, this great Canadian story, is destined to take the world of the Thoroughbred by storm…..


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Rivers of Gold: the launch

How exciting to launch Rivers of Gold at the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame this Sunday amid all the installations celebrating Canada’s remarkable horses and their humans… and on Canadian International day.

Writing Rivers of Gold was incredibly challenging.  And rewarding.

I have been writing about horses most of my life – as a magazine editor, feature writer for Japan’s Gallop magazine, a heap of books including Northern Dancer’s biography, and, of course, I was privileged to spend all those years with Eddie and Winnie Taylor at Windfields, home of the most dominant bloodlines in history.  Yet, Rivers of Gold showed me a new way of seeing the world of Thoroughbreds.

Last evening I checked the fields for both the E.P.Taylor and Pattison International stakes.. and yes, every one of these magnificent horses will find their ancestors in our Rivers of Gold.

So not only will I be signing books (and helping raise money for the Hall of Fame) all I will have to do is wander over to the Walking Ring to gaze upon the outstanding horses in these big races… and marvel at how this story has turned out.

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the Eddie Taylor approach

One of the many things Eddie Taylor taught me was when you set out on any sort of enterprise, everything will invariably take longer, cost more, and be more frustrating than you imagined.

My latest book, Rivers of Gold, is a stellar example.  Initially I thought I’d polish this one off in a few months.  I was, of course, wrong.

Indeed, the first draft of the book was complete and we were engrossed in triple-checking the names of horses when I stumbled upon the story behind the story of Sherriff’s Deputy, dam of the mighty Curlin.  We stopped production and the entire manuscript was put on hold until we could include this part of the saga.

Taylor took these sorts of complications in his stride.  When the project was finally complete and ready to fly, he took great enjoyment in selling whatever it was.  Indeed, I distinctly recall the afternoon he returned from the races at Saratoga where he spent his afternoons selling shares in The Minstrel.  “You’re really going to like this one,” he said. “He’s so much like Northern Dancer…”

It did not bother him that he sold the flashy chestnut colt as a yearling for $200,000, only to pay $4.5 million for a half-interest after The Minstrel won the 1977 English Derby.

Rivers of Gold will be officially launched at the Horse Racing Hall of Fame pavilion at Woodbine, on 15 October, the day of the Pattison Canadian International, the E.P.Taylor Stakes, and the Nearctic Stakes.

With all the beautiful horses, at the track that Eddie built, surrounded by photos and memories of so many of the horses and humans in Rivers of Gold, and in the steps of my mentor, I too will enjoy every minute.

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what would Eddie Taylor do?

Nijinsky as a yearling.
Peter Winnants photo

Often when mired in indecision I ask myself “what would Eddie Taylor do?”  And am immediately rewarded with memories of the man’s eternal and cheerful optimism.

When he set out to breed great horses in Canada his Kentucky friends, to a man, warned him he was on a fool’s mission…too much snow and ice.  Taylor, of course, paid them no heed.

Eddie and his wife,Winnie, were in the stands in 1948 when the mighty Citation was anointed US Triple Crown honours.  That same afternoon Eddie was inspired to breed the next Citation.

Instead of driving back to Canada they went to Kentucky for the sales.  They purchased 5 yearlings.  In years to come, two of these youngsters would become distinguished as the maternal grandparents of British Triple Crown winner, the magnificent Nijinsky.

Nijinsky’s sire, of course, Northern Dancer.

… a continuing reminder of Taylor’s cheerful optimism… and the magic therein..

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Windfields memories …

Most weeks I post a ‘Dancer of the week on the “Northern Dancer: legend and legacy” Facebook site.  This past week I was drawn to the mare You’resothrilling via her offspring, a filly named Happily.  It wasn’t long before I discovered You’resothrilling is equine aristocracy and further evidence of Windfields Farm’s extraordinary influence on today’s Thoroughbreds.

Sister to Giant’s Causeway, Europe’s Horse of the Year in 2000.  Her offspring include Marvelous, winner of the Irish 1000 Guineas and Gleneagles, Cartier Champion Two Year Old Colt 2014.

Both sides of You’resothrilling’s ancestry boast Windfields bloodlines: exceptional mares like South Ocean, Glorious Song, Natalma, and Ballade.  Eddie Taylor would have been pleased.  His mission was to breed great horses and to that end he likely spent several fortunes investing in the finest fillies and mares on either side of the Atlantic. 

Between the Taylor’s farms in Oshawa and Maryland, there were hundreds of mares roaming the lush paddocks.  Indeed some of my fondest memories were the hours I spent, camera in hand, doing little but watching and photographing the mares and their babies.

This is a Coolmore photo and the little foal next to You’resothrilling would grow up to be named Happily and she would win the G1 Moyglare Stakes at The Curragh last weekend.  Happily.

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Windfields Farm .. memories

Beyond riding around the estate and surrounding area with Eddie Taylor, some of my most favourite Windfields memories were the times I spent with his wife, Winnifred.  She was charming, intelligent, gracious, all the while blessed with a wicked sense of humour and marvelous spirit.  We often played backgammon.  I doubt I ever won a game.

When Eddie was out of town we’d go to the races in her ancient Rolls Royce, a birthday gift from her husband.  Her standard wager was a $5 place bet on one of the morning line selections.

Every fall Winnie would be found in the den surrounded by all sorts of dictionaries and reference books.  Her job was to name the horses.  Occasionally I was invited asked to assist.  So when the lists of yearlings needing a name came out we were asked to tea.  Always served at 4.  Always accompanied by plates of biscuits.

Winnie, of course, chose the name Northern Dancer.  Which is appropriate, as he was, essentially, her horse.  Indeed, she was one of the very few people our feisty little Canadian fireball actually liked.  A relationship that began when he was a foal and continued throughout their lives.

… to be continued




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