Justify and Canada’s ‘Rivers of Gold’

Justify, needless to say, has renewed my mission to champion Canadian-bred horses.  His lineage is brimming with some of the very best Thoroughbreds this country has produced.  And a lot of them: Nearctic, Northern Dancer, Flaming Page, Nijinsky, Windfields, Victoriana, Vice Regent, Iribelle, Bunty Lawless, Ladder, Mintwina, Bunty’s Flight, Mint Copy, Storm Bird, Awesome Again, and Deputy Minister.

Windfields equine royalty
British Triple Crown 1970

One of the things that distinguish our horses is their toughness and resilience.  Let’s face it, with our weather they have to be and I am reminded of the time, all those years ago, when Eddie Taylor set out to breed great champion Thoroughbreds.  His Kentucky friends advised him that with all that ice and snow he was on a fool’s mission.  Thoroughbreds, they assured him, are accustomed to temperate climates.  In their opinion he might as well be attempting to breed and raise Thoroughbreds on an ice floe.

Yet as with our horses, Eddie Taylor was tough and resilient.  His passion for horses was unrivaled.  Prior to Taylor, Joseph Seagram met with the same skepticism.  Yet, he too, shrugged off the naysayers.  Year after year, both men set out to purchase the finest blueblood mares Britain had to offer.  Today, Seagram and Taylor mares provide the bedrock for Canada’s Rivers of Gold and solid foundation for exceptional animals like Justify.


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Justify, the Triple Crown and Canada’s “Rivers of Gold”

No doubt about it, Justify deserves Horse of the Year, if not the century.


We are all in awe of his courage, stamina and power.  Hence, at least from my perch, it comes as no surprise he boasts a long and marvelous list of Canadian ancestors.  Indeed his lineage includes the mighty Bunty Lawless, Kings Plate, two-time Canadian International winner and, according to Gordon ‘Pete’ McCann,”the toughest horse I have known.”

And since McCann, former Windfields Farm resident trainer, told me this long after he had retired from training countless champions, he clearly knew a ‘tough’ horse when he saw one.  Or in the case of McCann, a former jockey, when he rode one.  Indeed, much of the enormous success of the legendary Windfields Farm is due to this extraordinary horseman and his ability to calm the demons inhabiting the souls of some of the most challenging horses.  Horses that included the ever-volatile Nearctic, sire of Northern Dancer, and the sole stallion in modern history responsible for the ‘speed gene’ in Thoroughbreds.

Writing and researching “Rivers of Gold” demanded I take the ‘convergence factor’ into account when dealing with the hybrid Thoroughbred and in the process introduced me to so many of Justify’s Canadian ancestors

Hence, over the next while we will look at many of these unsung heros and heroines.



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Justify-able boasting

US Senator Bernie Sanders’ suggestion that we Canadians need to learn to boast a bit is not as easy as it sounds.

Since winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, there have been any number of articles analyzing Justify’s bloodlines.  And since stellar members of his gene pool descend from Canada’s “Rivers of Gold,” I was pleased to read a US headline stating Justify’s lineage traces to an English Triple Crown winner.

I, of course, thought they were referring to Nijinsky.

Nijinsky winning
1970 St Leger

Our magnificent Canadian-bred colt won the English Triple Crown in 1970 and was the first horse to win the three races since Bahram in 1935.  No horse has duplicated the feat since Nijinsky.

But no, the analyst was not referring to Canada’s Nijinsky.  Instead, a horse named Common, English Triple Crown winner in 1891.  In the late 1800’s American horseman, James R. Keene purchased a mare, Sundown, in foal to Common, and that it is in the far reaches of Justify’s lineage.

Nijinsky can be found three times in Justify’s family tree….  now, that’s royal lineage… and, for Justify, clearly something to make him proud.


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Justify and a bit of magic

(Glennwood Farm pic)

The road to Justify began a long time ago, likely back to the days when, as a child, John Gunther was dispatched to live on an Alberta ranch.  There his life long fascination with horses began with a team of draft horses.  As a young man, on weekends Gunther could be found at Vancouver’s Hastings Park.  During those days he not only fell in love with horse racing, but with a young woman with a penchant for show jumping.  As the story goes, he both bought her a horse and proposed marriage.  The young couple moved to the Yukon.  The horse, a Thoroughbred mare, was bred and she gave Gunther his first racehorse.  Named Pallascheck, he raced at Hasting Park and won four.

Gunther purchased the mare Magical Illusion at the 2005 Keeneland sale.  The following year she was bred to Ghostzapper.  The result, a chestnut filly.  As a yearling she was sent to auction but did not make her reserve, so was returned to Gunther’s Glennwood Farm.

They named her Stage Magic…. and she is the dam of Justify.

And the really magical bit is we find Nijinsky twice in her distaff side and again in the dam’s side of Justify’s late sire, Scat Daddy.  For me, in this lifetime of horses, there was never a more magical animal than Nijinsky.

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Justify-ably proud

Justify, Kentucky Derby winner, is clearly made of the ‘right stuff.’  Not only do his mighty  ancestors include Canadian stalwarts Deputy Minister, Storm Bird, and Nijinsky – indeed Nijinsky appears 3 times – but his breeders, John and Tanya Gunther, hail from Langley, British Columbia.

In fact, Justify was not the only starter in the Derby to have been born on the Gunther’s Kentucky operation, Glennwood Farm.  Vino Rosso was the other.   Now that is quite remarkable considering there were almost 21,000 foals born in the US in 2015.

While Gunther commutes between British Columbia and Kentucky, Tanya is at the helm of the breeding farm and her father credits much of their success to her tremendous commitment in studying generations of bloodlines.

Canada’s Rivers of Gold, four genetic streams that began in earnest a decade ago, have resulted in so many outstanding horses.  And on the first Saturday in May 2018, galloping in the rain and over a slick, muddy track, these gallant young colts surely benefited from the Canadian hardiness factor.

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now to Newmarket, England and more Canadian pride

Of the 14 of UK/Europe’s very best colts lining up in the starting stalls at the historic Newmarket course on Saturday, how many are direct descendants of Canada’s Northern Dancer?  All of them!

Gustav Klimt

No horse in the long and colourful history of the Thoroughbred has had such a profound impact on the breed.  The world over.

Which has me thinking about Eddie and Winnie Taylor and their Windfields Farm.  The Taylor’s commitment to breeding great horses was colossal.

Almost 5 decades had passed between the time young Eddie Taylor became smitten with horses and the day he led his colt, Northern Dancer, into the Kentucky Derby winners’ circle.  And that was only the beginning of this remarkable legacy.

Tomorrow, on both sides of the Atlantic, a total of 36 brilliant colts will be imbued, at some level, with the indomitable spirit and remarkable will to win of the Taylor’s colt, Canada’s horse, Northern Dancer.  Now there’s cause for a little (unaccustomed) Canadian pride.  And gratitude to the Taylors.


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the ‘Dancer, the Derby, and the Canadian hardiness factor

Northern Dancer. 1964 Kentucky Derby(CP photo)

On the first Saturday in May 1964 a very leg-weary Northern Dancer stood in the winners’ circle at Churchill Downs, a blanket of red roses strewn across his withers.  In that instant he became Canada’s Horse and we Canadians (uncharacteristically) took to the streets in celebration.

Following thru on advice given by US senator Bernie Sanders that Canadians should take  pride in this country’s achievements, it’s time, once again for a little (uncharacteristic) boasting.  As of the post position draw earlier this week, I can confirm that every horse in the 2018 Kentucky Derby will not only find Northern Dancer in it’s bloodlines, but a cast of other Canadian-bred mares and stallions.

The Thoroughbred is, of course, a hybrid, and as such, f0llows the scientific rules as laid out by Gregor Mendel – the converging certain genetic streams has the promise of creating a hardier hybrid.   Which is, I believe, happened here.

And then there’s the weather.  Our horses have no choice but to be hardy.


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… more Canada and Canadian horses

“The world needs more Canada,” advised Bono in 2016.  The U2 front man was referring to our compassion.   When it comes to horses, the world of the Thoroughbred is, of course,  brimming with Canadian bloodlines.

Vice Regent

Looking at 2018 Kentucky Derby contenders is a trip down memory lane and specifically, my years working for Eddie and Winnie Taylor on the Windfields estate.  We often made the 45 minute drive to the Oshawa farm…enjoyed a picnic lunch at the Stone House, toured the paddocks housing the mares and foals, and always visited Vice Regent.

And while, initially, Eddie Taylor was one of the scant few to believe in this grand stallion, Vice Regent would emerge an awesome sire.  His most famous son, Deputy Minister, is

grandsire to the mighty Curlin. And the family resemblances are hard to miss

Good Magic is among the Curlin sons headed to the 2018 Kentucky Derby


Good Magic – Coady pic

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Curlin.. “Rivers of Gold” poster boy

While Canadians appear to be reticent braggers… we are okay with pointing out obvious achievements.  Only not too loudly.  Hence today we look at Curlin, the outstanding champion and US Horse of the Year 2007 and 2008.

That 4 of the leading contenders for 2018 Kentucky Derby are sons of Curlin should be no great surprise.


Indeed when I set out to write Rivers of Gold and discovered   Curlin hailed from the convergence of Canada’s genetic streams, I knew I was on to something.

Writing Rivers of Gold, a book combining history, the science of genetics, while weaving a massive and colourful tapestry of stories of horses and their people was challenging.  And tiring.  Yet when, near the end of this lengthy journey, I was introduced to Curlin’s dam, Sherriff’s Deputy, I was totally revitalized.

Sherriff’s Deputy (dam of Curlin)

Indeed, the story of this remarkable mare, was the highlight of the entire saga and I thank Shannon White for her assistance in filling in the details.

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bragging rights….

While attempting to adhere to the sage advice of US Senator Bernie Sanders that we Canadians need to shout about our achievements, bragging does not come easily.  Nonetheless, I’ve decided to give it a try.

But first, let me assure you that while I have written about sport with horses – and specifically Thoroughbreds – most of my life, I was clearly taken aback by all the things I discovered while researching and writing Rivers of Gold.

Since the Kentucky Derby is but a few weeks away I thought this would be a good place to start the bragging attempts.

When my book Northern Dancer: the legend and his legacy was published 20 years ago, about half the Derby field traced it’s lineage to Canadian bloodlines.  Hence our Rivers of Gold.  And, essentially thru Northern  Dancer and his sire, Nearctic.

It appears that in the intervening years the intensity of these hardy bloodlines has escalated to the point that today, the top 2o contenders for the Run for the Roses, all can find their ancestors in Canada’s Rivers of Gold.

… to be continued, as will the bragging

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