Welcome to the world of internationally acclaimed author Muriel Lennox ..magnificent horses, brilliant storytelling, awesome books.
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
When perusing the map of my writing career it is easy to identify significant turning points. At each juncture there is a horse beckoning me leave the road well-traveled and meander off to search for the story behind the story. For me, writing about horses is similar to working with them and in this context, the horse leads, I follow, and the readers share in the adventure.
The most recent, Rivers of Gold, was particularly enlightening. This time I was lured into unknown territory by an entire herd of horses. Eventually they led me to the headwaters of the most powerful genetic streams fueling today’s Thoroughbred champions.
The many discoveries along the way included one gun fight, one poisoning, and the first US/Canada Underground Railway which was devised to save beautifully-bred horses from conscription in the US Civil war.
My fascination with horses began with Johnny, grandpa’s speedy black roadster. Indeed much of who I am and what I do can be traced back to my childhood on the Lennox homestead.
In my earliest memories I could sense when we were going on a horse adventure. The first indication was the spring in grandpa’s step as he whistled off to the barn. The next clue was grandma attempting to stuff me into a snowsuit.
Before long grandpa would appear at the front door with Johnny, hitched up to a sled and off we went across the snow-covered fields. From then, until now, I have believed horses to be magical creatures.
By the time I could talk I knew I wanted to spend my days in the company of horses. However my mother, an autocratic scholar, had charted a different destiny for her first-born. She was convinced I should follow her into the world of academia. Our ongoing horses versus homework battles simply fueled my determination.
From my perspective, things worked out quite well. I have lived the dream. The little girl who was enthralled with horses would, at one stage, end up rider-in-residence at the grand Windfields Farm estate, home to Winnie and Eddie (EP) Taylor. Windfields was also birthplace of some of the most extraordinary horses of the 20th Century: Northern Dancer, Nijinsky, The Minstrel, only to name a few. It was like having coveted VIP backstage passes to the horse world version of the Secret Garden or Narnia.
My dream job entailed keeping the small herd of riding horses schooled, exercised and ready for whenever Eddie Taylor chose to tour the property and environs on horseback. An avid horseman, Taylor continued to ride until he was felled by a severe stroke just prior to his 80th birthday.
That I ultimately chose storytelling as my profession also finds its roots and inspiration on the Lennox homestead. My great grandfather, Henry Lennox, escaped Ireland’s final devastating famine only to discover Irish were not welcomed in many areas of Canada. It was not unusual to see a sign in a shop window stating ‘Irish need not apply.’ With no options for employment, he joined a local militia unit, ironically to fight the Fenians, an army of Irish patriots stationed in the US, bent on invading Canada. At the end of his tour of duty he was offered £160 or 160 acres. He took the land. In 1880 he made the lengthy trek to Ontario’s Magnetawan area to build his new life.
The first thing he would discover was that his 160 acres was not exactly prime farm land. Instead it was 160 acres of dense dark forest located atop the Canadian Shield and inhabited by black flies, black bears, and giant moose.
To this day I marvel at how they were able to create arable fields from the bitterly cold and unforgiving landscape. In the winter, to generate much-needed cash for his family, my grandpa hitched up his horses and headed out to work in the logging camps.
While money was scarce, what they did have, in abundance, was music and laughter. My father, his brothers and sisters, were storytellers. From childhood into adulthood my cousins and I were captivated by their stories. At nights, when we were meant to be asleep in our beds, we would huddle around the ceiling grates attempting to listen to the adults share their tales in the kitchen below. We reveled in the sounds of their laughter and wanted to be just like them when we grew up.
My fascination with horses and storytelling intersected in 1968. The experience taught me that every horse has a story and often, as in the case of The Immigrant, an extraordinary story.
Imported from Ireland by a wealthy American fox hunting enthusiast, The Immigrant could jump like a stag. The problem for his new owner was that when the grand bay gelding got excited he would buck like a bronc. The Immigrant’s display of great athleticism generally left his hapless rider in the dirt and before long The Immigrant was banished to a riding stable.
He would, by the most curious and circuitous of circumstances, end up in Canada and several months later find himself in Mexico as the mount of Canadian equestrian, Jim Elder, at the 1968 Olympics.
Earlier that year my friend and I, unencumbered with any knowledge of publishing, started an equestrian magazine (Horse-Sport). We were in the stands when The Immigrant hurtled himself over the massive jumps. The bigger the obstacle, the bigger the buck. Elder looked as if he was having the time of his life as he piloted The Immigrant around the course – a ships captain riding giant wave upon giant wave in a hurricane. In a performance that even Zeus would have applauded, The Immigrant and Elder led the Canadian team to the country’s lone Gold Medal.
The experience of being at the Olympics, with accreditation to the international media centre, was, for this rookie reporter, a thrill in itself. Furthermore, as showjumping in Canada was not exactly big league, I was sufficiently knowledgeable to assist major media outlets with the back stories of our horses and riders.
The Immigrant and the Gold Medal not only altered Canada’s equestrian landscape, it surely helped our fledgling magazine grow its circulation. Ultimately, writing the story behind the story of this remarkable horse lit up my life and set me on a course that would allow me to spend my life in the company of horses.
Earlier that same year my passion for Thoroughbreds took flight when I was hired to emcee the Paddock Club, a live pre-race show at Woodbine racetrack. At the time I knew very little about Thoroughbreds except that Northern Dancer had won the Kentucky Derby. But then, every Canadian knew that. And, like everyone else, I was a big fan of our little horse.
My boss, Trent Frayne, reasoned my lack of knowledge of horseracing to be a good thing as my job entailed asking questions of a broad spectrum of racetrackers – from veterinarians to jockeys to trainers to racing officials.
Also arriving at Woodbine about the time I took to the stage was a son from the first crop of Northern Dancer offspring. Bred and raced by Windfields, Mrs. Taylor named this one Vice Regal. A golden chestnut, with a bright and curious eye and finely chiselled head, Vice Regal turned a post parade into a beauty pageant. I was smitten.
That fall Eddie Taylor decided to send his Windfields yearlings to the local Canadian Thoroughbred sale. While I knew very little about bloodlines, I thought I’d write a story about these young horses. To my good fortune, Harry Green, Windfields legendary stallion manager was my tour guide.
“Here’s one I think you will like,” smiled Green as he led a tall dark bay colt out of his stall. I was speechless. He was so elegant. Aristocratic. He would be named Nijinsky for the late, world-acclaimed, ballet dancer who believed he would be reincarnated as a horse.
In the spring of 1969, just as Nijinsky was about to begin his racing days in Ireland, I was invited to take over as editor of Canadian Horse, the country’s Thoroughbred racing magazine. Wow.
Talk about being in the right place at the right time. Our Canadian colt was now in the hands of Vincent O’Brien, one of the finest horse trainers on the planet. From thereon I followed Nijinsky’s life with uncommon devotion and in the process became an avid student of the Thoroughbred.
During my Windfields tenure I often traveled with Eddie and Winnie Taylor: to their farms in Maryland and Oshawa, horse sales, horse races, and other events including Jockey Club of Canada meetings. At the time the Taylor’s home-breds were lighting up the sky. Nijinsky had galloped to British Triple Crown glory. Where Nijinsky simply cruised over the famed Epsom turf on his way to the English Derby winners’ circle, his three-quarter brother, The Minstrel, had to fight every stride of the way. Still Canada and Windfields now boasted two winners in this, the race that defines the Thoroughbred.
My first book, E.P.Taylor: Horseman and His Horses, chronicles the story of the world’s eminent horse racing and breeding aficionado from his initial fascination with horses, to Nijinsky being crowned Horse of the World.
Over the years I have written for countless newspapers and magazines. I received my first Sovereign Award in 1989. I have been a finalist six times; winner three times.
In the summer of 1990 I was delivering a stack of signed copies of E. P. Taylor to Ursula Shutte, proprietress of the bookstore at Woodbine racetrack. On my way into the shop a gentleman was leaving and we passed in the doorway. When I put the books down on the counter Ursula said, “You see that man that just left, he is from the US and he came here specifically to buy a book on Northern Dancer.” She then asked if I knew of any books about Northern Dancer. I didn’t. “Well then why don’t you write one?” said she, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. Shortly thereafter I set out to write the biography of Northern Dancer. The first edition of Northern Dancer: the legend and his legacy rolled off the presses October 1995.
In 1996 my book, Northern Dancer, was serialized in Gallop, Japan’s leading Thoroughbred breeding and racing magazine. The popularity of Northern Dancer among Gallop’s million-or-so readers led editor-in-chief, Kunio Serizawa, to invite me to write a weekly series on the world’s great horses for his magazine. They called the series Supreme. It was the very best assignment of my career. Once we had worked out the details and deadlines, I was given free rein to write about whichever horse I chose.
I also must credit Mr. Serizawa and Gallop for making me a better writer. By this stage I had worked with any number of excellent editors: including Charis Wahl (Northern Dancer, Dark Horse) , Laura Demania (E.P.Taylor), and newspapermen Paul Warnick, John Brydon, and Cec Jennings. Each one helped me hone my skills.
Writing for translation offered an entirely different perspective. It wasn’t long before I realized I had to sculpt my stories differently. For the most part my Japanese readers would be unfamiliar North American horseracing personalities and locales. Furthermore, many English words have several meanings or connotations. I could not presume readers knew what I was referring to, hence absolute accuracy became critical. To guide me through the process I was provided with an excellent translator, Jiro Ohara.
“Japan is no exception, needless-to-say, in that Northern Dancer has exerted a great impact on horse racing. Our sport has been changed by his descendants, including Northern Taste, the all-time champion in Japan, and Viceregal, very much familiar to Canadian fans as well. This exciting book on the great Northern Dancer fully satisfies all the criteria in a work of non-fiction and is enhanced by the author’s enthusiasm, passion and witty sense of humour.
After reading this book I could not resist myself from shouting: “My mission is nothing but to introduce this to our readers!” Thanks to Ms. Lennox’s kindness the work will be published in the magazine in which I am responsible for editorial tasks. I have never felt so proud as an editor, than having this opportunity to introduce such a wonderful story to our readers.”
Kunio Serizawa, Editor-in chief, Daily Gallop, Tokyo, Japan
Working for Gallop I had the opportunity to revisit stories I had written in the past, either in my books, or while working for the magazines and newspapers. One afternoon I was writing about Nijinsky when suddenly I wondered why his grandsire, Nearctic, had not been considered for the Queen’s Plate, Canada’s most prestigious horse race. Nearctic raced prior to my infatuation with Thoroughbreds, hence I knew little about him. Still I thought there must have been an easy answer. I was wrong. Finding the truth became all-consuming. The result was Dark Horse: Unravelling the Mystery of Nearctic.
Gallop was also, indirectly, responsible for my next book, The Horse and The Tiger. This one began quite curiously. I had just finished writing a series on Secretariat. During a fairly brief, but spectacular, racing career, Secretariat became so popular in the US it was speculated he not only could run for president, but win. Needless to say, Secretariat would be a hard act to follow.
I was pacing my office wondering where to head next when I found myself staring at a poster of Northern Dancer surrounded by his sons and grandsons. The first horse, the one in the upper left corner, was Ajdal.
While I knew very little about him, there was something compelling me to tell his story. Ajdal, incidentally, is Arabic for light. Yet, for the longest time I wandered about in the dark.
For the first, and only time, during my Gallop tenure, the editorial staff became impatient. “When are you going to get to the horse?” they asked via my translator.
That same afternoon I was making an early exit from an event at Woodbine racetrack. As I was dashing out my friend, David Vaughan, was chatting with Woodbine vice-president, Bob Careless, and asked me why I was leaving so soon. I explained about my Japanese bosses and how I was having difficulty getting close to the story. “What horse?” asked Bob Careless. “Oh you wouldn’t know him,” said I. “Try me,” said he. “Okay, his name is Ajdal.” “Aaah, Ajdal,” replied Careless.
Not only had Bob Careless met Ajdal, his very good friend, was the head lad at the Newmarket stable where Ajdal had lived. A transatlantic phone call from Careless to his friend opened the door. For the next few days I was privileged to speak to a number of people who knew and had worked with Ajdal. To a person the answers to my questions about Ajdal were preceded with “Aaah, Ajdal.”
Not only did Ajdal’s story reign as the favourite of all the Supreme stories among Gallop readers, it became the base of my next book: The Horse and The Tiger.
The marvelous thing about writing these books is experiencing the magic of these remarkable animals. The latest one, Rivers of Gold, is no exception. The treasure at the conclusion of this epic journey was two-fold: a bonanza of insights into the genetic alchemy of today’s great Thoroughbred champions; and an introduction to their mighty ancestors.
Rivers of Gold was clearly a windfall for someone hooked on horses and storytelling.
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