Dark Horse: a horse is a horse, right?

One of the most fascinating, and rewarding, aspects to writing biographies of horses, especially the exceptional ones, is discovering their essential natures.  Hence, what made them stand out.  For starters, I found that they are often independent.  For example: Nearctic, sire of Northern Dancer, according to Bill Reeves, Windfields broodmare manager:  “..he had the look.  He would stare at you – as if to say ‘I am king.'”  Nor did he  follow his mom, Lady Angela, around the field: “… instead he would be standing at the gate, on his own.” (Dark Horse: unraveling the mystery of Nearctic)

Interestingly, years later, his Northern Dancer was often found at the gate on his own.  Indeed, that, and his diminutive size, were the first things that drew Winifred Taylor to their cheeky little bay colt.  In later years, Mrs. Taylor would reign as the sole human this highly independent  horse would actually tolerate and like.



Northern Dancer’s paternal grandsire, Nearco, was also extremely independent: “…Tesio (Nearco’s breeder/owner) was an exacting trainer…but no matter how severely he tested Nearco’s superiority, the grand colt barely turned a hair… Nearco was neither bad-tempered nor difficult.  At the sound of the starters pistol he simply galloped off and won with coolness and detachment..”

Nearctic’s grandsire, Hyperion, also trotted to his own drummer: “…His rider didn’t have much faith in Hyperion…while the other young horses snorted and kicked up their


heels as they scampered over Newmarket’s lush turf, Hyperion seemed content to amble along.  He was in no way affected by the antics of the others.  He also had the habit of coming to a complete halt whenever and wherever the notion struck him..”

Hyperion would, of course, win the English Derby and be leading stallion in Great Britain in six different years and twice leading sire of broodmares.







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Dark Horse and ‘the sport of the King’

Meanwhile back inside the book, Dark Horse: unraveling the mystery of Nearctic.  Let’s face it, writing a book is not only hard work, but it takes forever.  Start to finish, Dark Horse was particularly challenging.  Still, in retrospect, I learned so much.

For example:  while Thoroughbred racing is often referred to as the ‘sport of kings,’ I would discover that the actual designation was the ‘sport of the King.’  Singular.  The monarch behind the saying was Charles II.  Indeed, Thoroughbred racing, as we know it today, began with the ascension of to the British throne of Charles II.

Highly visible at Newmarket, he could be found riding in a race, surveying the gallops from his pavilion at the top of the hill, or hacking around on Old Rowley, his trusted riding  horse.  (The 8 furlong Rowley Mile, site of British classics, 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas, derives it’s name from the King’s mount.)

An accomplished rider, Charles II, must also have been physically fit, for he frequently rode his own horses in races conducted over 3 heats.  He was also reputed to enjoy dancing and partying long into the night.  In 1671, English diarist, John Evelyn, described Newmarket’s post-race festivities: “I found the jolly blades racing, dancing, feasting, and reveling, more resembling a luxurious rout, than a Christian court.”

In the midst of all this cavorting, the world was inching toward the establishment of the Thoroughbred, as Charles II commissioned his Master of the Horse to procure the finest bloodlines in order to improve the quality of his running horses.

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the patriarch

Nearctic, sire of the mighty Northern Dancer,


rules as patriarch of the most dominant sire line in the long history of the Thoroughbred.

How was it so little was known of this horse?

To uncover the answers, I ended up on an extraordinary journey.  Along the way I met a remarkable cast of characters: rogues and royalty, gamblers and charlatans.   I was also introduced to the ‘who’s who’ of outstanding horses: from Nearco and Hyperion to Pretty Polly and Old Bald Peg.  Nearctic, I would discover, in many ways represented the sum total of Thoroughbred brilliance.

Dark Horse: unraveling the mystery of Nearctic was published in the fall of 2001.  Shortly thereafter, General Distributing, the warehouse containing Dark Horse and countless Canadian books, was caught up in a lawsuit following the bankruptcy of Stoddard Publishing.  Our books were collateral damage.  It wasn’t until the following spring that the legal and financial haggling came to an end.  By then book stores were making way for the new spring titles.   Dark Horse and an entire generation of Canadian books lost their place in the sun.  That was almost 20 years ago.  And, for me, several books ago, but I am still not ready to quit.

The manuscript of my next book is out with the “readers,” so while I await their opinions, I plan to embark several projects: one of which is to encourage Thoroughbred owners and breeders and aficionados to take the time to explore the life of Nearctic.

…to be continued

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Dark Horse: the story behind the story continued

At the core of long-distance, or book, writing there is stubborn determination fueled by an

Nijinsky as a yearling.
Peter Winnants photo

innate curiosity.  Hence, when I could find no information on Nearctic at Windfields,  I phoned Bill Talon, editor of the Daily Racing Form, and asked to use their library.  Nearctic raced from 1956 to 1959.  Life before the internet.  Instead, copies of the “Form” were bound into giant books each weighing at least 20 pounds.

It wasn’t long before I was lured into a maze of questionable events and circumstances.  I also began to suspect why great chunks of the story had vanished.  My interest peaked, I ended up going through every Daily Racing Form of the 4 year period Nearctic raced.  Because of the bulk of the bound editions, and the fragile condition of the paper, I could not photocopy anything.  Instead I made notes of every mention of Nearctic: performance charts and articles.  While I didn’t know it at the time, these notes, ultimately, would form the skeleton of Dark Horse.

Still, I didn’t plan on writing yet another book.

I had been writing my Supreme column for Weekly Gallop for several years.  Despite the pressure of having to file a story once a week, 52 weeks of the year, and the intricacies of writing for translation to Japanese, I quite enjoyed the assignment.  I particularly liked working with my translator, Jiro Ohara.

Then one gloomy day, our editor-in-chief, Kunio Serizawa, was removed from his position at the helm of Weekly Gallop. Members of his team, myself included, were considered collateral damage.

When this occurred Canada’s Nijinsky had been the subject of my column.  Tall, elegant, he bore no resemblance to his sire, Northern Dancer.  Instead, I began to realize that he reflected his grand-sire, Nearctic: the horse no-one seemed to know much about.  Or, as I would discover, did not wish to talk about.

I was the self-appointed president of the Nijinsky fan club.  When he raced I was at the helm of Canadian Horse, the country’s Thoroughbred magazine, and I followed Nijinsky’s every hoof print with uncommon devotion.  So when the Weekly Gallop assignment came to an end, I thought I’d look more closely at his grand-sire, Nearctic.

I still did not consider writing yet another book…. to be continued



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Dark Horse: tackling the mystery

I thought accessing information on Nearctic would be relatively simple.  I had, after-all, written both E.P.Taylor: horseman and his horses, and Northern Dancer: the legend and his legacy.  I had worked for the Taylor family as rider-in-residence at their Windfields estate.  Taylor’s daughter, Judith Mappin, was a close friend and business partner in our  publishing company, Beach House Books.

I began my research at Windfields.  Office manager, Loraine O’Brien, had catalogued, filed, and stashed every scrap of paper pertaining to the farm, its horses, and employees.  Everything was stored in large cardboard filing boxes in a locked storage room above the old stud barn.  On top of each box she had methodically listed the contents.  Loraine looked up Nearctic and the corresponding box number and off we went.  Hence was confident I would easily find the answer to any and all questions regarding Nearctic very quickly.  That done, I would return to writing my column for Japan’s Weekly Gallop.

The storage room was small and hot, the air was close and stale.  After several hours we had come up with one slim file folder containing Nearctic’s registration, the cover of the June 1959 US Jockey Club Racing Calendar featuring a photo of Nearctic, and copies of a couple of press clippings.

It didn’t seem possible.  Nearctic was the sire of Northern Dancer, grand-sire of Nijinsky.  Genetically, he was not only one very important animal, he was the most exquisitely-bred horse ever born in Canada.   Furthermore, he raced for years.

I, of course, had no intention of writing a book about Nearctic.  Not then.  I just wanted answers.   …. to be continued.

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My mission to solve the mystery of Nearctic began as a casual question: where was


Nearctic when the other horses were entering the starting gate for the 1957 Queen’s Plate?  He was, after-all, the most regally-bred horse in the country.  I knew that his owner, EP Taylor, had gone to great lengths, and expense, to acquire Nearctic’s dam, Lady Angela from England; and even greater lengths and expense to negotiate the mating that would produce Nearctic.

Other than that, and that he sired Northern Dancer, I knew little about Nearctic.  I was a youngster when Nearctic raced and not long after his son won the Kentucky Derby, Nearctic was exiled to Maryland to stand at Mrs. DuPont’s Woodstock Farm.

I was writing a lengthy piece for my series, Supreme, for leading Japanese magazine, Weekly Gallop.  I was at the part where EP Taylor and his wife,Winifred, not only each had their own racing stables, they each had a horse entered in the 1957 Queen’s Plate.  Chopadette was owned by Mrs. Taylor and he owned Lyford Cay.  The good-natured rivalry between husband and wife was often reported by Canada’s sports writers.

EP Taylor offered to buy Lyford Cay’s jockey, Avelino Gomez, a brand new Cadillac if his horse won the race.  He did.  Mrs. Taylor’s Chopadette was second.  Avelino Gomez was soon driving a black Cadillac, the size of a yacht around the backstretch.

Both Lyford Cay and Chopadette were born of Windfields crop of 1954.  As was Nearctic.  I knew he had raced at two and won stakes both in Canada and US.  It was at this juncture I asked the question: “What happened to Nearctic?”

I thought finding the answer would be simple.  I was wrong…. to be continued

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Dark horse: story behind the story

The seeds that grew into Dark Horse took root when I was presented with two distinct

Val d’Argent

challenges:  a young horse, and an old mystery.  The two entered my life almost in tandem.  Initially I thought I would solve both reasonably quickly.  I was wrong.

The young horse: Val d’Argent, proved extremely difficult to handle.  He appeared to either dislike, or fear humans.  Likely with good cause, hence always ready to attack or defend himself.  In the early days, when I entered Val’s stall, I left the door slightly ajar, lest I had to make a hasty exit.

The old mystery did not unfold much more smoothly, but somewhere along the line I came to understand that the horse and the mystery were connected.

Val d’Argent’s dam, French Influence, was a Northern Dancer granddaughter; his sire, Silver Deputy, a great grandson of Northern Dancer. It had not occurred to me to go back one more generation: back to Nearctic.

Still, getting to the truth about Nearctic was almost as challenging as attempting to lay a brush on Val d’Argent’s bristly hide… to be continued




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Great horses, great books, and the story behind the story

There are many, many stages in the writing and the publishing of books: the glimmer of an idea; research; more research; the first draft; second draft; third draft.  This afternoon my latest book, Secret life of horses, entered the next stage when it went out to the “readers” for their input.  Phew.

So now I will have a little time on my hands before entering the next phase: working with my editor.  Hence, since we all are still in some form of isolation, I thought it would be a good time to share the various, and sometimes rocky, paths my other books have taken.

While Northern Dancer: the legend and his legacy, with over a million readers, is the most widely read, likely the most important work is Dark Horse: unraveling the mystery of Nearctic.  It is also, in my opinion, as book that everyone with an interest in Thoroughbreds should read, because almost 100% descend from this one aristocratic stallion.

Not long into the research of Dark Horse, I was astonished to discover that very little was known of this very important horse.  Later I would discover that there were people that did not want this story told.  Indeed, there are parts to this plot that would make my friend and bestselling author, the late Dick Francis, advise me, one more time, to turn my talents to writing fiction.

Perhaps I shall, but in the meantime, and while I await the verdicts of the Secret life of horses “readers,” I will share the story behind the story of Dark Horse.

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Cigar: The Minstrel and “Rivers of Gold”

At this moment on our planet, we have to be content with memories.  And surely our horses have provided us with a slew of great moments to remember.  How about starting with Cigar, for it was on this date, 27 March 1996, this magnificent grandson of The Minstrel, won the inaugural Dubai World Cup.


The basis for my book “Rivers of Gold” was an article I was asked to write about Canada’s contribution to the gene pool for Thoroughbred Times.  The magazine titled the series Canadian Saga, yet it was inspired by the great US Champion Cigar.

The year was 1996.  Woodbine was hosting the Breeders’ Cup.  Cigar was the headliner.  I was now writing for the Japanese magazine, Gallop, and had fairly camped out in the stable area.

Physically Cigar was perfection.  When an equine conformation expert measured and scanned Cigar’s superstructure the big bay colt was awarded an A+ placing him in the top 3% of all Thoroughbreds.  According to his jockey, Gerry Bailey, it was Cigar’s efficiency of motion that set him apart.  Ordinary horses were always expending much more energy simply to keep up…. to be continued

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The Minstrel continued: panning for gold

Following the lengthy van ride, the son of Fleur and Northern Dancer and the other Windfields youngsters had settled into their stalls in the stable area just north of the Keeneland Sales Pavilion.

Rivers of Gold

Among the prospective buyers wandering up and down the aisles was a group of Irish horse traders led by Vincent O’Brien.  The troupe following behind the Irish trainer that muggy July day included O’Brien’s son-in-law, John Magnier, and British betting pools heir, Robert Sangster.

When Nijinsky was retired from racing Irish and English syndicates set out to raise money to have the horse stand at stud on their side of the Atlantic.  Nijinsky’s owner, Charles Englehard, dismissed their efforts.  He wanted Nijinsky in the US.  For the Irish, who have reigned as the world’s most eminent horse traders since God was a boy, Nijinsky was perfection.

Because Nijinsky had been purchased at the Canadian horse auction, they reasoned there had to be more horses of his scope and caliber.  Before long they had hatched a plan to mine North American auctions for colts with the potential to be the next Nijinsky.

Contrary to Eddie Taylor’s philosophy (he generally only bought fillies at auction), they had no interest in anything but colts.  Where Taylor was in the game for the long term in breeding great horses, it would appear that the Irish prospectors were more interested in immediate return on investment

With Sangster’s money and O’Brien’s shrewd eye, they would buy these ‘baby stallions’ before the horses began racing.  Should they excel, as in the case of Nijinsky, their syndicate would profit greatly.  Optimistically, Magnier began building Coolmore, the farm of his dreams, and Sangster was dispatched to raise the necessary millions to fuel their expedition….”  to be continued

from “Rivers of Gold

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