Rivers of Gold – excerpts: part 10

(Not dissimilar to the actual writing of a book, this blog appears to be setting its own course:  part excerpts, and part diary of long-distance writing.  For me its like watching a home movie as I recall various turning points along the trail.  For the most part, at each juncture, there is a horse beckoning me off in a new direction.  In this instance, it was Nearco, sire of Nearctic, grandsire of Northern Dancer.  The importance of Nearco in the story of the Thoroughbred is colossal.  Hence I found myself reading everything written by, and about, his owner/breeder, Federico Tesio.)

Rivers of Gold

“… Mendel’s work would become integral to Tesio’s life-long passion and commitment to the creation of champion Thoroughbreds.  In his book, “Breeding the Thoroughbred racehorse,” Tesio writes:

“Mendel had had experimented with two varieties of peas, a tall and a dwarf variety. Crossng the tall peas with the dwarfs he had obtained hybrids.  These hybrids were not medium-sized, as one might have expected, but tall.  These tall hybrids, in turn, when crossed with each other, had produced tall plants and dwarfs in proportion of three tall ones to one dwarf.  In other words, nature had a tendency to return their breeds to their original pure state.

“Mendel gave a clear explanation of this interesting fact. To me is was a revelation.  I had finally understood why two thoroughbred horses, although born of the same sire and dam, in other words, full brothers, may turn out to be the one a chestnut and a great runner, the other a bay and a mediocre performer, although both are equally well built and without apparent faults.


“The reason is that the horse, which in Italy we call “purosangue,” is actually anything but “pureblooded.”  He is, in fact, a hybrid and as a hybrid he must follow the law of Mendel.”

…to be continued

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Rivers of Gold – excerpts: part 9

(My interest in genetics was born, in no small part, of necessity.  The thing, of course, that distinguishes the Thoroughbred from other horse breeds is nervous energy.  Many years ago my friend, Judy Mappin, and I found ourselves with a horse who’s nervous energy was beyond the boiling point.

Rivers of Gold

At the time, Judy (first born of EP and Winifred Taylor) was at the helm of Windfields, so was one of the reasons we opted to stable this horse, Val d’Argent, there.  The other reason was Allan Kerr, stallion manager at the famed horse farm.  I knew of no better horseman, and hoped that if anyone could help us understand and cope with Val d’Argent, it was Kerr.  Simultaneously, I was researching into the the life of Val’s great-great-granfather, Nearctic, for my book, Dark Horse: unraveling the mystery of Nearctic.

Genetics, I discovered, was at the forefront of this saga.  All of which led me to read everything ever written about Federico Tesio, likely the most important horse breeder in history.)

“…A man of limited financial means. Tesio’s wealth was in his genius.  Animals that emanated from his modest broodmare band continue to have a profound impact on the breed, world-wide.  None more so that the mighty Nearco, sire of Nearctic, grandsire of Northern Dancer.

Tesio’s “AHA” moment occured in 1906 on a train traveling from Pisa to Rome.  The man sitting opposite him appeared engrossed in a small book.  When the fellow stepped out of the compartment he left the book on his seat.  Tesio’s curiosity compelled him to pick it up.

Val d’Argent

Entitled “Mendelism,” it was a translation from German into English of Mendel’s theory on crossing pure breeds and the resulting hybrids.  Tesio was instantly captivated.  When his traveling companion returned he found Tesio totally absorbed and suggested that he finish reading.  Before they reached Rome Tesio had devoured and memorized the material…” to be continued

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Rivers of Gold – excerpts: part 8

(researching and writing Rivers of Gold I was dragged further and further back in time…eventually, all the way back to the very origins of the Thoroughbred.  Back to Charles II who was determined to improve the quality of his running horses.)

“…Thoroughbred sport, as we know it today, began with the ascension of Charles II.  The expression ‘sport of kings’ orignially was ‘the sport of the king.’  The king, of course, Charles II.  An enthusiastic patron of race meets at Newmarket, the British monarch could often be spotted surveying the gallops from his pavillion at the top of the hill, or touring the grounds on Old Rowley, his trusted riding horse.

Rivers of Gold

An accomplished horseman, CharlesII was reputed to be physically fit and brimming with energy.  By day he frequently rode his own horses in races-no mean feat as they were generally conducted over three grueling heats.  In the evenings his stamina would be further tested as he and his court were known to party until dawn…

“…Prior to the mid-17th Century the most popular native breed of running horse was the now extinct Scottish Galloway.  These sturdy, swift ponies were surefooted, spirited and seldom grew aller than 14 hands.  The Galloway pulled carriages, carried riders and were often found careening across racecourse throughout Southern and Yorkshire…

In order to produce a faster, more streamlined horse, the favoured breed introduced into the sturdy native strains was the Arabian…

Thus the Thoroughbred hybrid is quite extraordinary.  It combines desert horses, animals able to endure extreme heat, designed to carry its rider across endless desolate stretches of sand, with the Galloway, a horse able to endure the damp and cold weather of Scotland, plow through bogs and gallop over hill and dale…” to be continued

(next, “the hybrid horse and Federico Tesio’s “AHA” moment)


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Rivers of Gold – excerpts: part 7

(My backstretch press credentials to the Breeders’ Cup, hence behind-the-scenes access to the crème de le crème of Thoroughbreds, was akin to backstage passes to the most awesome rock concert.  To be in the presence of Cigar as he went about his daily routines was amazing.  I was particularly intrigued by his ease of movement.  Little did I know at the time, but Cigar was also providing inspiration behind my search for equine perfection: a beacon guiding me to Canada’s Rivers of Gold)

Rivers of Gold

….Early one morning at the Woodbine backstretch, while waiting for Cigar to make his appearance, I spotted a pair of horses and their riders emerging from the early morning mists leisurely strolling along the treelined path adjacent to the turf course.

The moment I focused my telephoto lens on the two I recognized Singspiel.  A month earlier this handsome Northern Dancer grandson had romped to easy victory in the Canadian International at Woodbine.  Bred and owned by Sheikh Mohammed, Singspiel was a perfectly proportioned dark bay with a white star in the centre of his forehead.

His companion this particular morning was Shantou.  Another of Sheikh Mohammed’s string, Shantou had recently won The St. Leger, the grueling, almost two mile English Classic.  Also a Northern Dancer grandson, Shantou’s dam, Shaima, was a daughter of Shareef Dancer.  Where Singspiel, like Northern Dancer, was a compact animal, Shantou was tall with a patrician carriage and demeanor.  He clearly inherited his looks from his great grandsire, Nearctic.

Frankie Dettori pats Singspiel after riding him to victory in The Coronation Cup at Epsom

When the horses arrived at the turf course Singspiel bounded into and easy, controlled gallop.  Conversely, Shantou was leaping straight up off his hocks, his head held high and fighting his rider every step of the way.  I felt I was witnessing Nearctic

This magnificent black colt also reminded me that the Thoroughbred is a hybrid.  thus this Thoroughbred hybrid can not only replicate itself, but, according to botanist Gregor Mendel, certain combinations will create a hardier hybrid.

……to be continued

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Rivers of Gold: excerpts – part 6: Cigar, superstar

(where my other books had a specific focus: E.P. Taylor was about the man and his horses; Northern Dancer chronicles our great Canadian champion;  Dark Horse: tackles the mystery behind the great stallion, Nearctic; Horse and Tiger stars the magnificent Nijinsky and the colossal impact he wielded on the world around him. Especially Ireland.  Rivers of Gold, however, is about many, many horses.  They led.  I followed.  Cigar is a perfect case in point.  He also was an inspiration for me to set aside several years of my life to follow these rivers back to their sources.  Because of Cigar I started to become fascinated with the challenge of horse breeders: what is the magic alchemy that creates a champion?  Especially one as truly extraordinary as Cigar.)

Rivers of Gold

Cigar’s final race was the Breeders’ Cup at Canada’s Woodbine racetrack.  It was the first time (and likely last) Woodbine would host the event.

With so many great champions from around the globe here in our backyard, the atmosphere was electric.  But no horse generated excitement like Cigar.  His celebrity status kicked into overdrive after winning in Dubai.

From thereon in, every time Cigar entered a race his fans grew exponentially.  He was a super-star.  Wherever he went there was a palatable buzz created, for the most part, by the humming and whirling and clicking of cameras.  I was among the paparazzi.

My intention was to focus on Cigar and how he was stabled within yards of his great-grandfather, Northern Dancer, began training.  At the time I had no idea that Cigar was born of the convergence of Canada’s Thoroughbred genetic streams, our Rivers of Gold.


Cigar: superstar

…to be continued


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Rivers of Gold – excerpts -part 5: Cigar

(the marvelous thing about a lifetime of writing about horses, is the opportunity to revisit and relive the excitement generated by these extraordinary animals.  Cigar was one of my equine heroes and even today, all these years later, I find it easy to become caught up, once again, in the magic of Cigar.)

Rivers of Gold

… Despite being born among the very elite of Thoroughbreds Cigar exhibited little interest in running faster than need be.  At 3, he ambled along in a few races on the West Coast.  The following year owner, Alan Paulson, shipped Cigar to Bill Mott, his East Coast trainer.  The first thing Mott did was give Cigar 6 months off.  Once back in the starting gate Cigar continued to show little sense of urgency at the clang of the bell.

Then in October, as if struck by divine inspiration, Cigar won a mile race at Aqueduct by an astonishing 8 lengths.  Over the next two years Cigar won every race he entered-top drawer events including the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic in record time.

In the spring of 1996 Cigar boarded a plane and was flown almost 10,000 km to Dubai for the inaugural World Cup.  Racing at night under the lights and over desert sands, Cigar needed every inch of his superior framework to win the world’s richest horse race by a little under a length over Soul of the Matter.  It marked his 14th straight victory and anointed Cigar Horse of the World.  He also matched Man o’ War’s 1920 winning streak.

The next target was Citation’s 16 race streak set in 1948.  And so it was that 35,000 fans converged on Chicago’s Arlington Park to see history made.  Cigar did not disappoint.  When the horse bounded across the finish the cheering was deafening and went on for close to 20 minutes.Cigar

A month later Cigar was in California for the Pacific Classic.  The first sign things were unravelling was when Cigar balked at going into the starting gate.  Many believed he knew it.  Cigar finished second.  Some of his fans openly wept.  While Cigar’s amazing run may have been coming to an end, the magic and excitement had not…

… to be continued

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Rivers of Gold – excerpts – part 4: Cigar & Curlin

… Back when writing the original Times article I discovered Cigar, US Horse of the Year in 1995 & 1996, sprung from Canada’s contribution to the gene pool.  When, at the outset of Rivers of Gold, I found Curlin, US Horse of the Year in 2007 & 2008, also hailed from the convergence of our genetic streams, I knew I was on to something.

Cigar and Curlin surely set the gold standard for horse racing in their time.  Millionaires many times over: Cigar earned a few dollars under $10,000,000 in purse money; Curlin brought in several hundred thousand over $10,000,000.

Rivers of Gold

It was soon clear this adventure had taken on a life of its own.  I had no idea where this tale was headed.  All I knew was that it wanted to be told.  And so it was that I set out on a journey back in time in order to discover the secrets revealed within the depths of these rivers…

… Physically Cigar was perfection.  When an equine conformation expert measured and scanned Cigar’s superstructure the big bay colt was awarded and A+ placing him in the top 3% of all horses.  According to 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.

Generally the destiny of a racehorse, like any elite athlete, is dependent upon the alignment and calibration of its anatomical structure.  Simply, a well-constructed horse will run more easily, more quickly, and be less likely to suffer injury.  So while Thoroughbreds are surely bred to race, scant few come even close to Cigar’s perfection.  The majority are born with design imperfections: physically, mentally, or both.

Northern Dancer, however, was able to overcome his flawed anatomical structure.  Short and stocky with a quick choppy stride, he likely had to pound out close to 100 more strides than Hill Rise in the Kentucky Derby.  Still his extraordinary ‘will to win’ compensated for his physical short-comings.  Not that many horses are that bloody-minded….

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Rivers of Gold – excerpts – part 3

… Confronted with my avalanche of information Thoroughbred Times opted to run the story over 4 issues beginning in October 2002 and ending April 2003.  While I understood breaking the saga down into pieces was necessary, I also thought it lost its impact…

Then in 2010 Dr. Emmeline Hill, scientist at Dublin’s University College, announced the discovery of the ‘speed gene’ in Thoroughbreds.  After studying hundreds of horses Hill and her team found that a genetic variant associated with speed became widespread in modern Thoroughbreds due to a single stallion – Canada’s Nearctic.  His son, Northern Dancer, was deemed responsible for passing on the speed gene around the globe…

Rivers of Gold

Hill’s revelation made me think it amazing there even was a horse named Nearctic; that he actually survived is a miracle.  A detail few know.  I have long held that if more trainers knew Nearctic’s story it would make their jobs easier.

In the spring of 2010 I received a call from Rolph deGannes, former Windfields Farm resident veterinarian: “I’ve been asked to speak at a racing conference about the world’s most important stallion… you know who I mean?” he challenged.  The popular answer was, of course, Northern Dancer, but fortunately I replied “Nearctic.”

DeGannes was asking permission to quote from my book: Dark Horse: unraveling the mystery of Nearctic. 

Not long after it was launched in 2001 the warehouse housing Dark Horse and half the books in Canada became embroiled in the bankruptcy of Stoddard Publishing.  Dark Horse and the rest of the titles locked up in storage were collateral damage.  The irony was not lost on me.  It had taken years to track down and piece together a story that had been entombed all this time only to see it buried again.

During the writing of Rivers of Gold I became captivated by two mares: The Fuge in the UK and Treve in France…. Both horses reminded me of Nearctic.  Rivers of Gold seemed to be a good place to reintroduce elements of Dark Horse. 

Nearctic is, after all, the turbulent firepower that turned our lazy meandering genetic streams into raging torrents.  Furthermore, the stories behind this epic are brimming with colour and passion, drama and skullduggery….to be continued



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Rivers of Gold – excerpts – part 2

When I finished the first draft I had discovered that every single horse proudly standing in the winners’ circle of the world’s most prominent races – from Dubai to Australia to Japan to Great Britain to Ireland to France to North America – including every Breeders’ Cup winner- descended from these Rivers of Gold and often the convergence of these streams.  Indeed, it wasn’t until I was in the thick of this adventure that I discovered the importance and the significance of the converging factor.

Rivers of Gold

Phase one of this expedition began in 2002 when John Sparkman, editor of US weekly magazine, Thoroughbred Times, invited me to write an article on Canada’s contribution to the Thoroughbred gene pool.

The instant and obvious answer was Northern Dancer.  After all, over half the world’s Thoroughbred population trace back to this one Canadian stallion.  But was that it?  Was Canada a one-horse country?  Before setting out I would probably have agreed.  Let’s face it, this was the horse that had enticed me and countless other Canadians into the world of horse racing.

We are, incidentally, a reticent people and consider bragging unseemly, hence disinclined to champion celebrities.  Yet with Northern Dancer, our plucky Canadian underdog, we followed his every race with uncommon devotion.  When he won the 1964 Kentucky Derby in record time we were almost giddy with pride.

Still I knew little about horse racing in this country prior to Northern Dancer, much less Canada’s contribution to the gene pool.  Nonetheless off I went.  Before long I found myself lured into a veritable forest of information, from genetics to the science of horse breeding, to long buried historical accounts.  Along the way I happened upon a number of colourful characters who, accidentally, changed the course and destiny of the Thoroughbred.

Sparkman was looking for an article that would run about 2,500 words.  I wrote more than 30,000…..

to be continued….


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Rivers of Gold – excerpts

Initially I thought Rivers of Gold would be an elementary assignment.  The tale was to be based on work I had written years ago and supplemented with bits and pieces from several of my books.  All I had to do, or so I thought, was make the story current.  But when I did I was dumbfounded.  I could not believe what I had discovered…

Rivers of Gold

Actually the title had been floating around in my consciousness for some time.  Like an ancient treasure map, it conjured an interesting, almost seductive image, but I had no idea what any of the signs meant…

It wasn’t until the first rewrite the fog began to life revealing the initial nuggets in the secret formula, or genetic alchemy, leading to herds of the most outstanding horses in recent history.

Rivers of Gold, I would discover, symbolizes four distinct genetic streams responsible for spawning this bonanza.  Beginning as mere trickles a century ago in Canada, these streams now flow with the intensity of Niagara Falls…

…to be continued


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