Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Firsts and Lasts in Ontario

In advance of a trip to Woodbine for next Sunday’s Pattison Canadian International Stakes, I’ve been reading up on the race’s history. It’s drawn globetrotters such as Dahlia; it’s been part of championship seasons like that of 1997 Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Chief Bearhart.

It was also Secretariat’s last start. That the Triple Crown winner ended his 21-race career at Woodbine, in Toronto, Ontario was a nice nod to racing history and the original Big Red — Man o’ War’s 21st, and final, start was a 1920 match race at Kenilworth Park in Windsor, Ontario, in which he defeated Sir Barton, the first-ever Triple Crown winner, by 17 lengths (there’s film).

According to the Thoroughbred Record’s account of the star’s appearance:

With a slightly different perspective, Secretariat’s arrival in Toronto six days before the Championship had overtones of the Threatre of the Absurd, with pockets of newsmen, photographers and television cameramen paying court to this four-footed millionaire from the sky. With Secretariat safely billeted in Barn 8 at Woodbine, looking out at the newly sodded surrounds, visitors were kept at bay by a nine-man security guard and signs which said: “Admittance by Appointment Only.” A telephone was installed ten feet from Secretariat’s stall … so that his handlers could use the phone without leaving the colt unattended, one was told. But, noticing the intelligent glint in Secretariat’s eye, one wondered.

“He can do everything but talk,” quipped Mr. Laurin…. “He’s a real ham.”

That he was also a real race horse was evident from his morning gallops, expending as little energy as possible in his preparation, and seemingly floating over the grass, balanced like a dancer.

To please trainer Lucien Laurin, the grass on Woodbine’s Marshall turf course was cut from approximately 4 1/2 inches in height to two inches, and parts of the course were patched with new sod and rolled. (“The course has never been better than it is right now,” said Woodbine tub thumper Bruce Walker.) Secretariat was obviously at ease on the surface: He worked five furlongs in :57 3/5 on the grass three days before the race, and skipped over the firm turf to win the International by 6 1/2 lengths, beating 11 others for a purse that totaled $142,700, the largest then ever offered in Canada. His $92,755 share of the purse brought his single-season earnings to a record $860,404. No other horse had ever won so much in one year.

In 1974, Dahlia — who had her own earnings record, as the first of her sex to win more than $1 million — set a new course record, running the International in 2:40, a full second faster than The Axe II had in the 1963 edition. The win was significant for another reason — it made Dahlia a stakes winner in five countries. Running and winning stakes around the world is still an exceptional accomplishment; 38 years ago, though, a 4-year-old filly with a career record that included wins in the International (Canada), Irish Oaks (Ireland), King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (England), Man o’ War Stakes (United States), and the Prix Saint-Alary (France) was a truly remarkable filly indeed.

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This year’s Euro starters have begun to arrive for the Canadian International, as well as for the E.P. Taylor and Nearctic. Next Sunday’s races at Woodbine are the last three Breeders’ Cup Challenge races of 2012.