Tuesday, December 1, 2009

All Things Must Pass

In 1964, when I was nine years old, I had my share of heroes. Certainly, all the adults in my life, particularly my dad and mom, were heroes. And, like so many young boys, I turned to world of sports for other heroes. Hockey and football, baseball and Olympic athletes were somehow exotic to me, because I never saw them in person, only by the flickering shadows of black and white television. Emerging from that eternal pantheon was one hero, who stood out bolder and more majestic: perhaps strangely, that hero was a horse.

Northern Dancer was the premier stallion of his day. He emerged from relative obscurity to capture the imagination of an entire nation. He was small, judged to be unfit for the furious and tumultuous world of thoroughbred racing. And, to underscore the point, he was Canadian. No Canadian horse had ever dominated the world stage before. When the Dancer prepared to race in the 1964 Kentucky Derby, the conventional wisdom was that he would be soundly defeated. He had only run in Canadian races prior to the Derby in May of that year. The greatest jockey of that time, Willie Shoemaker, passed him over in favour of the American champion, Hill Rise.

The rest, of course, is history. The Dancer defeated Hill Rise and the rest of the field to win the Derby with Bill Hartack aboard. The Dancer would go on to win at the Preakness, with Hill Rise fading to third. There was no victory in the Belmont Stakes, only a third place. But in Canada's premier event, the Queen's Plate, the Dancer decimated the field and won handily. It was to be his last race: injury forced him to retire and stand as stud, where he went on to become the most profolic and successful sire in modern times.

I remember cheering for the Dancer and, later, all his progeny. His home stable, Windfields Farms became a kind of sporting vallhalla for all Canadians. Whether you played the ponies or just watched, there was something magical, something proud for all of us to know that a Canadian, albeit a four-legged Canadian, had defied the odds and beaten not only the Americans, but the entire world on their own turf, on their own terms. The little horse with the big heart, owned by a larger than life, geniune Canadian tychoon, E.P. Taylor, and bred on a quiet farm north of Oshawa, had turned the world on its head.

Now, Windfields Farms is no more. Subdivisions are already encroaching on the green grass where the Dancer and his herd galloped under blue skies and bright suns. A university and college are its largest neighbours, and the demand for housing for students who have never heard of the Dancer, are eating up the turf the way the Dancer did in that glorious summer of 1964. Beyond the schools, suburban houses give modern residents a small share of the Canadian dream. It is all so modern, so cookie-cutter, so sprawling. All that remains of the fields of dreams are the main buildings, a few barns, including the one where the Dancer was born in 1961, and graves of some of the greatest athletes Canada has ever produced. The Dancer himself, who died at the ripe old age of 29 in 1990 in Kentucky is there. Such was the respect the nation had for him that we brought him home and buried him at Windfields. He lies there still, along with some of his sons and grandsons.

As the news of the fate of the remaining parcels of land at Windfields, and the remaining horses there, became known, one of the Dancer's decendants, Careless Jewel, was racing in the Breeder's Cup in the US. Careless Jewel is a fine horse, but she suffers a tendency to drift in the race, to lose focus. At the start of the race, Careless Jewel began to drift, but she was brought back by the jockey, Robert Landry, and actually led the race by 20 lengths at one point. But the drift set in again, and the carrier of the Dancer's genes faded, only to finish dead last.

The wrecking balls will swing, the bulldozers will rumble over the green land soon, and the Farm will pass. Careless Jewel lost the race, but the blood line will go on. When the development is complete, I think I'll go back to Oshawa to see what is left of the Farm. I'll get out of my car and stand where I remember fences kept the road away from the herd, and I'll imagine the Dancer arrogantly surveying his domain: probably on some stranger's front lawn on a nameless cul-de-sac.