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The Old Racing Breed

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Horses have played a significant role in our history, from their domestication centuries ago to their use on farms, livery stables, wars, racetracks, showrings, and in art. The relationship between horses and humans is one that combines interdependence, companionship, work, and pleasure. Our Equine Friends
Stories of Horses in History
Copyright 1964 Modern Press
246 pages,
ISBN 1-894856-01-5.

The old Thoroughbred-aristocrat among breeds-was England's finest contribution to the world of horses. The influence was like that of Shakespeare in the realm of literature and Pasteur in science. Thoroughbred association with western Canada began at the arrival of the Hudson's Bay Company stallion, Melbourne, in 1848, and with the East a short time later.

Although developed primarily for racing, the breed went to countries on every continent, bringing its refining influence to scores of lesser strains. Wanted and needed were the Thoroughbred quality of feet and legs, long pasterns, clean and flinty hocks, free action, high withers, long neck and trim head. Truly, the Thoroughbred has been the world's leading improver and benefits came to the United States and Canada as to other lands.

By the time of Melbourne's arrival at Red River, the Thoroughbred was already a mature breed in England where it had emerged from a foundation of Arabian and other North African stock. Already it was well established as a racing breed in Virginia to which state the stallion Bulle Rock by Darley Arabian and out of a Byerly Turk mare was taken in 1730. There in the southern states, as in England, human fondness for a horse race was the chief incentive to breeding, and the term Thoroughbred-English equivalent of the Arabian word "Kehilan"-became almost synonymous with racehorse.

In Canada, where enthusiasm for racing didn't wait for the specialized Thoroughbreds, a formal race meeting was held at Montreal as early as 1836. The breed's introduction in the East came after the middle of the century. The Queen's Plate, most important racing event in Canada and oldest fixture to be run continuously on the North American continent, was inaugurated in 1860. And the Ontario Jockey Club, of special significance in Thoroughbred promotion, was organized in 1881.

There in the eastern provinces the breed owed much to men like William Hendrie of Valley Farm, near Hamilton, Joseph E. Seagram of Waterloo and Commander J. K. L. Ross of Sir Barton fame, Montreal. The Hendrie family was for long a leader and the Martimas Wing of Hamilton General Hospital became a memorial to William Hendrie's noted horse bearing that name. After winning the Coney Island Futurity Stakes with Martimas, Hendrie donated the winnings to help finance the hospital extension and the wing was given the name of the horse.

And as the owner of Sir Barton, Commander J. K. L. Ross will always have a place of prominence in the annals of Thoroughbreds in this country. Canadian horses were not entered very often in the Kentucky Derby but Canadian delight knew no bounds when, on May 10, 1919, Sir Barton was the winner and another Ross entry, Billy Kelly, finished next.

Sir Barton, as the first horse to win the Derby, Belmont Stakes and Preakness in one year, was considered by many to have been the greatest horse of his breed in Canadian history- perhaps the equal of Man 0' War. Inevitably, there was a clamor for Sir Barton and Man 0' War to meet and, sure enough, it happened-and on Canadian soil, October 12, 1920. It was a match race at Kenilworth Park, Windsor, Ontario, the last race for both great horses before their retirement and the purse was $75,000 supplemented by a gold cup said to be worth $5000.

It was Canada's most famous race, one of which horsemen will never cease to talk. Special trains ran to Windsor and interested people of two countries awaited the outcome as though their national self-respect was at stake. Man 0' War's reputation was formidable, having been made by twenty wins in twenty-one races in the two previous years; and Sir Barton was fresh from major successes. Strangely enough, the two famous horses had never met until this time.

Sir Barton led in the early part of the race but it wasn't the Canadian horse's day and Man 0' War came roaring forward to win by seven lengths, at the same time making a new Kenilworth Track record for a mile and one-quarter. Having won the handsome prize, Man 0' War was accorded the honor of taking the first drink from the gold cup. But many Canadians were still unconvinced that Man 0' War was any better than the Canadian horse.

Western racing began, as elsewhere, in a strictly informal and unorganized manner. A race could be arranged at any time two horses and two horsemen met and started in the number of minutes it took to tighten saddle girths. Newspapers carried challenges. Edmonton people with eternal eagerness for a race, read in the Bulletin of December 27, 1880: "Challenge-I will run my horse within fifty miles of Edmonton for any amount, within one month. Put up or shut up. J. Campbell, Edmonton Hotel."

A few weeks later, January 24, 1881, the same paper intimated that: "E. Brazeau has bought the running horse, Big Knee, from Abram Selwyn for $200. He is prepared to run anything around Edmonton a 1/4 mile race at any time." And the Winnipeg Sun of November 22, 1881, complained: Main Street every afternoon is turned into a race course and several narrow escapes have occurred."


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