I’ll Have Another is pictured crossing the finish line to win the 2012 Kentucky Derby. Photo courtesy of the Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office/Wikimedia Commons

Pony up for a good memory at the Triple Crown

  • May 29, 2012

Should the Canadian-owned racehorse I’ll Have Another pull off one of the rarest feats in sports next weekend and win the Triple Crown, I am sure it will evoke a memory of Holy Cross Elementary School in east-end Toronto and an affable nun who used to be the principal.

I’ll Have Another is the plucky thoroughbred owned by Windsor, Ont., native J. Paul Reddam and ridden by an underdog jockey named Mario Gutierrez, who earned his spurs at the racing outpost known as Hastings Park in Vancouver.

The fabled Triple Crown is so hard to win that only 11 horses have done it in 100 years and the last was in 1978. Not many realize this, but Canada has strong ties to the U.S. Triple Crown.

The first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton in 1919, was owned by a Canadian, just like I’ll Have Another. The great Northern Dancer, a Canadian-bred horse won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and just missed out winning the Triple Crown before becoming the most important sire ever, whose bloodlines still dominate the sport. 

And then there was Secretariat, the greatest thoroughbred racehorse in history. Secretariat’s trainer was Lucien Laurin from Quebec and ridden by the hall-of-famer Ron Turcotte of New Brunswick.

And it is here that I return to the story of Holy Cross.

Secretariat was one of my boyhood heroes, along with Bobby Orr and Jack Nicklaus. I was a young boy when he won the Triple Crown. The following year at the public speaking contest at Holy Cross, it was natural I would talk about Secretariat.

With the help of my father, a fantastic writer who was not unfamiliar with the horse racing world, I wrote a five-minute speech about Secretariat. I rehearsed it over and over in privacy in front of the bathroom mirror while my older sister rapped on the door telling me to get out.

Only 12 years old at the time and in Grade 7, I was incredibly nervous the day of the big competition. We weren’t allowed to read it or even hold cue cards. It all had to be from memory. Standing in front of the entire school assembly, I was sure I would forget some lines and look like an idiot.

But, much to my delight, when my name was called and I stood up there and started talking about my hero — a darned horse — everything went smoothly.

I talked about how, when he was a baby, his owner refused to give him up because she believed he would be great. I detailed his Canadian connections and how he ran his last race in Canada at Woodbine in Toronto. I told the audience how he smashed record after record on his way to winning the Triple Crown.

I talked about his pedigree and that his father was a sprinter named Bold Ruler so everybody thought Secretariat could never win the grueling mile-and-a-half Belmont, which of course he did in record time and by a record 31 lengths.

And I even talked about his rare losses, including one to an unheralded horse named Onion.

After the speech portion, the panel of judges asked each contestant questions. The principal, Sr. Barbara Keane, asked me a pointed question. “If Secretariat was as great a horse as you say, how do you explain him losing that race to Onion?” she asked.

Without thinking, my 12-year-old mouth blurted out: “Well, he’s only human.”

At the time, I thought nothing of the answer. But over almost 40 years, it comes into my mind at various times, especially when I think of my long-passed mother.

After the public speaking competition, Sr. Keane was talking to my mother and relaying the story.

“Rita,” she told my mother, “your son gave a terrific speech but he didn’t win it until he told us that Secretariat was ‘only human.’ That ensured his win.”

My mother loved that story and told it to me many times. She died 10 years after hearing it and I have always felt a great fondness to Sr. Keane for telling it to her.

And that’s why I will be rooting for I’ll Have Another, and his Canadian connections, to win the Belmont, just like Secretariat.

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