Industry Celebrates at Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame Ceremony

by | 08.17.2013 | 9:00am
John Sikura Sr. was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame

There were tears. There was laughter. There was hope, yet a feeling of unease for a racing industry in peril. And there were a lot of shiny shoes at the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame inductions on Thursday at the Mississauga Convention Centre a short jaunt from Woodbine racetrack.

People came from various corners of the United States (even Hawaii) and Canada, all to see a long list of the racing juggernauts that have formed the Canadian racing fiber. Of the 17 inductees, nine were human, eight equine. Because the Canadian Hall of Fame is a dual hall, 10 of the inductees represented the Thoroughbred industry, the other seven came from the Standardbred side.

For the first time, the Hall allowed not only Canadian-based members but stars from other countries that had given honor to racing in Canada. The change allowed Secretariat, who ran his last race in Canada, into the Hall as well as U.S.-owned Standardbreds Eternal Camnation, Niatross, and Admiral's Express, horses close to the Canadian heart. The Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame exhibits and plaques are located at a main entrance into the Woodbine grandstand.

The guests learned that Secretariat ran his final race at Woodbine in the Canadian International on a bone-chilling, rainy October day in 1973 – 40 years ago – because of a longstanding friendship between E.P. Taylor and Christopher T. Chenery, breeder of Secretariat. Penny Tweedy often confided with Taylor, the founder of Woodbine and she returned the favor by awarding the horse's last race to Canada.

Penny Tweedy's son, Chris, accepted the award, noting than on the plane on the way up to Canada, he happened to sit beside a woman whose father took her to that race because “he thought it was important for her to be there, to see him.” Now she's an exercise rider. Indeed, many of the $2 win tickets on Secretariat were never cashed: People preferred the memorabilia rather than the meager payout. Secretariat had touched Canada.

Secretariat won the race by 6 ½ lengths in near darkness, but then, it seemed as if he wasn't really real anyway. Bruce Walker, who was also inducted into the Hall of Fame for his 37-year career as a publicist at Woodbine from 1960 to 1997, still recalls Secretariat's final workout for the race. Big Red came bursting out of the fog, running five furlongs in :57 3/5 – a full second faster than Woodbine's track record. “I've never seen such power and grace,” Walker recalled.

Tweedy also noted that a fan had offered him a theory about why Secretariat had lost three stakes races in his career: they all started with the letter “W.”

“I was surprised to learn that Secretariat could read,” he said.

Without Canadian-born horsemen Lucien Laurin and Ron Turcotte, Secretariat wouldn't have turned out the way he did, Tweedy said. He added that he'll take the blue-tinted trophy back home, visit with his mother, have a little dinner and put it on the mantle.

Turcotte flew in from New Brunswick for the ceremony, and presented to Walker, who said their careers had long been entwined. Walker recalled that Turcotte had been the original jockey for Northern Dancer, and although Taylor preferred to keep him for the Derby, trainer Horatio Luro and farm manager Joe Thomas preferred Bill Shoemaker, then Bill Hartack, who actually rode him in the Derby.

When Northern Dancer retired, Walker called a press conference, and remembers riding in an elevator with Taylor afterward. “I'll save a share for you,” Taylor said to him. The shares were worth $75,000 at the time.

Walker had to turn down the offer, later saying: “Like Northern Dancer, I was a little short.”

Walker had pulled the strings through the golden age of Canadian racing, following Victoria Park's notable third-place finish in the 1960 Kentucky Derby, to Northern Dancer's stunning victories, to Sandy Hawley's record-breaking seasons, to Secretariat's arrival to the staging of the 1996 Breeders' Cup at Woodbine, the only time the event has been held outside of the United States. “It was the job of a lifetime,” he said.

John Sikura Jr., was posthumously inducted into the Hall and three tables of Sikuras flooded into the banquet room. Ten of them were Sikura's grandchildren, but he had met only one of them. Sikura died prematurely at age 60 in 1994.

Sikura was only 14 when he fled Bratislava, Czechoslovakia just before the Soviet invasion and arrived in Canada with his name pinned to his overcoat and $10 in his pocket. He was a man who “sneaked out in the middle of the night under gun fire” and then found himself in the company of Nelson Bunker Hunt, John Gaines and Charlie Whittingham.

“My father was a real inspiration to me,” said his son, John, who operates the highly successful Hill ‘n' Dale Farm in Kentucky. “He led us to believe we could achieve anything in life. The only thing he wanted was an opportunity without obstruction. He believed life had no borders. He bought horses with a handshake. His word was his bond.”

Sikura bemoaned the obstructions now facing the racing industry in Ontario. From his farm in Kentucky, he'd sent mares to be bred in Ontario for 33 years, but this year is the first that he has not, because a government decision to dump the slots-at-racetrack program has riddled the breeding industry in the province. “We take it for granted that we have the ability to participate,” he said.

Glenn, another son who operates a breeding establishment in Aurora, Ont., spoke with great emotion, often pausing to gather himself.  “He spoke very little of his childhood, because he really wasn't afforded a childhood,” Glenn said of his father. “He grew up under foreign occupation, fear and oppression.

“The third generation doesn't know what my generation barely understands, when he tried to escape to a better life. He left everything behind. He could easily have been killed.

“He ended up in Canada. It was not his birthright to be here. He chose to be here. He was not a hyphenated Canadian (Czech-Canadian). He was a Canadian full-stop. He loved this country.”

Sikura was a self-made millionaire. He gravitated to the stock brokerage business and bought up land north of Toronto in the Aurora area. He soon built a thriving commercial breeding and sales operation. He bought and sold horses for 35 years and boldly imported stallions like Farm to Market, Vale of Tears, Herbalist and Knightly Dawn to challenge E.P Taylor's longstanding dominance. He once bid a record $1.5-million to buy a son of Secretariat out of Charming Alibi, the dam of world champion mare Dahlia. The colt was called Canadian Bound, but he ended up a disappointment. Sikura rolled with the punches and eventually bought Glorious Song from Nelson Bunker Hunt for a sum reportedly in excess of $8-million, a record for a broodmare. She was in foal to Nijinsky II at the time.

He was “a bit of a rebel,” Glenn Sikura noted. And aggressive, confident and bold. Despite having no formal education, he could carry on conversations with the industry's elite.

Soaring Free was the ninth horse owned by Sam-Son Farm to be inducted into the Hall, while Sam-Son founder Ernie Samuel was inducted as a builder in 1998, his daughter Tammy Samuel-Balaz was inducted in 2011 and Mark Frostad, who trained for many years for the farm, was inducted in 2011. Need there be a special corner for the family in the Hall?

“It's very gratifying to see him [Soaring Free] in such company, said Rick Balaz, president of the racing operation. “Ernie always said: ‘Breed the best to the best,' and this is a perfect example of what you get when you do that.”

Soaring Free was the first high-class stakes winner for Smart Strike, a Sam-Son product, and with his main claim to fame being winner of the $1-million Atto Mile in 2004. And he won $2.1-million in his career, while competing twice in the Breeders' Cup Mile.

“Soaring Free was a great reflection on Liza's talent [wife of Ernie] for naming horses,” Balaz said. “Tammy would say it's about time [he got into the Hall of Fame.] He was nominated a number of times and didn't get in. She'd give [a Hall of Fame official] a hard time about that.

“Soaring Free was a dream horse for us.”

Balaz also read a so-called thank you note from Soaring Free on his induction. Soaring Free, a gelding, is living out his days as a ”referee for the yearlings” at Sam-Son's Florida farm. “I took a few laps around the paddock, bucking and kicking with my mates looking on,” the note read. “They couldn't understand my sudden burst of energy.”

Now, Soaring Free says, he has “retired to a condo in Florida,” wears a “funny saddle” and can still take on some of those yearlings.

“A lot of my friends are not so lucky,” the note read, urging people to give racehorses a second career.

Frostad noted that Soaring Fee occupied a special place in his heart. He was a barn favorite and also a favorite of Tammy's. “I'll never forget when she led Soaring Free to the winner's circle after he won the Atto Mile,” Frostad said. “It was a special moment. The racing gods were smiling down on us, but none of them could match the smile of Tammy.”

Others inducted were Sealy Hill, a rambunctious and unpredictable Triple Tiara winner, a second-place finisher in the $2-million Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf behind Forever Together for Eugene Melnyk, who also bred her; trainer Phil England, who conditioned three Canadian Horse of the Year champions (Thornfield, winner of the Canadian International, Benburb, winner of the $1-million Molson Export Million over A.P. Indy, and Afleet); Hidden Treasure, unlucky enough to be born the same year as Victoria Park, but still winner of 20 stakes races; Jack Hood, a school supplies magnate who bred No Class, the foundation mare for Sam-Son Farms; trainer Sid Attard, whose career was highlighted by three horses, Atto Mile winner Numerous Times, speedy grey filly Ginger Gold, and One for Rose, all Sovereign Award winners;  and Samuel Johnston, who rescued racing at Fort Erie in 1898 when the municipality wanted to adopt a by-law to “prohibit horse racing of any kind in the township of Bertie.”  The track, still located on Bertie Street in Fort Erie, could use him today. Johnston was also a pioneer in the Grand Circuit of harness racing.

Inductees from the Standardbred side included Eternal Camnation, a fixture on Canadian tracks; communicator Doug Harkness; trainer Carl Jamieson, who has a knack for spotting good yearlings and turning them into champions; Admiral's Express, the people's horse known as “Grey” to his friends; Celia's Counsel, a top trotting mare from the 1940s and 1950s; and highly respected driver, trainer, breeder, owner and administrator William Rowe.  Rowe built three racetracks: Windsor Raceway, Barrie Raceway and Georgian Downs.

Now Windsor has closed its doors after losing its slots license when the Ontario government ended the slots program. Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, did not attend the hall of fame ceremonies but was represented by Dr. Deb Stark, the top veterinarian in the province, who reminded the crowd that the provincial government had injected $180-million into the industry for the next three years as a transitional program. “Ad hoc measures won't do,” Dr. Stark said.

The final plan will be released in October, to ready the industry for the 2014 season.

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