Legends Day

It was magical. A day at little Clinton Raceway – Legends Day to be exact – brought me to my roots. (Racing came before figure skating.) In my neck of the woods, it was what you did. I know of folk in my hometown who kept horses in the back yard – within the town limits. From all of this, Canadian harness racing drivers and trainers sprouted forth, and ruled the world.

And they all showed up at Clinton Raceway at Legends Day, a crazy phenomenon that works. The best drivers on the continent get together in this little town of 3,200, a far drive into Ontario’s farm country. It’s quite a hike from Toronto, but just a short hop  from my hometown. It’s home to me.

On Legends Day, fans came from all over to flood a corner of Clinton at a bright little well organized track that races only once a week during the summer. (Twelve busloads, to be sure.) They came primarily to see two stars of the sport, John Campbell and Bill O’Donnell drive the final races of their careers. T-shirts were sold in Campbell`s maroon colours. Bidders could try to land some John Campbell bobblehead dolls.

A young fan at Clinton (All photos by Beverley Smith)

 

In truth, the eight drivers (Campbell, O’Donnell, Ron Waples, Steve Condren, Doug Brown, Michel Lachance, Dave Miller, and Dave Wall) have earned a total of $1.15-billion and 69,000 races between them. They are not small fry in this small town.

Campbell’s bobblehead doll.

The man himself. He never ages. He looked exactly like this 25-30 years ago.

 

Yet, they all come to Clinton for this biennial event. The most recent convert, American Dave Miller, dropped everything when Campbell asked him if he wanted to be part of the day. Miller has won 12,180 races and horses he has driven have earned $215-million so far in his career. Miller was the junior of the group at age 52.

Dave Miller, the lone American

 

Campbell, 62, retired from driving about a month ago with 10,668 wins (Standardbred Canada has him at 11,058 wins) and $303-million in life earnings, well ahead of the competition. He’s won seven Meadowlands Paces, six Hambletonians and six North America Cups, all races with purses of $1-million. He’s known as a class act, an ambassador of the sport.

O’Donnell, the best tale spinner in the business, drove against Campbell for years at The Meadowlands in New Jersey, a harness racing mecca where he had a nearby locker. And folks dubbed him `The Magic Man` for his driving abilities, for always getting more out of a horse than you would expect.  He`s 69 now, but has chalked up 5,743 wins and $99-million in earnings. But this was to be his last, too.

The Magic Man

Both O’Donnell and Campbell wore specially painted helmets. Campbell wore a camera.

The place was packed. People in little towns an hour away knew about Legends Day and the final drives of a lifetime. A lineup for autographs seekers snaked around to the front of the grandstand. The history in that lone lineup of drivers who scribbled their names could fill books.

The man on the left is from California. The one on the right is from Ohio. They came to see Campbell and the rest.

 

Added to the group – but not driving in the $15,0000 Legends Day Trot – was 71-year-old Bud Fritz, a taciturn local from nearby Walkerton, Ont., who could drive with the best of them, having won a North America Cup with his Apaches Fame. He`s the man who guided trotter A Worthy Lad to 30 consecutive wins.

Bud Fritz. Clinton and Walkerton, Fritz’s hometown, are both in the snowbelt of Ontario. Fritz used to say: “If it’s snowing so hard, you can’t see the horse’s ears, we won’t go out. That is about all that stops us.”

 

Nearby was Keith Waples, considered a class above all of the best. Nobody really knows how many races he has won. In his early days, nobody kept tabs. All of the best bow to him. He`s 93.

Keith Waples

The whole event was like a huge family reunion, of a sport that has changed so much, remembering what used to be. This was my first Legends Day. One thing I know for sure: I will never miss another one.

Marv Chantler flew in by helicopter for Legends Day.

Campbell chats with Gord Waples, another member of the storied Waples clan.

 Dave Wall was born in the same Kincardine hospital that I was and I’ve known him since he got his driver’s licence. He’s now 70. Still driving.

An earlier race at Clinton Raceway. Competitive, despite the small purse.

Don’t mess with Dr. John Findlay, former driver/trainer

 The lineup for autographs

A little red-headed kid who stared and stared at the lineup of legends on the autograph table. Future star?

From left to right: the perfect lawn chair; the lineup of legends signing autographs, Blair Burgess, who will be inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame next week, was driving at Clinton, too; Ron Waples talking to another legend, Trevor Ritchie, just visiting; and Quebec-born Michel Lachance, now 66.

From left to right, Doug Brown, 61, driving Willheorwonthe(trained by Bill Megens in his eighties), the grandstand of Clinton, the view of the field, with O’Donnell at the back of the field, and Campbell in a scramble near the front; Steve Condren, 60, won the race. Campbell finished last after his horse, Happy Holidays, broke stride on the first turn. He said it was a carbon copy of his very first race.

 

Years ago, O’Donnell gave his colours to a young man. Now the man’s son sported the colours at Legends Day. they fit well, don’t they?

 

Campbell, the grandfather

Queen: Love of My Life

Okay, boys ands girls, indulge me.

I did a posting some time ago of my discovery of Queen and Freddie Mercury, especially as they tie to figure skating, because ever since vocals were allowed, so many people have turned to the emotional, theatrical, endlessly creative and varied work of the foursome from England.

Freddie died almost 26 years ago of AIDS, and bass player John Deacon retired to become a recluse a few years after the loss of the lead singer, declaring that Queen wasn’t Queen without him. And so there are two. And last night they were in Toronto, a little longer in the tooth and a little greyer (well, a lot, actually) but they hadn’t lost a step. And I was there to finally see it all, to see Brian May’s fingers pluck his Red Special guitar, the one he made with his father as a teen out of wood from an old fireplace and a table, and a motorcycle and his mother’s knitting needles. And he’s still using it. It’s a shiny wondrous thing, with its own guards. And Roger Taylor is still beating powerfully away at his drums with a cool vengeance. He wears hearing aids now.

Roger Taylor in his younger days.

I’ve been waiting for this two-hour show for months. As always these days, there are throngs of people walking the streets of downtown Toronto, but members of this crowd on this day sported many Queen t-shirts. I knew where they were headed. I stopped for dinner at a local eatery around the corner from the Air Canada Centre and heard the barman tell a patron that yes, Queen was in town, and the clientele tended to be mothers bringing their daughters. What? Really? Okay, Queen was popular in the 1970s and 1980s, but their music is timeless. And in this newest incarnation, 35-year-old Adam Lambert, he of American Idol fame, is fronting them. (Brian May turned 70 the next day, and we all sang happy birthday to him. Taylor will turn 68 next week. If Freddie had lived, he would be approaching 71.)

And let’s not forget Deacon, the quiet one, the latest member to join, the youngest one. He will be 66 in another month.

The Air Canada Centre was packed. A sellout crowd, with people of all ages and more security than I’ve ever seen there. The concert was to begin at 8 p.m., but didn’t actually start for another 45 to 50 minutes. People stayed in their seats, piqued by an occasional burst of dried ice mist from the end of the stage, shaped like May’s Red Special guitar. (Queen does seem to like to launch their shows with lots of fire and brimstone and rising clouds of vapor. It’s great and somehow very Freddie!)  It all heightened the suspense. It was a successful tease. I felt wound tighter than a yo-yo ball.

For the longest time, we could hear rumblings of music from behind an enormous stage that featured a large curved wall, supposedly made out of pieces of metal riveted together with life-sized letters of QUEEN emblazoned across the front. At my first sighting of this, I knew I was in the right place, that it wasn’t just any other visit to the Air Canada Centre.

Suddenly, this enormous “tin” stage started to heave from its moorings, then drop back down with a mighty bang. Again and again as if it was so heavy, forces couldn’t quite lift it. But Frank could.

Frank is the name May and friends have given to the robot that graced the cover of their “News of the World” album, released in 1977 that includes the hits “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.” Of course, it’s the 40th anniversary of the album release. On the album cover, the robot is fearsome, a giant intelligent force that has scooped up the dead bodies of all four Queen members, with blood dripping from a metal hinged finger. That scene always scared the wits out of me. I never wanted to look at it.

But the Frank on this tour seems a handy accomplice to Queen. Rather a treat. Suddenly and loudly, his giant metal hand “broke” through the wall of steel, allowing Frank and his purple eyes to peer through. (Queen loves the dramatic. Queen members never just stand around and jiggle on stage. They create. It has to be big and glam.) You are never entirely sure whether or not Frank’s big fist is going to come out and grab you, as he has done others in the past. The crowd fell silent as this fist meandered in and out of the hole that Frank had made.

Suddenly, Frank’s hands clamped against the sides of the stage and lifted it up to reveal Queen and Lambert. And when I saw them, for the first time in my life, I felt tears welling up in my eyes and yes, even the odd one running down my cheeks. Sorry. No control over this. Thankfully, it was dark, save the light illuminating the stage.

Well, really, I had shed all of my hard-won dollars for a ticket to see May and Taylor. Just those two, to be sure. Lambert eventually brought up “the pink elephant in the room” (dressed in a three-piece pink suit with lofty heels, all sparkly). And this elephant is of course the argument that Queen is not Queen without the powerful voice and persona of Freddie. I buy that.

There will never be another Freddie. It’s not possible. Yes, Lambert has a powerful voice, a miraculous voice that hit notes uncommon to man (Freddie’s notes). In Toronto, he was brilliant in “Under Pressure.” (Roger Taylor’s husky voice filled in for David Bowie), “Radio Ga Ga”, “I Want to Break Free” and “Who Wants to Live Forever.” He rocked those tunes. He was quite effective in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” too.

Queen inserted one of Lambert’s own new pieces: (I Don’t Give) “Two (Fuddle Duddles).” (And if you are Canadian, you know that Fuddle Duddle is a kinder, gentler version of a swear word made famous by the current Prime Minister’s father, Pierre Trudeau, ever the edgy one.)

I could have done without this Lambert “Two Fux” song. The crowd had quickly risen to its feet when Queen came on stage, to run through some famous numbers, but as Lambert began to sing his Two Thingies song, they all sat down. “Killer Queen” was next, with Lambert rising high in the air on the head of Frank, his eyes rolling up at the pink-clad cargo. The crowd rose to its feet again at the sound of traditional Queen fare.

I can see why Queen embraced Lambert, with his voice and his amazing abilities. Without him, these tours would have been impossible. They would have been finished. There’s an old video of Taylor and May returning to the studio in England where they recorded “Bohemian Rhapsody” and it seemed almost poignant that they were picking up the sticks and strumming the guitar again, their careers a fond memory. But they have made it happen, brought the magic all back again, with Lambert in tow. And they can still rumble with the best of them.

Still, Lambert is not Freddie. Freddie had me during the 20-minute video of Live Aid concert from 1985. Actually, I think he had me after 10 minutes. Hell, probably five. His persona and voice were so very powerful. Every move was charged. He was lord and master of the stage. There was a palpable connection to the crowd. As great as his voice is, Lambert doesn’t quite always reach the Freddie mystique. It’s not just that Lambert can’t possibly replace someone else, it’s just that he can’t quite do what Freddie did. Freddie could direct an entire crowd of hundreds of thousands and have them all in the palm of his hands, the sweep of his arm, the cheekiness of his delivery. Lambert couldn’t get this crowd to sing along.

So of course, in stepped Freddie himself in Toronto. The loveliest moment was “Love of My Life,” a duet that Freddie used to do with May. May played an acoustic guitar, not his Red Special, and Freddie sang this beautiful ballad that he had written. But in Toronto, May appeared on the stage alone, sitting on a chair far out on the neck of the guitar-shaped stage, directly across from me. There’s something wistful about the sight of May going it alone. It was singalong time for the audience.

But for the final verse, May turned and behind him on a huge screen was Freddie, singing the way he did during the final tour of his life. Was there a dry eye in the house? Not in my corner. On the screen, Freddie took his bows, impishly showed his rump as he was wont to do, and quietly walked away into the darkness. May appeared to wipe tears from his eyes, and as he walked back to the main stage, I could see him take a deep breath. He’s done this routine many times in the past few years, but it still affects him. And us.

The way it was, the duet:

Freddie showed up twice more. Very effectively doing the “ Aiyo!” routine he did at Wembley stadium in 1986, dressed in his yellow jacket. The one where he tosses a glass of water (?) into the crowd. Entices them into crazy flights of song. (And they answer every time). And then finally, smiling, he says: “F…. you!” The crowd in Toronto did the same, as if he was still alive. When he came onto the screen to do this, there was a mighty cheer. Let’s be honest: whenever Freddie appeared, it was bedlam.

Freddie returned for the final song, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a song that he wrote, engineered, developed and used to mystify the world about its meaning. It’s a deeply personal song, so to have Freddie return to the screen at the Air Canada Centre to sing the famous, ground-breaking video (“Bismillah! I will not let you go!”) was truly as it should be. The crowd began to swing their lighted cell phones to the music. Magical.

On his final tour, Freddie wore a crown in the finale. This time, Lambert donned it for the final few numbers. But at the end, he planted the crown atop May’s head. As they took low bows, May’s crown toppled unceremoniously onto the floor. He quickly grabbed it, and Taylor got  a crown too. Another bow, and May had to push the crown back on with his Red Special. It was wonderfully imperfect and human.

An encore, a puff of smoke, and gold streamers, and Queen had left my life, at least physically, again. I’ve been floating on some ray of happiness ever since.

And yes. We miss Freddie.

Longshots don’t always finish last

In the midst of the frothy Hats and Horseshoe party, the shiny shoes of the storied horse owners and breeders, and the proven stakes winners that move on unseen springs around the walking ring of the Queen’s Plate, there is a horse called Vaughan.

Vaughan is a late-comer to the 158th running of the Queen’s Plate, Canada’s premier race, the one everybody in the game in this country dreams of winning. He’ll be the longest longshot of the field, overlooked by many. The morning line says 50 to 1. That’s just a guideline. It could be more. After all, the colt has won only $8,436 in his life. (The two richest horses in the race are State of Honor at $423,736 and King And His Court at $426,412). Vaughan has run in only two races, winning none. He almost forgot to leave the gate in the first race of his life only a month ago.

The Vaughan family. Vaughan will wear a red hood like this when he runs in the Queen’s Plate

Vaughan will be only the second Queen’s Plate starter for trainer John Mattine, the first being Okiyama six years ago in 2011. Okiyama was a longshot, too.  At odds of 63 to 1, he finished last of 17 after forcing the early pace. That Plate was won by a filly, Inglorious. This year, a filly, Holy Helena, is favoured to win the Gallop for the Guineas. Mattine is hoping that history won’t repeat itself this time.

Holy Helena, winning the Woodbine Oaks.

Vaughan, the horse, is owned by John Romanelli, whose RCC company is best known as a restorer of waterlogged basement foundations.  Romanelli owned a couple of ears of Okiyama, one of his early plunges into a nine-year history of horse ownership. He’s also owned the likes of Buongiorno Johnny, that made everybody feel like they were in Italy when they spoke his name. It’s no secret that Romanelli has Italian roots, like much of Vaughan, the city.

Romanelli, lover of Vaughan, the horse and the city

Last November, Romanelli bought a colt called Conquest Zipped Up, from the dispersal sale of Ernie Semersky’s Conquest Stable for $17,000 US. Because of the dispersal, there are now multiple Conquest horses with new home all over the continent, almost to the point that you can’t remember which Conquest horse is which. Romanelli wanted to put his own stamp on this colt and renamed him Vaughan, after his home city. He loves Vaughan, north of Toronto. Like the horse that bears its name, Vaughan is a town lurking under the radar in Canada’s largest metropolis. Even though it is a city, it doesn’t even have its own listing in the phone book, nor does it have its own hospital.

Still, it was Canada’s fastest-growing municipality from 1996 to 2006, when the population exploded by 80.2 per cent. It’s the home of Canada’s Wonderland, the McMichael Art Collection, and the megamall, Vaughan Mills.

The task of Vaughan (the horse) seems improbable and impossible. The cast of characters surrounding him also includes 46-year-old jockey Slade Callaghan, who hasn’t ridden in a Queen’s Plate in seven years, since he piloted Seawatch to finish sixth, his best finish ever in five previous attempts at the Plate. There’s a reason for Callaghan’s long absence from Plate consideration. Three or four years ago, he semi-retired from riding, deciding to ride only the horses trained by his wife, Kelly. At 5-foot-8, he’s tall for a jockey. And he loves dabbling in real estate.

Slade Callaghan

However, more than a year ago, the Barbados-born Callaghan began to feel the tug of riding good horses again. Earlier in his career, he’d scaled the heights with Rahy’s Attorney, which he rode to win the $1-million Woodbine Mile, defeating top North American milers.

And although Callaghan had never won a Queen’s Plate, he had won a Canadian Triple Crown race on Portcullis and two legs of the filly’s version, taking the 2003 Bison City Stakes with Seeking the Ring (in a dead heat for the win) and the 2000 Wonder Where Stakes with Misty Mission, who made only three starts in her life. All three were Sam-Son Farm horses. Callaghan often got the mounts when somebody else couldn’t honour a commitment. And he made the most of those chances.

However, two weeks into the Woodbine meet last year (and his comeback), he had a morning training accident, and broke his right leg and his right ankle. Surgeons inserted a rod into his leg, starting from beneath his knee cap right into his bone. His ankle, more problematic, got some screws. All of that hardware is still there. That put him out of action for much of last season.

But he understands patience, and the time you need to put yourself back on track. He found a way. For weeks he lay in bed, watching television series. But he wasn’t idle. He couldn’t put any weight on his leg, but he could lie in bed and stretch and do certain things to keep the injury mobile.

He never went to rehab. “I did everything myself,” he said. “With my experience dealing with horses. I used a couple of machines that we use on horses, like lasers and ice packs. “ He would get periodic medical check-ups to ensure the bones were in place and mending properly.

At the end of 12 weeks, he could put away the crutches, although at first, he limped for a while – not so much because of the fractures. His hardest work was to deal with inflammation and scar tissue, and the tightening of his tendons, and shrinking muscles.

He never considered giving up. Not once. “It never crossed my mind,” he said. He rode a race in September, and by the end of the year, had only a handful of rides.

He’s had injuries before. Back in Barbados, Callaghan suffered a serious shoulder injury that prompted him to have nerve transplant surgery in Toronto, but when he caught sight of Woodbine for the first time, he knew he had to ride here. He moved to Canada in 1994.

Callaghan warming up for his Plate ride during a Saturday race at Woodbine

He knew that this season, he would have to start from scratch again, drumming up business from nothing. He made regular daily stops to Mattine’s barn. With the Queen’s Plate coming up, Mattine took a second look at Callaghan, who had experience.

“Slade can ride a horse,” Mattine said. “He kept saying: ‘Give me a chance on him.’ I said: ‘You know what? Let’s give him a chance on him.’

“I know he’s been on nice horses. He was pretty cool and calm and collected at the [Plate draw.] I’ve always liked him.”

CAllaghan “can ride a horse.”

 

The way Romanelli sees it, Callaghan isn’t the sort to lose his head and get into a speed duel in a major event. “He’s not going to get overly excited,” he said. “He’s going to ride a smart race and if things open up, you never know.” So much can happen in a 1 ¼-mile race, he said.

Callaghan discovered that he was to ride Vaughan only the day before the Plate draw for post positions. It’s given him a lift, like nothing else. “It means so much that someone has confidence in you to put you on a horse in the biggest race in Canada, after not riding full-time for a while,” he said. “It’s not like you forget how to ride.”

The thing about Vaughan is that it’s not as if he doesn’t belong in Plate chatter. His mother is a mare called Destroy, who was Canada’s broodmare of the year in 2011, after having produced brilliant horses such as multiple graded stakes winner Smokey Fire, as well as Utterly Cool and Ghost Fleet.

And Destroy’s mother was another diva of the racetrack: Eternal Search, Canada’s champion sprinter in 1981 and champion older mare in 1982 and 1983. The awards don’t tell the whole tale of the horse. Eternal Search as a racehorse was as tough and speedy as they come. A star, back in the day.

Mattine says he’s liked Vaughan from day one, and has no regrets in buying him for Romanelli. “He’s a horse that’s improving and we’ll see if he fits in with this calibre,” he said.

John Mattine

Winning a Queen’s Plate, of course, would mean a great deal to Mattine, whose father, Tony was a Woodbine trainer. And his grandfather minded the “gap” where horses get on and off the track. Because of his grandfather, Mattine witnessed part of track lore in Queen’s Plate history. He watched Amber Herod go through the gap enroute to a start in the 1974 Plate, but he took an unscheduled roll in the mud (It rained buckets that day) and arrived in the paddock with his new white blanket besmirched. Then he went out and won the Plate by 1 ½ lengths, with his ears pricked.

As for Romanelli, who admits he hasn’t been sleeping all that well the past few nights, he didn’t  want to find out two or three months after the Plate was over, that he had a horse that could have been a contender. “What if he broke his maiden by 10 lengths and I go: “Why didn’t I try?”

Mattine says they are making this a serious pilgrimage to the Plate. It’s not a vanity contest. “We’re serious, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “If you want to have fun, you go to Vegas.”

And then, it seemed an omen, when Mattine and Romanelli won an allowance race at Woodbine two days before the Plate with Broken Meadow, winning the first race of her life, rather impressively. Owned by Romanelli, she was a 24 to 1 longshot. Mattine has always liked this mare, too.

The omens are good. Note the Canadian flag in the back pocket.

Of course, longshots have won the Plate many times. T.J.’s Lucky Moon won in 2002 as an 82 to 1 shot., second longest shot behind Maternal Pride in 1924, at 95 to 1. T.J.’s Lucky Moon had won one of only five previous starts and he was a mean sonofabuck, too. His win was wacky and unforgettable.

And maidens?  Scatter The Gold was the most notable one in 2000. He hadn’t won before the Plate, but he had been bred in the purple by Sam-Son Farm, a leading racing juggernaut in the country. If Vaughan should win, he could become part of Queen’s Plate lore, too. One thing Romanelli and Mattine know for sure: there will be a lot of cheering from Vaughan (the city) for Vaughan (the horse) on Queen’s Plate day.

The King is back: my photos from the Wando Stakes at Woodbine Racetrack

My two worlds are colliding at the moment. Days after the Stars On Ice tour landed in Toronto, a group of Queen’s Plate hopefuls tested out their legs in the Wando Stakes at Woodbine.

The race is named after a spectacular Canadian colt called Wando, a copper-coloured gentle sort that became the first to win the Canadian Triple Crown in 10 years, back in 2003. Nobody has swept the series since. Only seven have ever won it.

Now, 14 years later, Canada’s best 3-year-olds are preparing for the first leg of the Triple Crown, the Queen’s Plate, which Wando won by nine lengths. Wando, bred by Toronto developer Gustav Schickedanz, died three years ago and is buried at Schickedanz’s Scomberg Farms, beside another of his Queen’s Plate winners, Woodcarver, as well as one of Schickedanz’s favourite riding horses.

The Wando Stakes on Sunday was a contest between Queen’s Plate winterbook favourite, Tiz A Slam and Sovereign Award champion 2-year-old from last year, King and His Court, both from powerful stables.

The following are photographs I took at Woodbine on Sunday:

 

This is Tiz A Slam, trained by Hall of Famer Roger Attfield. If Tiz A Slam wins the Queen’s Plate this year, it will give Attfield a record ninth victory in the classic race. Canada’s top jockey, Eurico Rosa da Silva, rides.

In the other corner is King and His Court, ridden by veteran Gary (Boo) Boulanger. He is trained by Canada’s perennial top trainer Mark Casse, who had one of the favourites for the Kentucky Derby last Saturday.

 

Breaking from the gate in the Wando Stakes. King and His Court is No. 3, Tiz A Slam is N. 4.

Pounding in front of the grandstand for the first time.

Down the homestretch, King and His Court battles it out with Tiz A Slam, with Gus Schickedanz’s grey horse, Megagray between them. Megagray ended up third.

King and His Court, winning the Wando over Tiz A Slam. It appears the King is back after two lacklustre efforts in the United States earlier this spring on different racing surfaces.

Winner’s circle glory for the King.

Gus Schickedanz presenting the trophy to Gary Boulanger.

 

Kaetlyn Osmond: the empty space has been filled

Just as Kaetlyn Osmond was about to make her way to the world figure skating championships in Helsinki – only her third – the value of silver, down in the doldrums on world markets, began to pick up. The ticker tapes of the world began to spin in the right direction.

It’s good news for Osmond, who has earned buckets full of silver medals this season, none as spectacular as the silver medal she earned at the world championships.

Osmond, 21, started the season at Finlandia Trophy with a gold medal, defeating Mao Asada and world bronze medalist Anna Pogorilaya.

A short time later, she won a silver medal at the Skate Canada International, behind only world champ Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia.

Cup of China was next. Silver again, just behind Elena Radionova of Russian. Osmond had won the short program, and finished third in the free.

Grand Prix Final? Osmond was the first Canadian woman to qualify for it since Joanne Rochette in 2009. Osmond finished second in the short program, but fourth in the free, for fourth overall. She was not now going toe to toe with the best six skaters in the world. Behind her after the short program were world medalists from Japan,( Satoko Miyahara) and three other talented Russians. All season long, Osmond was able to spar very well with the tops in her discipline.

Four Continents was an unfortunate hiccup on Osmond’s journey. She says she tries to forget that one. Just as well.

And of course at the world championships, Osmond sped to second place behind only Medvedeva, after finishing second in both the short and the long.

Going into this world championship, Osmond was not thinking about winning a medal or about where she would place at all, despite her successful season. “I was going into worlds thinking I finally wanted to feel proud of how I skated,” she said. “I have had a season of highs all year, so when I went into worlds, I just wanted to end on that same feeling and to feel the best I had felt all season.”

Don’t forget, it’s the first time Osmond got to experience a full season. That idea excited her. She just wanted to feel proud. When she skated the way she hoped and it meant she won a silver medal, Osmond said: “Honestly, it still doesn’t feel believable.”

What is real is hard to explain. Her silver medal is entirely motivating for anything she does from now on. “After I broke my leg, I thought my career was done,” she said. “And the competitions that came afterwards, didn’t go well. It put so much doubt in my head. And I questioned that I would never be able to perform at my best ever again. I hated going home from competitions, feeling like I didn’t compete.

“And I felt lost every time. So this season, each time I went out and skated, I forgot about the feeling that I wanted to find and just focused on finding the love of the sport again. And each time I went out there, that’s what I felt. I felt like that empty piece of me kept getting filled up and filled up. And at the end of my long program [in Helsinki], it was finally like I felt full again.”

She can’t explain the feeling at the moment in which she took her final pose in the free skate. “I just felt like a full human being again,” she said. “It’s something I never realized I felt so lost before that.”

Her silver medal will probably find its way into a case at home full of her other silver medals she won during the season. Aside from an Olympic team silver medal, Osmond hadn’t won silver medals before, she said. “I think I’ll have a box of silvers,” she said. Right now, the shiny world medal is in Newfoundland, her home spot.

One of the first things that Osmond did when she returned to Canada was to return to Newfoundland. She’s lived near Edmonton since she was 10 years old, but the home province is dear to her heart. She hadn’t been to Newfoundland in a year. And she hadn’t been to her hometown of Marystown (population 5,500) in four years, when she was feted for winning her first of three Canadian titles.

Marystown did it up big that day. She rode a red convertible into town, waving all the way. There was no shortage of “Welcome Home, Kaetlyn,” signs. “I wanna be just like Kaeltyn Osmond,” said a young girl’s placard, from her perch in another car. Osmond spoke and spoke. Signed autographs, Posed for photos. Got to take home a quilt. Marystown renamed their rink the “Kaetlyn Osmond Arena.” The town named a street after her.

Kaetlyn Osmond as a young skater in Newfoundland

“Even since post-Olympics, I hadn’t been back,” she said. “For me to get a chance to go home, that was the biggest thing. I have so many supporters in Newfoundland, and so many friends and they’ve kept me going through numerous, numerous things, so it was a chance for me to see them and to hear their stories and for me to share my own.”

Osmond made a trip to the Children’s Hospital, too. “It was a really humbling experience,” said the athlete who has endured a shopping list of injuries, some that could have ended her career. “It reminded me of when I was in the hospital. And seeing so many kids go through way worse things than I was dealing with, was inspiring.”

Osmond has clearly been a star on the Stars On Ice tour this season. And she has easily stepped into that role. With a swish of newly blond-tipped hair, Osmond was spellbinding as she skated to Tori Kelly’s “Hallelujah.” She just looked different, all told. Bigger. More commanding. Soft as she needed to be. Mischievous as she chose in “I Love It.”

“The group numbers are so much fun,” she said. “I love Jeff [Buttle]’s choreography. There’s a reason I go back to him every year now for my long program. [This past season, Buttle choreographed her La Boheme free skate and he’s done exhibition routines for her in the past].

“He’s so much fun and his choreography is crazy hard. But it brings out a different side of me each time and it makes me learn new things. So I love it. Being able to do this tour and perform, it’s why I started skating. And it brings me back to my love of skating every time.”

Osmond was also part of the tribute routine to Jeff Billing, the talented costume designer and director for Stars on Ice for many years before he died last September of natural causes at age 71. If there was a number that pulled at heartstrings in the show, this was it. “It was really heartfelt,” she said. She knew Billings from two previous tours with Stars on Ice.

Before she went on tour, Osmond already completed her routines for the Olympic season. She’s staying mum for the moment on the music being used, but she will say they are programs that are very different from the past season. “There’s two pieces of music that I absolutely love,” she said. “My long program is something that I wanted to do for years and years and years and years and years. So I’m really excited for it.”

Lance Vipond has choreographed her short program for the coming season – always her mainstay in the past – and Buttle did her long program. “The choreography is very different from one to the other,” Osmond said. “But I love them.”

Of course, it means that she will leave behind her short program routine to Edith Piaf, singing “Sous le Ciel de Paris,” and “Milord,” but even though it served her extremely well all season, and it gave her a feeling of strength, Osmond is happy to get it go.

The memorable Piaf routine

“I can tell you right now, if I did my short next year, it wouldn’t look the same,” she said. “I love the challenge of having a new character. And even though some people see my program about eight times a year at competition, I hear it about 15 times a day. You are really looking forward to not having that any more.

“Time to get annoyed by a new program.”

 

Gabby Daleman: standing tall

It hasn’t all sunk in yet for Gabby Daleman, at 19, the world bronze medalist. There is a medal now jingling against her heart, even when she doesn’t wear it.

That medal is proof positive of so many things: that she can overcome, that she’s as good as anyone in  the world, and that she didn’t ever, ever, deserve to be bullied. Ever. For any single thing about her.

On her debut appearance on the Stars On Ice tour, Daleman is skating to Demi Lovato’s “Confident.” Perfect. Lovato was bullied as a young girl, too. And Lovato, too, has overcome to the point that she is a spokesperson for mental health.

“It’s time for me to take it,” Lovato warbles.

“I’m the boss right now

Not gonna fake it

Not when you go down

‘Cause this is my game

And you better come to play.”

“You had me underrated,” Lovato sings. So was Daleman, from the start. For all those who have watched her rise from young Canadian medalist (at 16, she was the youngest athlete on the Canadian Olympic team in Sochi) to world medalist, they’ve seen an exhibition of confidence, of positive messages, of power, speed and will. “She never wanted for self-confidence, that girl,” figured one scribe. And so it appeared.

But Daleman has had to fight every step for that confidence. As a young girl, Daleman suffered from a learning disorder, making it difficult for her to read and write. The bullies came out in full force. And the jealousies, too. Daleman was a whirlwind of activity, learning gymnastics for nine or 10 years and figure skating, too. She would leave class to practice. The others gave her a rough ride, because they didn’t get to do the same. Daleman suffered under a double whammy. She couldn’t win.

The taunts were so bad, Daleman didn’t want to go to school. “Personally, it was awful,” she recalled. “I would not want to do anything. I wore long-sleeved t-shirts to hide my biceps because I was getting made fun of for having too much muscle, for not being pretty enough to be a figure skater.”

At every turn, she was being told that she had to look a certain way to do what she loved. She was told how a girl should look. She didn’t love who she was. She was ashamed of her abs. And her strength.

Gabby’s abs

 

Fortunately, her friends and family picked her up. Her younger brother, Zach, also a figure skater, played a major role in boosting her self-confidence. It’s no surprise that they are so close. About a year ago, Daleman began to do fitness exercises on Instagram, and it caught on. People began to tell her how much they wanted to be like her. She was also experiencing some success in the skating world. Now people wanted to have abs and muscles, just like Daleman.

“That really helped me in a certain way, because I’m like, if people want to do this, why should I not want to look like this?” she said.

It wasn’t a simple task to repair the effects of bullying. Daleman has always been hard on herself, personally and in training. Sometimes, she’ll still show up in baggy shirts when she doesn’t feel good, an effect from the past. When this happens, she’s fortunate to have friends like training mate Dylan Moscovitch, who bucks her up when she needs it. The people closest to her get it.

In the next year or two, Daleman plans to write a book about her experiences, to tell others how to deal with a problem that is rife, everywhere. She’ll be working on a project with Skate Canada, too.

Gabby Daleman: not pretty enough to be a figure skater?

 

And so finally, that bronze medal puts the exclamation mark on what Daleman is: no longer underrated.

“I’ve just been taking it day to day,” she said while on tour. “Enjoying myself. I had World Team Trophy [after world championships], which was a lot of fun. So I focused on that. And now I’m just focusing on the tour and enjoying myself.”

How did she make it happen? One foot in front of the other. Doing the work every day. Training. Trusting herself. Believing in herself. “I had a great coaching team and great training mates there to cheer me on and my parents,” she said. “I had my brother, back home. But not only my brother. My country.”

She felt proud that she strung two solid programs together and boy, does she make her triple toe loop – triple toe loop combination sing – the only skater to max out the points and sometimes the +3s on that jump combination multiple times last season.

Gabby Daleman’s cheering section, back home in Newmarket. (Courtesy CNW Group/Pickering College)

The history of her triple toe loop – triple toe loop combo:

At Nebelhorn Trophy, Daleman attempted triple Lutz – triple toe loop in the short program, slightly underrotating it to get 8.30 points on that element. For the long program, she did the triple toe loop – triple toe loop for 10.60, and seven marks of +3 across.

At Skate America, she more noticeably underrotated the triple Lutz – triple toe loop and got 5.80 for that. Back to the triple toe loop –triple toe loop for the free, she earned 10.30 points, with four +3s.

At Trophee de Paris, Daleman left the triple Lutz combo behind, and did triple toe loop – triple toe loop in the short program, earning 10.70, to put her in second place. In the free, she missed the combo, getting only 2.20.

At the Canadian championships, she had hit her stride, took the silver medal and absolutely maxed out her scores, with all +3s for 10.70 points in both the short and the free programs.

At Four Continents, Daleman won the short program over Kaetlyn Osmond, hitting the triple toe loop combo well enough to get 10.30 with three +3s. And in the free, she got eight +3s for 10.70.

World championships? Maxed out those scores at 10.70 for both the short and long programs, while getting eight +3s in both.

Osmond and champion Evgenia Medvedeva did the more difficult triple flip – triple toe loop combo and each got the exact same mark in the free: 11.00. So Daleman was breathing down their necks with a combo considered easier.

How did she make that combination so effective and ferocious a tool? “To be honest, I don’t even know,” she said. “That’s just how I’ve done it. It’s just more controlled and it’s fluid.” She doesn’t know if she’s keeping it for next season. “Anything can happen,” she said.

So no, Daleman doesn’t back down from a challenge. During the tour, she’s been seen doing backflips with ropes around her waist. At one end of the rope on one side is Kurt Browning, who does them (at age 50) in the show, and on the other end, Moscovitch. “I want to try,” Daleman told them. They gave her tips.

Gabby Daleman, so young at the Sochi Olympics

 

“Don’t untie it,” Daleman insisted. “I’m serious.”

Because they both knew Daleman had years of gymnastics training behind her, they tried one. Daleman landed it. “It felt good,” she said. “Let’s film it.”

“They’re actually really easy and a lot of fun,” she said.  The ropes are there in case she bails out and they help to keep her in the air, not on the ice. With Daleman, they really didn’t need the rope. It never occurred to Daleman to bail out.

Her Stars on Ice numbers were apropos and she skated them with confidence. She sparkled. Former Newfoundland skater Joey Russell choreographed them both. “’Confident’ was to help me feel confident,” Daleman said. “And to tell people where I am now in my skating, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be. I’m in great shape. I have the jumps. I have the skills. I have everything else everyone has.”

Her other routine is to “Gold,” sung by Linda Eder, a 56-year-old American with a golden voice. Buttle picked out the music for Daleman because he thought it would bring her luck. “It shows a much softer and gentler side,” she said. “And it actually is really touching. I have had people come up to me at the (post-show) meet and greets and say: ‘You made me cry from that program.’ Yes! That was Daleman’s aim.

“I wonder if when all is done

Anyone heard my voice,” Eder sings.

“I know my voice was just a whisper

But someone may have heard

There were nights the moon above me stirred

And let me grab a hold

My hands have touched the gold.”

So onward Daleman sweeps, living the life she’s been given, standing tall through it all.

Duhamel and Radford: We can be heroes, just for one day

Thursday was a good day, said Eric Radford, slipping into a rink-side seat at the Air Canada Centre during Stars on Ice rehearsals in Toronto.

It was good, because he – for the first time since the world championships in Helsinki – landed some double jumps. “And I feel fine,” he said.

On tour, having fun with Gabby Daleman (Stars On Ice photo)

Radford and partner Meagan Duhamel finished seventh in Helsinki when Radford’s back/hip started bothering him badly at exactly the wrong time: the day of the short program. During morning practice, he couldn’t land a triple Lutz. After he returned from Helsinki, an MRI showed his L2 disc (the upper part of the lower back) had herniated.

Actually he figures he had symptoms hinting at troubles back in February. “I had some back spasms just a few weeks before Four Continents,” he said. “I was dealing with them when I was there. Then I had that tight muscle heading into worlds. I think they were all coming from the same place.” The injury got so bad on the day of the short program at Helsinki that he could not skate properly.

Looking back, Radford figures if his disc had herniated three days earlier, it would have given him some sort of chance in Helsinki. Still, he’s also lucky that it’s an injury that came at season’s end. “I’m right at the moment when I have the time to get better,” he said. “And we don’t’ have any extremely important competitions coming up.”

The herniated disc caused the two-time world pair champions to miss World Team Trophy in Japan, and at one point, they wondered if they would be able to do the Stars On Ice tour at all. The Canadian leg of the tour stops at 12 cities from April 28 to May 18, starting in Halifax and ending in Vancouver. For the first time, all of the cast members were Canadians, simply because there are so many powerful skaters in this country. The tour was to mark the first time that Kurt Browning, Patrick Chan and Elvis Stojko had skated on the same tour together. Add up their world championship titles, and throw in choreographer/director Jeffrey Buttle, and you have 11. The tour also celebrated the singular achievements of Canadian women, with Kaetlyn Osmond (silver medal) and Gabby Daleman (bronze) being the first Canadian women to win two of three world medals.

“Sitting at home was horrible,” Radford said. “I did feel very lost. It was so unknown. We didn’t know if we would do Japan, and I didn’t know if I would be able to do the tour even. It’s really nice to be back skating a little more now.”

He had only been doing singles in the last few days. Then his physiotherapist said he should probably try some doubles. He wears a supportive belt when he skates. And he reckons he’ll have it for a while. “But jumping felt good,” he said. “It feels like I felt when I was a little kid on the ice again, by jumping my first double Salchow.” It WAS his first double Salchow in a month.

Duhamel said that she and Radford kept skating when they returned, because they initially thought they would do the World Team Trophy and the tour. But as the doubt grew, Duhamel was also mindful of the fact that fellow pair skaters Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau were forced to pull out of the Stars on Ice tour. “I knew the tour was down some numbers,” Duhamel said. “So I offered my singles services to Jeff Buttle if he needed a number filled.” She grinned.

In the end, she and her partner are doing the tour, albeit only one solo number, although they also take part in the group numbers. “I feel there is nothing I can do to control anything about Eric, so I just focused on myself and being the best I can be,” Duhamel said. She’s been working on some skills and has kept herself in top shape. “With the Olympics coming in less than a year, there is not a day to waste,” she said. “You have to be better than top shape every day.”

And she is. She says she’s in the best shape of her life right now.

Coming on tour had its advantages for Radford. It meant that he was able to have a physiotherapist at any time, and he does physiotherapy three times a day. “Just moving and getting back into skating slowly has really helped [the back] to improve quickly,” he said.

“But I’m not going to be going back and doing triple twists or anything like that soon,” he said.

Their solo routine on the Stars on Ice tour is to a David Bowie Song: “Heroes,” but Buttle, as he did with many pieces in the show, gives familiar music a twist by using a version done by another star. (Tom Jones sings Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song, a number performed by Kurt Browning, and American Idol contestant Tori Kelly sings Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” in a routine done by Osmond.)

Duhamel and Radford skate to a version sung by Peter Gabriel.  “As people know, Meagan and I have been through so much in our career,” Radford said. “Ups and downs. We’ve had to beat a lot of odds and I feel like this song lends itself to that story.”

“I, I will be king,” the song goes.

And you, you will be queen.

Though nothing will drive them away,

We can beat them, just for one day.

We can be heroes, just for one day.”

 

The music was Radford’s choice. Dylan Moscovitch introduced the song to Radford at the Sochi Olympics. Radford loved it. When he presented it to choreographer Julie Marcotte, she loved it too.

For next season, they will return to their “Muse” free program, although it will be refreshed and reinvigorated for the Olympic run. They have a new short program that captures their story, too. They’ll announce it a little later.

Their past season was not ideal. They showed up ready for the world championships, at their peak, ready to do the A game. The morning that Radford could not do a triple Lutz, and the music for their run through was about to start at practice, Duhamel knew she had to think fast. She skated over to Radford – no time to consult with the coaches first – and said: “Eric, we’ll do a triple toe.”

“We didn’t work that hard to go to worlds not to skate,” Duhamel said. “We’d find a way to skate. And I hadn’t tried a triple toe in three months. So I warmed one up and we did it with the music.”

“It was a bit of a different experience. It’s one thing not to practice a jump for three months and do one, but to have to do one at competition at worlds, is a little bit of a scary unknown experience. It’s life and it’s sport.” Curve balls are going to come at any time. Duhamel knows that it’s up to them to figure out how to deal with them. It’s not an option to deal with it in a negative mindset. “You can’t give up,” she said. “You find a way. You work around it and you make it work and that’s what we did.”

Looking back, the whole year was “pretty terrible,” Duhamel said. “The programs weren’t a fit for us. The skating wasn’t working. It wasn’t gelling. It was lacking some oomph and pizzazz. The whole thing, now that I think about it, was just like mush. A puddle almost. But we had two stellar seasons before that. You can’t be on top forever. You have to go through these ebbs and flows.”

They’ve dealt with the disappointment of finishing well off the podium at the Helsinki world championships. They’ve learned much. They know what to do. “We finished seventh. Life went on,” Duhamel said. “So what. It happened. It wasn’t as scary or as terrible as we thought it could be. And that just goes to teach us that it’s not that bad when you don’t win. It’s not the end of the world.”

“At the end of the day, if we go to the Olympics and skate really well and we come seventh, it is what it is,” she said. “But we’re going to do everything that we can and make the changes and strategize so that when we show up for next season for every competition, we are in the best shape of our lives, we have the best programs, that we’re motivated and we’re on the top of our game mentally and physically. And it has to be like that from day one in the season all the way to the Olympics. If we’re able to do that, then we’ll consider it a success.”

 

Laurie Silvera, the Jamaican gentleman

Tonight, I won my fifth Sovereign Award for a story I did on Woodbine trainer Laurie Silvera, published on the Woodbine website. The Sovereigns are thoroughbred horse racing’s annual Horse of the Year awards.

I had earlier won Sovereign Awards in 2005 (for an obituary on colourful trainer Jerry Meyer, who was buried with his binoculars), in 2008 (for a story on Toronto builder/developer Gus Schickedanz, who came to Canada with a few dollars in his pocket after his family escaped a Russian invastion into Germany during the 1940s); in 2010 (for a story on “Stumpy,” the man in charge of 12,000 jockeys’ colours at Woodbine, who died – and those left mourning his death did not know his system for finding colours); and 2011, a story on rags-to-riches turf runner Rahy’s Attorney.

This is my award-winning story on Laurie Silvera:

On  the backside of Woodbine Racetrack one balmy summer morning, Laurie Silvera chugged up a gentle slope in his SUV, and parked it to watch a horse work. Classical music filled the cab.

It’s not what you’d expect from a horse trainer who has spent the 85 years of his life on dusty backstretches and under barn roofs ridden by pigeons.

“The music they play today, I find no joy in it,” said Silvera, from under his signature Stetson. “But then again, I remember my parents saying: ‘I don’t understand what rubbish these children are listening to.’”

Rubbish like Frank Sinatra? Yes, quoth the backstretch sage.

He believes the greatest song ever written is “Stranger in Paradise.”

“Take my hand,” goes the Tony Bennett song.

“I’m a stranger in Paradise.

All lost in a wonderland.

If I stand starry eyed

That’s a danger in Paradise.”

Silvera’s paradise for more than 40 years has been the backstretch of Woodbine Racetrack, where he has spent much of his time since he landed in Canada in 1974, after leaving his birthplace of Jamaica. He speaks with a Jamaican lilt. His home near Guelph, Ont., is filled with the sound.

He has no intention of quitting his job. “Fortunately in racing, if your eyesight is in order and your mind is in order, you can do as good a job as a 20-year-old with all the physical attributes that you would like,” he said.

Time and experience are Silvera’s trump cards. “If your mental attributes remain with you, you get better as you get older,” he said. “Let’s face it: training is a guessing game. Until you can talk to horses, it can’t be a science. But it’s a guessing game based on educated guesses. Experience makes the difference.”

He looks forward more than he looks backward. Last fall, he bought three yearlings, one of them a colt by Exhi out of T.P.’s Wit, for $22,000. He’s a half-brother to Julie’s Witt (winner of the Ontario Damsel and the Passing Mood Stakes at Woodbine) and Mighty Quinn (winner of the Vice Regent, Bold Ruckus and Frost King Stakes). He’s named the colt Wit o’ Windsor, after a good horse that his father, Owen had, while Laurie was growing up in Jamaica. The original Wit o’ Windsor (translation: the Smart Alec of Windsor) was a British-bred horse that his father imported and he raced in the top classes at Caymanas Park. The Jamaican theme keeps popping up in Silvera’s bailiwick.

Caymanas Park, a 1/18-mile track, opened in 1959 and before that, there was Knutsford Park in Kingston. Currently, Silvera has a horse racing at Woodbine called Knutsford Park.

Don’t ask the niggly details of his previous horses and his past life. He doesn’t remember them. His first winner in Jamaica as a trainer was with a mare called Silver Light, owned by his first client, Barry Rose. Silvera remembers her as a good filly. Beyond that, nada.

“I don’t remember too much,” he said. “I’m not one that contemplates yesterday that much. I’m a today and tomorrow person.

“I don’t ponder the past at all. There is nothing you can do about the past. That is part of my makeup. I don’t dwell on the past.  In this game, what you did yesterday is soon forgotten.”

But his yesterday is fascinating.

Silvera’s yesterday

Silvera’s ancestors came from Spain, via England.  Silvera believes they were Jewish and escaped the country during the Spanish Inquisition, which ordered Jews and Muslims to convert to Catholicism or leave the country in 1492. Silvera’s forbears headed for England and then in 1745, two adventurous Silvera brothers settled in Jamaica, a British colony.

They became farmers, establishing a beautiful banana plantation in Jamaica. Large enough, by all accounts. “For anybody coming from England, the land was there for the taking,” Silvera said. His father, Owen, continued the tradition.

Horses were a way of life in Jamaica. The first industry in Jamaica was horse breeding and sales. The majority of horses used by Cortez to conquer Mexico were bred in Jamaica. Transportation was by buggy. Horseback riding was a pleasure sport. It’s not surprising that Silvera’s father found his way into training thoroughbred race horses.

The racetracks in Jamaica never had the financial wherewithal to equal those in Canada or the United States, but racing was a revered pursuit. “The joy of racing far surpasses that of Canada,” Silvera said. “The general population in Jamaica knows all about what is going on in racing. It’s covered in the newspapers on a daily basis.” Racing got a large section of the sports page – and it still does.

Sometimes top British jockeys, like Lester Piggott and Sir Gordon Richards would ride in Jamaica. They were treated like royalty. Piggott has in the past ridden for Silvera. “He was somewhat hard of hearing,” Silvera recalled. Piggott would spend December and part of January in Jamaica.

Silvera’s father was one of the leading trainers in Jamaica and was well known throughout the country. Back in the 1940s, he trained a horse called “Brown Bomber,” described in the Jamaica press as “great and invincible.” His most intense tangles were with a horse called Jetsam in Trinidad.

Silvera doesn’t know a time when he didn’t sidle up to a racehorse. “I grew up in a racing stable,” he said. He galloped horses for his father.

At age 18, Silvera wrote the senior Cambridge matriculation exams that signalled the end of high school. The exam was sent to England to be scored. Silvera passed.

Silvera played on a cricket team in Jamaica. He’s the one with the wavy hair, back row, fifth from the left.

Photo courtesy of Laurie Silvera

Career established

It wasn’t a stretch for Silvera to start training horses, but he didn’t take out his training licence until he was 29 years old. His mother, Angele – who had an eye for a good horse but stayed away from the barns – wanted him to become a veterinarian. But Silvera started training horses for Rose, won some races and people began to take a second look at the tall young man. “All of a sudden, you have a barn full of horses,” he said.

He trained about 200 winners in Jamaica and was leading trainer there five times between 1960 and 1970. There were no stabling facilities at Caymanas, so the family would walk or ride the horses three miles to the track.

One of Silvera’s best horses was a tiny filly (14.2 hands high) called Bonnie Blue Flag, pretty, tough and wiry, known to carry huge imposts. She used to go long. She became one of the most revered horses in Jamaica.

Silvera, left, with the original Bonnie BlueFlag

Photo courtesy of Laurie Silvera

Years later in Barbados, Silvera spotted another filly that almost took his breath away: She looked exactly like Bonnie Blue Flag with her chestnut coat and blaze. So Silvera named her Bonnie Blue Flag, too, and she became the top 2-year-old in Barbados. With Silvera, what goes around often comes around.

Silvera with his next Bonnie Blue Flag, champion 2-year-old in 1994 in Barbados

Photo courtesy of Laurie Silvera

Now there is a race in Jamaica named after Silvera’s great fillies: The Bonnie Blue Flag Trophy. Last year, it was won by All Correct, a horse owned by Silvera’s nephew Raymond Rousseau. Shane Ellis rode him.

In 1965, Silvera ended up in Richmond, Va., to visit one of his father’s clients, Richard Reynolds, a big mining boss, who invited him to spend a week with his family. But it was March and it was cold for a Jamaican. Silvera went looking for a hat, and didn’t find one he liked until he spotted a 10-gallon Stetson. He bought it and never took it off, he said.

Now, he doesn’t take it off, because underneath it all, he’s bald, and if he doffed it, nobody would recognize him. “I was born bald,” Silvera says. Over the past 50 years, Silvera estimates he’s owned about 100 Stetsons.  It’s now his trademark.

The man with the hat.

Photo courtesy of Laurie Silvera

While in Jamaica, Silvera met Clive Brooks, who owned several supermarkets and retail outlets in the country. Silvera trained the second horse Brooks ever owned after they met in 1961. The name of their first horse together? Jesse James, after the American outlaw, gang leader, bank robber, murderer and folk “hero.”

“We had a lot of fun with him,” Brooks said of the horse. And then things, as Brooks describes it,” just exploded.”

At age 34, Brooks sold all of his commercial holdings and retired. At first blush, it seemed like a good idea. At second blush, he realized he needed to do something. He suggested to Silvera that he buy a farm and get into the horse business. Silvera liked the idea.

They called their partnership and their farm “Silverbrook” a combination of both of their names. “He wanted to call it the other way around,” Brooks joked. “But that didn’t make any sense.”

The two of them started to go to the United States to buy, import horses to Jamaica and then sell them. Their little farm, on about 100 acres, was home to some horses they bred, too. On their buying trips, they would move around, but their first stop together was Charles Town, Va., a small town of about 5,000 in a rather remote area of the state.

“I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed that place,” Brooks said. “It was a real backwoods sort of operation.” The town found it necessary to enact a bylaw decreeing it unlawful to keep unlicensed, abandoned, junked cars on public or private property for any longer than 10 days. The terrain was rugged. Mountain culture reigned.

“But the guys were fun to be around,” Brooks said. “We bought quite a few horses in Charles Town.”

They would ship them to Florida, then to Jamaica. In most cases, they sold the majority of them before they even left the quarantine station. “We just told people we had horses and they came to look at them, and we sold most of them,” Brooks said.

There was a decent profit margin involved, he said. These horses were very cheap. After all, the standard of racing in Jamaica didn’t demand more. Brooks remembers the first place he went to in Ocala – in the days before OBS – attending a horse auction sale that was on the site of a cattle auction. It wasn’t high brow. “I think at that sale, I bought the sale topper,” he said proudly, with a twinkle. Price? $3,500.

“It was something ridiculous,” Brooks said. Silvera was savvy enough to realize that there wasn’t a lot of money in training horses in Jamaica. Trading horses worked better.

“We messed around a lot in Ocala,” Brooks said.  “I got to know a lot of the guys down there. So we’d visit quite often. We both liked it there for a long time.” He and Silvera had adventures together. They laughed a lot.

As a leading horse trainer, Silvera gained celebrity status in Jamaica. “You are inclined to get preferential treatment,” Silvera said. Once, when he flew into Kingston, and needed a taxi to take him home to Spanishtown – three-quarters of an hour away – the driver dropped him off and said: “No charge.” And there was nothing unusual about it. Racing was part of Jamaica’s culture.

But while life in Jamaica seemed idyllic in one way, it wasn’t in another.  “Jamaica became a little too hostile for our liking,” Silvera said. He was married, with six children from age seven (Arthur Silvera) to teenagers. “We decided the future for them in Jamaica was not particularly accommodating.”

There was a lot of crime. The rule of law was ignored. Bullets would whistle past ears. One morning, Silvera was standing on the Caymanas track when a man came rushing toward him. “Help me,” he cried.

“Mr. Laurie, I beg you.”

The man ran behind Silvera, who found himself staring down the barrel of a revolver. “And I was between the man and the revolver,” he said.

Silvera did the only reasonable thing that he could in those circumstances. He legged it, as fast as his feet would carry him. “I left at such a speed that I would have made Usain Bolt look like his grandmother,” he said.

Another morning, bullets screamed overhead at the track. “Two rival political gangs, I guess,” Silvera said. “When you are in the middle of that, it is not fun.”

Gradually, Silvera reduced his string of between 30 to 40 horses and both he and Brooks left for Canada where they all had close family already. Silvera bought a home near Toronto. Brooks looked around for a business to run and couldn’t find one that satisfied him right away.

When Silvera arrived in Canada, he told Brooks that he was finished with horse racing, that he had to try something new. He’d done it long enough.

“We were sort of at loose ends and didn’t know what we were going to do,” Brooks said. But he found the ticket when he took his young kids bowling. “I had never seen a bowling centre before in my life,” he said. “I looked around and thought: ‘This looks like something worth doing.’”

Brooks bought some land at Walker’s Line in Burlington, Ont. and had a 36-lane alley built, called Burlington Bowl.  “In those days, Walkers Line was like you were out in the sticks,” Brooks said. “There was nothing around. People told me I was crazy. What am I doing out there? But it did very well.” He expanded it to 48 lanes.

Both he and Silvera owned the bowling alley, although Silvera says it wasn’t his game.  They sold it, then build another one in Hamilton, Ont., called Hamilton Mountain Bowl. At 60 lanes, it was the largest in Canada and had the latest automatic scoring technology. They owned it together for 30 years until it was sold a few years ago. Silvera’s wife, Claudia, worked at the bowling alley for years.

But about a year into Silvera’s new experiment with bowling alleys, Brooks encouraged him to go back to training horses. “Let me tell you something,” Brooks said. “That’s what you’re going to do because that’s what you know and that’s what you enjoy.”

Brooks talked him into going to a horse sale and convinced him to buy a horse for Silverbrook. The horse, Dashing Young Man, was a modest investment at $7,000 to $8,000. Silvera took out a trainer’s licence in 1975. Dashing Young Man didn’t disappoint, giving Silvera his first win in Canada, well enough that, as Brooks says, that one thing led to another and soon Silverbrook was in full swing.

Silvera’s first win in Canada.

Michael Burns Photo

And soon Silvera was in full swing too. He proved to be a wizard at picking out precocious horses with early speed. He thrives on picking out young horses and developing them into something.  He won three straight Greenwood spring titles from 1989 to 2001, where sprints were king. His stable stars?

Silverbrook’s first stakes winner was George Dinkle, a son of Wrinkle Dinkle, that Silvera claimed ($32,000) and then turned him into a stakes winner (Connaught Cup). In the winner’s enclosure, Dinkle rose up on his hind legs, perhaps protesting his name, perhaps celebrating his accomplishment. A photograph of this memorable moment won somebody an Eclipse Award.

Silvera picked Rustic Light out of a sale for $28,000 for Silverbrook and the horse won the $500,000 Illinois Derby in 1993, leading all the way in the slop. Rustic Light placed in other major sprint races in Canada and won almost $600,000.

And who can forget Demaloot Demashoot? This fan favourite was a track-record setter whose victories all came at six furlongs or less, all good enough to win $574,825 in his career, winning stakes all over North America from age two to six. At one point, he landed in Team Valor’s barn, and finished fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 1993.

Silvera’s Free At Last was a Sovereign Award as champion 2-year-old colt in Canada in 1991, after winning the Summer Stakes.

The trainer also picked out a colt called Solo Guy at a sale in Miami for $32,000 for one of his early clients, Gord Hall. It was an astute pick. Solo Guy was a champion sprinter, winning the Victoria Stakes as a 2-year-old. As a 3-year-old, he won the Nearctic Stakes and also took the Highlander too. Solo Guy went to California and won a graded stakes there, too.

Silvera took a chance on buying a yearling filly from the first crop of Storm Cat – before he’d proven himself at stud  – and paid $35,000 for November Snow.  “She was out of a good producing mare,” Silvera said. The Storm Cats would get more expensive later.  By 2005, one of his yearlings brought $9.7-million at Keeneland. And his stud fee climbed to $500,000.

Silvera with Clive Brooks (second from left) after a November Snow victory at Woodbine.

Michael Burns photo

In the beginning, Silvera wasn’t overly impressed with this filly, which finished fourth in her first start. He ran her back in the My Dear Stakes. The filly had figured it out by this time and came from behind to win going away to become Storm Cat’s first stakes winner. She paid $100 to win.

After that, Earle Mack bought her. As a 3-year-old she won the Alabama and Test Stakes at Saratoga, was runner-up in the Eclipse voting for 3-year-old filly, and was eventually sold for $1.1-million as a broodmare.

For eight seasons from 2001 to 2011, horses trained by Silvera earned more than $1-million. During that time, Silvera scored with Ariana D. in the Bessarabian Stakes, closing from last at 18 to 1 to win, and in the Avowal the next year. She also hit the board in four of five graded stakes she contested at Woodbine and Presque Ile.

Silvera, still winning after all these years. With Bob’s Ring and Emile Ramsammy April 25, 2010.

Michael Burns photo

In 2009, Silvera won his 900th race with Dublin Lane, and it took him five years to win his 1,000th race, with his splendid gray Sorry About That.

In the meantime, Silvera always gave a hand up. Several years in a row, he’d pick out a yearling, keep 50 per cent of it for himself, then let grooms in his stable own parts of the other 50 percent. “A couple of times, we did really well,” he said.

Woodbine groom Larry Harvey Brenton knew Silvera as a kid growing up in Jamaica and came to the Woodbine backstretch in 1989. Silvera once picked out a yearling for him for $5,000. The horse won some races and they sold it for $50,000. “He was the best,” Brenton said of Silvera. “He would help me out any way he can. He’s one of the greatest trainers on the grounds.”

Silvera doesn’t think it is any more difficult to buy yearlings than it has ever been. “What is tough is to select a good horse,” he said. “I believe I am able to do this better than most. It stems from experience and I look at horses critically from the get-go. There are some common denominators in good horses. ’

Brooks eventually got out of the racing business during the early 1990s, so now Silverbrook includes Silvera and Brooks’ two sons, Phillip and Cary, who train a few horses, too. “I call him uncle,” Phillip says. “I’ve known him since I was born. He’s like a father to me.”

Some call him Sir Laurie.

At age 85, Silvera still oversees a stable of as many as 18. In general, training horses has given Silvera the experience of a lifetime. “Up to this day, I enjoy it to an extent you would not imagine,” he said.

“When I’m able to drive in here and perform the day to day things, I’ll be here until I’m unable.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eric Radford battling hip issue

The timing couldn’t be worse.

A day before the pair short program at the world figure skating championship, two-time world champion Eric Radford could see there was something wrong with his hip. And he could not do a triple Lutz.

“I’ve had a spasmed muscle in my deep abdominals,” he said, clenching his right hip after a practice Tuesday in which he was able to land only one triple Lutz, with hand down, mind you. It was clear that something was not right.

“It was bugging me, but I still had good control,” he said. “It was just kind of sore. And then this morning, I woke up and it was so stiff that I could barely move.”

This was not good news for a team that has had to iron out various wrinkles all season, that has been hustling to repair and improve all wayward elements, and that finally seemed to be finally getting a grasp on it all.

The triple Lutz is worth 6.0 as a base mark. At its max, with +3 bonuses added on, it could be worth as much as 8.1. A fall could cost a one-point deduction, as well as lost points on Grade of Execution (GOE).

This is a new wrinkle that Radford has never faced before. He said that when he got onto the ice, he just could not squeeze his legs together. “I don’t know what muscle it is specifically, whether it is my adductor or something. But

When I’m in the air, I can’t pull in properly. My legs feel like they are going to fly apart.”

Radford says he even has problems doing crosscuts. “I feel like I don’t have a lot of control over my hip,” he said. And it was not a cheerful voice.

He will work with a therapist Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

Coach Bruno Marcotte said the physiotherapist knows what to do to help Radford. “I feel really confident that the physio will be able to help him,” he said.

The muscle issue began last week, but usually when he skated, it was fine. “It just got really bad [Monday],” Radford said.

The problem affects only the Lutz because his right leg pivots on the right hip to do it. And when he goes up into the air, the problem means he cannot squeeze in the air. “My legs feel floppy,” he said. He said it does not cause him pain. It’s numb. Pain would be easier to deal with, he said.

With other jumps, it’s easier to transfer weight and motion, he said. He can manage them.

During his second practice on Monday, Radford did a beautiful triple Lutz – double toe loop. “And my body felt great yesterday in practice,” he said.

The first practice actually was rather rocky, the second one hummed. On Tuesday, neither the first nor the second practice went well for Radford.

Even so, other elements sparkled on Tuesday’s last practice. Partner Meagan Duhamel said they did a really good throw quad, and a triple twist good enough to get level four that they have been practicing for extra points this year.

And while Radford was pondering his plan of attack during the practice, Duhamel circled around the rink, and avoided the triple Lutz. (“The more I do of them, I’m probably going to start getting into my head,” she said.) So she started doing other jumps, starting out with doubles. They were going so well, she started doing double Axel – triple toe loop combinations and a triple loop, things she does not usually do or practice.

“I didn’t even tell my coaches,” she said with a grin. “that was just for fun. I can only jump like that from time to time.”

Coach Bruno Marcotte said Duhamel went off to do her own thing to keep her mind positive and “to give Eric some space to gather his spirit.”

Chen hobbled only by boots

HELSINKI

Nathan Chen has blasted history, made history and defied history with his assembly of powerful quads this season. When the 17-year-old American defeated a savvy Olympic veteran in Yuzuru Hanyu at the Four Continents championships last month, well, the figure skating world just hasn’t been the same.

On the first day of the world figure skating championships this week, Chen held court in a frigid cave at the Hartwell Arena, on the first practice day, in front of a cast of a handful of die-hards, shivering under the rock.

During his run-through of his free program, Chen didn’t land five quads, but six quads as he motored his way about the ice on a pair of skates that can’t take the heat.

They are falling apart. He figures they will hold out until Thursday, the day of the men’s free. Therefore, he has packed with him a new pair of skates, and he has access to another pair from a boot manufacturer.  Chen doesn’t look worried.

Coach Rafael Arutunian says Chen slipped into his current boots for the first time only about four weeks ago, (after Four Continents) and already they have softened with the punishment of constant quad work.

This week, he’s holding them together with hockey laces, (“Every little bit helps,” Chen says) and praying that he won’t have to dip into that suitcase loaded with his weaponry. The laces are waxed, so they are stable in the boot.

Chen also had a problem with the way the boots were mounted. Arutunian says he carries about a pouch of tools to settle every such issues.

If Chen has any problems on the ice with these foot covers, it’s with the quad flip. He flipped out of one during his Monday run-through. He did others.

This is Chen’s first world championship, by the way. Such problems to have.

Aruturnian says he doesn’t know yet what the game plan is.

“We practice so many things that we don’t see yet,” he said. “But that is what sport is based on. I feel I have a company of production. I produce something. I try stuff.

“I get experience of how that works and then I make a decision. I don’t want to show that before it’s ready.”

As for the boots, they weigh heavily on Arutunian’s mind. “Boots have always been a problem, not only for him,” he said. “I think ice skating is improving and boots improve slower than skaters. Materials are something that could be done better. We have hard time with boots.

“They are too stiff and they get too quick soft. So there is very difficult to find the perfect timing: when to put them on to get the right time to be ready, to be not too soft and to be not too stiff.”

He thinks boot manufacturers should more often consult coaches, at least the ones who understand technique. If the boots are too stiff, a skater can’t use them for edges. If they are too soft, and a skater jumps, “they collapse,” Arutunian said.

The task to find boots that will do everything is going to get even harder, the coach said.

It’s definitely a concern whether or not Chen’s boots will last the week, he said. “At competitions, you always try harder. It’s adrenaline. “

At least, Arutunian said, Chen has skated in his spare boots, if he needs to pull them on at last moment. They will probably be a bit on the stiff side, mind.

But the way Chen seems to be: he’ll deal with it. He always seems to unruffled, despite his high-flying ways.