Drama at Autumn Classic

Non-stop action at the Autumn Classic. The place was almost packed. A kindly crowd noisy and appreciative of what they see, no matter the country of birth.

A night of short programs, to get the first taste. Yes, Yuzuru Hanyu was the star but Mirai Nagasu was the revelation.

(Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, 2010 Olympic champions competing for the first time since the Sochi Games – easily won the short dance on Thursday night with a score of 77.72, easily besting their previous high of 77.17, which had stood as the fourth highest score of all time. But they are another story.)

Hanyu was less than magnificent first time out this season, but he still won the short, skating to Prince in a costume that even coach Brian Orser hadn’t seen before .(“This is the first I’ve seen of it, when he came out of the rest room,” Orser said. “Oh, white.”) The 2014 Olympic champion earned 88.30 points, a far cry from his world record of 110.95. Twenty-two points lower in fact.

Still, he became the first man to land a quadruple loop in competition, although it wasn’t as pretty as the one he did in warmup. American Alexei Krasnozhon attempted a very good one at a Junior Grand Prix in Ljubljana, Slovenia recently, but stepped out of it and got some minus GOEs out of it.

Hanyu lost oodles of points with the single Salchow-triple toe loop combo which fizzled into 2.20 points. (As soon as he got off the ice, he told Orser that he’d stepped into a hole, perhaps even from one he created in warmup.) He lost levels on two spins. One judge gave him marks as low as 7.75 for skating skills, while the rest were in the 9.25 range. He received average marks in the eight range for transitions and performance.

Orser said he thought Hanyu was nervous. “We’ve been fussing around the last couple of weeks,” he said. “Little injuries and little things. And it’s September and it’s kind of where we are.” It’s six months to worlds.

“He kind of digs this program,” Orser said. “I think it bodes well for the future. I think it’s a good vehicle.”

Jeff Buttle chose the music, soon after Prince died, and the Prince music was everywhere. “We wanted to go that direction,” Orser said. “I think for this year too, it’s time for it.”

But, aside from Hanyu and all that he trails along with him (abandon all hope for those who want an interview, especially English-speaking media), Nagasu was humbly magnificent. She’s had a long journey of incidents and accidents to come to this point: winning the short program at the Autumn Classic in Pierrefonds Sportsplex with its icy aqua walls.

In this setting, she delivered the highest short program score of her career: 73.40, thereby defeating mosquito-sized Elizabet Tursynbaeva of Kazakhstan by almost 12 points. Na Hyun Kim of South Korea was third with a triple loop – triple loop combination, while Rika Hongo of Japan was fourth.

Nagasu was a wonder child, the second youngest ever senior U.S. champion at age 14 in 2008. And she was only 16 when she made the U.S team to the Vancouver Olympics, where she was fourth. At the world championship that followed, Nagasu won the short program with 70.40. But the results were scattered since.

After working with a laundry list of coaches, Nagasu moved to Tom Zakrajsek in Colorado Springs two years ago. She had been left off the Sochi Olympic team, even though she finished third and the U.S. had three spots. Ashley Wagner being named to go in her place because of a better international record.

Zakrajsek had tall orders for her when she showed up. “I’m only in this to make you a world and Olympic champion,” he told her. “That is her potential. I didn’t want to do it just to work with someone in the twilight of their career.”

On Friday night, Nagasu had Zakrajsek beaming. “It was fun to watch,” he said. “I was so at ease. I knew something like that could come out. I was at peace through the whole program.” When she finished, the crowd gave a standing ovation. Youngsters who had been holding banners spelling out “Canada” earlier, rose to their feet for Nagasu.

Her jumps unfolded easily, like roses blooming. Triple flip – triple toe loop, clean as you please with positive GOE. Her spins, as usual, were things of beauty. Perhaps one of the best spinners in the world.

She skated to Nocturne, and that was a triumph in itself. She didn’t want to skate to “Nocturne”, another Buttle creation, at least at first. (She practices her free to – appropriately enough – “The Winner Takes It All” more than her short. Azkrajsek has to nudge her into Nocturne the odd time.)

The tough part about Nocturne for Nagasu? “It makes me really nervous at the beginning.” She said. “Tom and I have really worked on the beginning, because it is so quiet.

“I can hear the audience. I can hear myself think. So we really work on quieting my own mind because I can’t control the audience. I think after the initial softness, the audience goes quiet too. I think it has the effect we are looking for.” Nagasu said the quiet nature of the piece scared her a little because she felt she had to grab someone’s attention to keep it. “Other people have skated to this, but I feel the weight of this,” she said.

Zakrajsec says the Nocturne sets up a scenario that he wants for Nagasu. “We want to be podium material in the big show,” he said. “We want the audience hushed and have their attention. “

He added that Buttle who choreographed Nagasu’s short program and David Wilson who did the long, have passed on all sorts of wisdom. He’s grateful. “They know the business,” he said. “They know the career. Aside from their artistic greatness, it’s the other stuff that they impart.” Stuff like perspective.

Zakrajsec said that Buttle attended the U.S. Champ’s Camp because he had choreographed for several skaters at it. “Then when we talked about Marai, I could just tell that he got her.”

Nagusu didn’t lose focus like she used to do because Zakrajsek has her do lots of repetition. It gives her confidence. “My main thing is I want to feel confident, knowing I can do this in any situation.”

And she’s becoming less worried about making mistakes, because skaters, she says, strive for perfection and too often when they make one mistake, they look at the entire program as a failure. She’s been working through those destructive mentalities.

She said she enjoys training alongside former national champion Max Aaron. She finds it motivating. “We push each other,” she said. “He works really hard. I think what I’ve learned from Max is that there are a lot of people who will tell you you can’t do something and Max always likes to prove them wrong.”

Zakrajsek said Nagasu’s reputation had preceeded her when she showed up on his doorstep, but when he looked more closely, he thought: “This girl has something that really hasn’t been tapped and I was interested in helping her find that herself.”

She’s very easy to coach, he said. “She’s just becoming herself and she’s finding herself. I’m just very grateful that she asked me to coach her. I feel very humbled.”

Yes, yes, he’s talking about Mirai Nagasu. He feels this will by Nagasu’s year. ‘I can just tell how grounded she is,” he said.


That’s our Ellen

It feels like a seismic shift, the death of Ellen Burka on Sept. 12.

Yes, she was 95 years old, so she left us eons of spirit, of blunt observations, of tough love, of excellence, of great parties.

But it’s a wonder that Miss Ellen lived to 95, especially when she faced death in concentration camps during World War II when she was so young. We could have lost her more than 60 years ago, and we would never have known her interpretative, artistic vision. We would never have seen Petra Burka, and Toller Cranston or Strawberry Ice. You shudder when you see how close she was to not living much past 25. So, we’ve had 70 years of this treat of nature.

For my obituary on her, written for my old alma mater, The Globe and Mail, and posted Sept. 24, click here:


I loved what Sandra Bezic once told me: that training with Mrs. Burka (as everyone called her) was “not for the faint of heart.” But as soon as people discovered a secret that she kept for years – that she was a Holocaust survivor and Jewish – they understood. To see the documentary, “Skate to Survive,” directed by Burka’s daughter, Astra, click on this link:


The documentary helped Burka come to terms with her past, but she was, in the beginning, a reluctant participant of the film. And even after it was finally released, she told me: “Sure, I was a Holocaust survivor, but who cares? Many others are, too.”

Still, the stories are compelling. Burka’s husband, Jan, who died in the south of France in 2009 at age 85 – he had a long life too, after surviving the same camp that his future wife did – testified for two hours about his experience in the Theresienstadt camp in his native Czechoslovakia. I stumbled on it only last week. And here it is:


Ellen Burka had to become frighteningly pragmatic. She watched her parents board a cattle car enroute to a death camp in 1943, her mother so upset that she disappeared into the darkness of the car, her father looking out, just staring, staring. Then she returned to her work in the field, in a peat bog. “You lived with it,” she said. “It was either your turn or not. It wasn’t my turn.” In those desperate times, you can’t destroy yourself with thoughts. But in the telling of it years later, you could almost see the inward take of her breath and how heavily it still rested upon her brow when the memories came back.

She told her young daughters, Petra and Astra, that her own parents had died in a car crash rather than reveal the horrifying truth.

Out of all these horrible ashes, rose Burka’s undeniable spirit. In Toronto, and working as a figure skating coach, she worked very long days, driving from rink to rink, even to Dundas, Ont., to coach a young Donald Knight (eventually the 1965 world bronze medalist) and then as daughter Petra showed promise, getting her into the Cricket Club (pencilling her in as an Anglican) by driving back and forth twice a day, to pick her up and take her back and forth to school. On trips abroad, Burka had to deal in cash. Women weren’t allowed credit cards in those days. One day, when she was a bit short, she and Petra dined on beans.

She is known for many things. The 1976 Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill used to show up at the Cricket Club to work under Burka. In her book, “On and Off The Ice,” Hamill wrote that “I was immediately drawn to this large, warm-hearted woman dressed in a gigantic red topcoat and woolen mittens. She had curly blonde hair and peered through her spectacles at us with an air of mild surprise.” Burka insisted that even Hamill start with stroking classes. Hamill flunked her first stroking test with Burka. Generally, Burka said, stroking is not taught correctly.

And when it came time for the 1976 Olympics, it was Burka that reset Hamill’s long program, found new music for a slow part and choreographed her short program, too. To this day, Hamill is known for her exquisite glide. And she was a performer, no doubt aided by Burka’s Wednesday night “Theatre on Ice” classes. Burka started them in 1973, staging two classes a week (one a seminar, one a workshop) for eight weeks.

Another benefactor of those Theatre on Ice classes was Tracey Wainman, who competed at the 1980  world championships in Dortmund when she was only 12, and who won her first Canadian senior title at age 13. Wainman was a tiny, charismatic sprite, a star from the start. She was only 10 when she participated in those classes. In other words, she learned that choreography wasn’t just about steps. It was all about what was inside a person and how the inside came outside.

“Mrs. Burka and I always had a great relationship,” Wainman said. “”She was somebody that really understood what I was going through at all times and could relate to it. And she always really brought out the best in me.”

Wainman has come full circle. She’s now a coach, and would for years always turn to Burka if she had a question. When Burka came to the York Region Skating Academy to look at some of Wainman’s students one time, Wainman felt it really special. Wainman considers herself a tough coach, too, passing on the Burka mystique.

If Burka had a claim to fame, it was in bringing Theatre on Ice to fruition via the flexible body and mind of Toller Cranston. She first met him when he was 13, she comforted him later when he bombed at the Canadian figure skating championships, and then he begged her to coach him. Burka wasted no time in telling him she didn’t like his music, that he needed to get fit and lose weight. (After his first run through at the club, he had steam coming off his hair, Burka said. She’d never seen that before.) And that he didn’t dress properly on the ice. “He was wearing a brown jumpsuit with a zipper from here to here and a belt, and everything was hanging out,” Burka said. “It was disgusting. He wasn’t a taste maven back then.”

Cranston took off his boots and left. “Okay, that was a short lesson,” Burka thought.

But two days later, he returned and said: “Mrs. Burka, I will do anything you tell me.”

Cranston was later to describe Burka as a woman with boundless energy, who got bored easily.

“In some strange way, we needed each other,” Cranston said once. They were “as inseparable as Tweededum and Tweedledee,” he said in one of his books. “Together we were a formidable pair which intimated and terrified most people. At least that’s what I hoped,” he wrote.

Burka remembers him as “a nice boy” while he skated with her. “He was totally dedicated to skating and painting,” she said after Cranston died at age 65 two years ago. “He had hardly any friends. He skated and he went to his studio and put on the music and painted.”

They had something in common: both were artists. Their conversations didn’t always revolve around skating. They could talk about music and art. They went to art galleries and museums together when they went to other countries. But when Cranston retired from skating and began to earn money in shows, he became more difficult, Burka said. He started to bleach his hair. “The first time I saw him, I burst out laughing,” said Burka, never one to shy away from honesty. “I said: ‘What the hell did you do with your hair?’ And he understood.” Cranston was loyal to her.

When he went broke, Burka helped him out. But he changed.

In the 10 years before Cranston died, they hardly spoke to each other. From time to time, Cranston alienated people close to him. Burka was just one of them. When he was in San Miguel, “he could behave sometimes very badly,” she said. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what made him alienate himself from all these people.”

The silence between them was a mystery to Burka and she felt badly about the ways he had adopted.   “But he always talked about me with glowing words, and he totally believed in me,” she said. “He never said one bad word about me. He was very thankful about the whole thing that I had done for him.”

On his first full morning with Burka at the Cricket Club, Cranston showed up at 7 a.m. for compulsory figure practice. He arrived with a huge portfolio of his work. She had no idea that he was an artist. He had no idea that she was, too. She was amazed at his work. And when Cranston told her that he had been thrown out by two landlords who didn’t want to smell turpentine anymore and had no place to go, Burka offered up a downstairs studio in her home for a week. He stayed seven years.

Only two years ago, Dutch television heard about Burka’s story, and invited her to come back to The Netherlands to do a documentary of her dramatic life. Millions watched it when it was released in January of 2015. While in The Netherlands, Burka stayed in a hotel that overlooked her old family home in Amsterdam.

Although she was such an icon in the skating world, Burka’s final word was always: “It’s just skating.”

“It’s not the oncology ward at Sick Kids,” said Karen Preston, who became an Olympian under Burka. “Yes, you want to be the best skater you can be, but at the end of the day, the skating fades, the triple flip goes away. It’s your life lessons that you are left with.

“That’s my Ellen,” she said.




Tepin: Queen of all she surveys

Hello boys and girls. I’ve had a lovely vacation over the summer, and now will return with a horse racing story to take the rust off my writing mind. Have no fear, there will soon by lots of figure skating stories to come. But for now, we’ll have a little fun with a female racehorse that is becoming unbeatable. All photos below are mine.

With every race, with every rush to the line, the legend of Tepin, a 5-year-old mare with a coat the colour of deep oiled bronze, is growing apace.

On Saturday at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, breaking from the outside post eight, Tepin won her eighth consecutive race, the $1-million Woodbine Mile. Never mind that she hadn’t raced in three months. Never mind that she was the only mare in a field of powerful males. Tepin ran like Tepin does. She’s the tops. She’s the queen. And she knows it. She keeps proving it.


Tepin, the heavy 2 to 5 favourite, won by only half a length, turning back the challenges of earnest 23 to 1 local longshot Tower of Texas and the dangerous British steed Mutakayyef, thundering ever closer. But they had no chance. Eurico Rosa da Silva, riding Tower of Texas, said his 5-year-old gelding was gaining on Tepin, but he had nowhere to go in the stretch, blocked. “When I had room, he kicked on so strong, but the filly already had a couple of lengths on me,” he said. “It’s really hard to make up ground on a good horse.”

Mutakayyef’s rider, Dane O’Neill, he of the piercing eyes, said “We could have done with a stronger pace, but we’d never have beaten the filly. She’s exceptional and she’s right back on song to do what she did today. …She had the race won. We weren’t gaining. She’d done enough and she knew that.”


Dane O’Neill


Tepin’s connections know she got a little tired in the final stages, that she needed that race after missing the racing wars for so long, that you can’t just get fully fit off workouts, as rollicking as they may be. And that she won on heart.

And we all saw something we had never seen at a racetrack before. As Tepin returned to the winner’s circle, a large group of spectators on the upper deck of the grandstand began to chant loudly: “Tepin! Tepin! Tepin! Tepin!”

“I’ve never been a part of something like that,” said assistant trainer Norm Casse.”Even when we won at Royal Ascot. It was a pretty emotional moment.”

Never heard such chanting before, said jockey Julien Laparoux, a French-born but U.S. based jockey, who also won an earlier stakes race on the card with Rainha Da Bateria in the $300,000 Canadian Stakes. Laparoux obviously finds trips to Woodbine rewarding. He won another $1-million race, the Queen’s Plate in July with Sir Dudley Digges.


Julien Laparoux


Laparoux with Rainha Da Bateria before the Canadian Stakes


“It’s been for a while now that we can see how people react,” Laparoux said. “When you talk about Tepin, she has a big fan club. At Churchill [Downs, in Louisville, Ky.] everybody came to take pictures of her. So I think it’s been a week since my twitter has been going crazy, since Tepin got into this race. Everybody loves her and it’s great. It’s good for racing and she is good for racing. It’s been great for everybody.”


Tepin’s youngest fan


How great? Tepin picked up $600,000, and now has won about $4-million (U.S.) for her owner Robert Masterson, a retired chief executive officer of several worldwide service companies. And Saturday at Woodbine? People wagered $9,638,444 on the 12 races on the card, and completely smashed the previous Woodbine Mile day record of $7,187,062. It’s the fifth highest wagering total ever for a Wooodbine card. All accomplished on a dismal day with steady rain falling. Tepin is good for business, indeed.

Tepin’s appearance at Woodbine was a homecoming of sorts. Her trainer, Mark Casse, has been Canada’s top trainer 10 times, so successful at attracting moneyed owners to buy horses for him, and at building up a group of loyal employees that has made it possible for Casse to open up stables at major tracks in the United States, too. Casse still has a large and lively division at Woodbine, where he is still the leading trainer, even though he has been here physically only about a half dozen times this season.

Casse tried his best to get to Woodbine on Saturday – he’s been attending the Keeneland yearling sales in Kentucky, where he is stocking up on the next generation of top racehorses. He had planned on taking a small plane from Kentucky to Toronto, but felt uncomfortable about pending storms.

That left his son Norman Casse to handle the duties at Woodbine. He’s an assistant to his father, but he has been so much a part of Tepin’s career, that he was more than capable of stepping into the role.


Norm Casse


Norm initially showed no interest in his father’s career, but when he changed his mind, he learned by working with the best horses and people in the business. Casse fast-tracked his son.
“This was a real special moment,” said Norm, of winning the Woodbine Mile, a race he feels is Woodbine’s marquis race. And besides, Mark Casse has won just about every race there is to win at Woodbine – except the Woodbine Mile.

“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t coming to Woodbine,” Norm said. “When I first started in horse racing, I came to Woodbine and this is where I learned everything. And to bring a top horse to win it, it is really, really nice.”

As for Tepin, he’s been by her side for her entire career, as soon as she came to the Churchill division of his father’s stable that he oversees. “I got to know her. I got to know what makes her tick. I know the little things we need to do to get her ready for a big race.”


Tepin at Woodbine


The big question mark about Tepin was whether or not she was sharp enough after such a long layoff to win the Woodbine Mile. Her previous start was in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot racecourse in England June 14. Tepin overcame everything – soft turf, etc. – and won by half a length. While Mark Casse feels the hot summer in New York didn’t suit her, Norm feels that the long trip back from England hurt her more. She had a very long van ride across a body of water to get to Amsterdam from England. She boarded a plane to New York, and stayed four days in quarantine. Then she travelled to Belmont racetrack in New York, jumped on another van to Churchill Downs, and then headed back north to Saratoga in upstate New York. “I think any of us would have been wiped,” Norm said.

The Casse stable intended to run Tepin in a stakes race at Saratoga, but her works were lacklustre. They backed off on her training, and then got her ready through some impressive works for the race in Canada. Tepin had never run in Canada.


Tepin winning the Woodbine Mile


Now, the grinding win in the Woodbine Mile sets her up for her ultimate goal of winning another Breeders’ Cup race. (She won the Breeders’ Cup Mile last year against males, even though she could have run in the Fillies and Mares Turf division.) The Woodbine Mile was designated as a Breeders’ Cup win-and-you’re-in race, so Tepin gets a trip to these world championships of horse racing at Santa Anita in California in November.

First, owner Robert Masterson would like to see her run one more time before that, to keep her on her toes. There are two options: the tough Shadwell Mile at Keeneland racecourse in Kentucky. (Last year’s Woodbine Mile winner, Mondialiste skipped this year’s race to prepare for the Breeders’ Cup in the Shadwell). There, she would run up against males again. The other choice would be to run her against her own gender in the First Lady Stakes at Keeneland in mid-October.

Tepin won the First Lady last year. Laparoux has won it four times. Norm feels Laparoux has been a key to Tepin’s success. “If you look at her form, he may be the biggest change that we made with her,” she said. With Laparoux riding her, she’s been defeated only twice, and by very narrow margins.

Laparoux says the biggest change in Tepin since he started riding her is that she is a racehorse with confidence. “She’s more relaxed,” he said. “It’s almost like she knows she’s going to go and win the race. She’s so much confident, she makes me more confident.”

Because he’s won eight consecutive races on her, he’s very aware that he doesn’t want to snap the streak. “You don’t want to lose any more,” he said. “She’s been winning so much.”

Norm says Tepin showed heart in winning the Woodbine Mile. “She laid it all out on the line,” he said. “She was exhausted afterwards. I had my reservations coming into the race. I thought we had her cranked up, but I wasn’t 100 per cent confident. But now she’ll move forward. And she’ll run a better race next time.”


Tepin in her negligee


And that should make her opponents very worried indeed.