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.