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The Queen’s Plate is Canada’s most storied and prestigious thoroughbred race and the first jewel in the Canadian Triple Crown. It is also the oldest continuously run stakes race in North America. Its history began in 1860, when Queen Victoria gave the race “Royal Assent” and even the most cursory glance into Plate history reveals a palimpsest of great Canadian thoroughbreds and the men and women who left an indelible signature on both the horse and the sport.
There are precious few books about the Queen’s Plate and only a miserly smidgeon of other research sources. Canadians tend to be rather myopic when it comes to their own racing narrative, preferring instead to hitch their sensibilities to the UK, USA or Australia. But the Queen’s Plate stubbornly persists and celebrated its 154th running recently, despite those who view it as a poor cousin to the Kentucky or Epsom Derbies or other prestigious races like the Melbourne Cup. The Queen’s Plate could teach us a good deal about perseverance: after all, it is older than Canada herself, who only became a nation in 1867.
Before taking a summer hiatus from writing to research and ruminate about new subjects for THE VAULT, I thought that I’d end on a note of unabashed national pride and share with our readers a glimpse into a few of Canada’s most distinguished turf characters, all of whom owe the Queen’s Plate for their distinguished place in Canadian thoroughbred history.
THE VAULT will be back again in mid-August with more stories of horse racing past and present.
Until then, my very best wishes to each of you and thank you again for your support, encouragement and fabulous correspondence. Have a lovely summer!
The early years
Queen Victoria gave her royal blessing to the inaugural running of the Queen’s Plate in 1860, offering its winner a “a plate to the value of Fifty Guineas.” The plate itself has long since been replaced by a gold trophy, but the historical connection between the race and the British monarchy remains. The name of each winner of the Queen’s Plate is communicated directly to Britain’s reigning monarch (HRH Queen Elizabeth II in 2013) who, in turn, hand inscribes a note of congratulation that is sent to the owner of the winning horse, together with a purple velvet bag emblazoned with a royal crest and containing 50 British sovereigns.
In its 154 runnings, the Plate has been both a “King’s Plate” (King Edward VII, King Edward VIII and King George VI ) and a “Queen’s Plate” (Queen Victoria and the present Queen, Elizabeth II), since it takes its name from the ruling British monarch of the day. In an annual ritual enacted since the 19th century, the Plate is attended by the Queen’s representative, Canada’s Governor-General, who arrives in a horse-drawn landau that would otherwise be occupied by a British monarch were s/he to be present. And the monarchy has, indeed, graced the Queen’s Plate; although Queen Victoria never managed it, both the present Queen and her father, King George VI have been in attendance. The Queen has been in attendance on several occasions, most recently in 2010.
In the early years, the Queen’s Plate was….well….”colourful,” to say the least. Originally, the Plate was open only to owners who were British subjects living in Ontario and thoroughbreds born in Ontario. As well, entrants had to be non-winners, although either sex and all ages were permitted. Originally raced in 3 heats, the goings on during each heat prompted any number of stories, from jockeys dumping their weights before the race, to horses having their names altered to deter scrutiny so that a “ringer” (a much better horse, probably not bred in Ontario) might win, to American owners masquerading as Ontario natives. Add that to a boisterous crowd, a race that travelled nomad-fashion all over Ontario until finally settling in Toronto (with Queen Victoria’s approval) and racing etiquette of the time, and you have a Queen’s Plate with all the thrills of a Wild West Show.
For our money, the most colourful Queen’s Plate in those early years has to go to the Plate of 1865, won by the 4 year-old LADY NORFOLK (1862):
Run on June 7 at London, Ontario, the first heat was won by STONE PLOVER, owned by a Mr. Harry Chappel, who gave his home as Sandwich, Ontario. But the judges disqualified STONE PLOVER after his winning of the second heat, having discovered that Mr. Chappel was a native of Detroit. Accordingly, the second heat went to a horse called Beacon, who had come in second. However, it was discovered that BEACON’S jockey had pulled the weights assigned to his horse out of the saddle pads and thrown them into the infield before the start of the second heat. So BEACON was disqualified too.
The fillies LADY NORFOLK and NORA CRIENA (who had raced a year earlier under the name “SPRING”) had finished next in the first two heats to the now-disqualified STONE PLOVER and BEACON. Desperate to award the Queen’s Plate to someone, the judges determined that they would be the only two horses invited back for the third, and final, heat.
NORA CRIENA broke sharply and, although never more than a length ahead of LADY NORFOLK, prevailed. But for reasons no longer recorded, two months after Nora Criena’s victory, the Queen’s Plate was awarded to Lady Norfolk. To this day, no-one has been able to explain why.
Let’s hear it for the girls!
Fillies and mares like NORA CRIENA and LADY OF NORFOLK figured prominently in the winner’s circle of the Plate throughout its long history, long before women were permitted to attend race meetings. In its first century, the Plate was won by fillies or mares some 28 times and, in 1925, when a filly named FAIRBANK won, the first five finishers were all fillies.
But by the 1940’s colts became dominant in the winner’s circle, at least in part because entry requirements had broadened to include the whole of Canada and narrowed, to specify only 3 year-olds. From 1943-2013, only seven fillies have taken home the 50 sovereigns: Charles Hemstead’s PAOLITA (1940) in 1943; E.P. Taylor’s CANADIANA (1950) in 1953; E.P. Taylor’s FLAMING PAGE (1959) in 1962; Conn Smythe’s (of NHL trophy fame) JAMMED LOVELY (1964) in Canada’s centenary (1967); Ernie Samuels’ DANCE SMARTLY (1988) in 1991; DANCETHRUTHEDAWN(1998), DANCE SMARTLY’S daughter, in 2001; and Donver Stables’ INGLORIOUS (2008) in 2011. And while PAOLITA and CANADIANA won the Plate at a distance of 1 1/8 miles, in 1957 the distance was set at 1 1/4 miles, where it has remained.
Plate-winnning ladies tend to be special for other reasons as well: YOUNG KITTY (1925) , who took the Plate in 1928, won the Coronation Stakes, Clarendon Plate, King’s Plate, Breeders’ Stakes, William Hendrie Memorial Handicap and the Connaught Cup Handicap; CANADIANA retired as the greatest money-winning filly in Canadian racing history and was voted the 1952 Horse of the Year, FLAMING PAGE became the dam of NIJINSKY II and granddam through a daughter, FLEUR, of the Epsom Derby winner, THE MINSTREL. DANCE SMARTLY remains the only filly to ever win a Triple Crown in mixed company in North America and became a Blue Hen producer after her retirement.
Although many of their images have been lost over time, below is an album of those that have survived.
Those fabulous colts
And what about the colts?
Well, as you might expect, many Plate winners represented the very best of Canadian thoroughbred bloodlines and training. Among the very best were horses like HOROMETER (1931), BUNTY LAWLESS (1935), KINGARVIE (1943), McGILL (1947), CANADIAN CHAMP (1953), NEW PROVIDENCE (1956), VICTORIA PARK (1957), CANEBORA (1960), KENNEDY ROAD (1968), l’ENJOLEUR (1972) and NORCLIFFE (1973). Of these, EPIC (by Bunty Lawless); McGILL (by Bunty Lawless), CANEBORA (by Canadian Champ) and KENNEDY ROAD (by Victoria Park) were sired by King/Queen’s Plate winners.
By the mid-twentieth century, Edward Plunkett Taylor — commonly known as E.P. Taylor and “Eddie” to his friends — would exercise an indelible influence on the shape of Canadian racing in just about every conceivable way. In fact, Taylor would raise the Canadian thoroughbred to worldwide acclaim when he bred the King of Canadian Racing, NORTHERN DANCER.
In 1947, as the newly appointed director of the Ontario Jockey Club (OJC), E.P. Taylor embarked on a bold plan to bring horse racing in the Toronto area up to the same standards as leading racetracks in North America. Travelling to Hollywood Park in its Golden Era, a plan began to take shape in his head. Acquiring local racetracks (Hamilton, Thorncliffe, Long Branch, Dufferin and Stamford), Taylor began by consolidating their racing charters into three major race venues: Fort Erie, Greenwood (aka “Old Woodbine”) and a to-be-built “New Woodbine.”
A year later on June 12, 1956, on 780-acres in the Township of Etobicoke, (New) Woodbine opened. Complete with a one-mile oval dirt track and seven-eighths turf course, Woodbine also featured an infield worthy of the greatest landscaper, complete with ponds and waterfalls. The clubhouse was a feat of modern architecture, streamlined and spacious. Right down to the starting gates, designed with the greatest attention to the safety of horse and jockey alike, Woodbine was the image of what horse racing in Canada could — and should — be. To this day, its Queen’s Plate surface is the safest in any weather of any racetrack in North America.
At the same time, Taylor was dominating the Queen’s Plate, winning it a total of 11 times for his Windfields Farm, making him the second only to J.E. Seagram in the stats of most-winning owners.
Increasingly, Canadian-born 3 year-olds to win the Queen’s Plate reflect the cross-fertilization of American and Canadian bloodstock.
The TEDDY line, through a son of BULL DOG who was acquired by E.P. Taylor and named BULL PAGE, was responsible for Queen’s Plate winners NEW PROVIDENCE and FLAMING PAGE. CHOP CHOP, a grandson of GALLANT FOX and another descendant of the TEDDY line, stood at E.P. Taylor’s National Stud, where he sired VICTORIA PARK and was Canada’s leading sire seven times. The mighty BUCKPASSER was the sire of the 1975 and 1976 Queen’s Plate winners L’ENJOLEUR and NORCLIFFE, respectively. And NORCLIFFE’S best son, GROOVY (1983), would become one of America’s racing darlings. So it continues: the mighty DANZIG (1977), a son of NORTHERN DANCER, sired DANCE SMARTLY and GIANT’S CAUSEWAY (1997), a son of STORM CAT (1983), sired the 1997 Queen’s Plate winner, MIKE FOX (1994). Since 1990, 15 winners of the Queen’s Plate have been sired by stallions bred and born in the USA.
The continuing domination of colts over fillies from the 1940’s until today reflects the growth of the Canadian thoroughbred industry in general, spear-headed by the leadership of the Seagram family, E.P. Taylor, Ernie Samuels and, more recently, Gustav Schickedanz, Frank Stronach and Eugene Melnick. And even though Woodbine, like so many other North American race tracks, has been threatened by changing times, the Queen’s Plate forges on and reminds Canadians on an annual basis that horse racing is still another sport that brings Canada pride.
The names of contemporary Queen’s Plate winners are well-known to Americans, as well as members of the thoroughbred milieu worldwide.
Below, we let another medium do the talking as a way of celebrating some of the finest Canadian colts of the last fifty years. Each of these victories dazzle and delight — while reminding the modest folk of Canada that our native-grown thoroughbreds have always been and continue to be champions of the highest calibre.
Protect your 50 GUINEAS, Canada. And protect your horses.
Each have played an enormous role in the development of a country and its culture.
NORTHERN DANCER (1961): CANADA’S MUCH-LOVED PONY WINS HIS FINAL RACE, THE 1964 QUEEN’S PLATE, UNDER JOCKEY BILL HARTACK. (NOTE: Audio comes on only in the final 50 seconds.)
IZVESTIA (1987): CANADA’S TRIPLE CROWN WINNER COMES HOME TO TAKE THE 1990 QUEEN’S PLATE IN A BRILLIANT, BREATHTAKING PERFORMANCE
WITH APPROVAL (1986): ANOTHER CANADIAN TRIPLE CROWN WINNER BEGINS HIS JOURNEY WITH A WIN IN THE 1989 QUEEN’S PLATE
ALYDEED (1989): ALYDAR’S LITTLE BOY “IN A CLASS OF HIS OWN” AS HE WINS THE 1992 QUEEN’S PLATE FOR ROGER ATFIELD AND JOCKEY CRAIG PERRET
PETESKI (1990): AFFIRMED’S LITTLE BOY — “A DECISIVE WINNER” OF THE 1993 QUEEN’S PLATE. THE WIN GAVE TRAINER ROGER ATFIELD HIS 6th QUEEN’S PLATE WINNER. PETESKI WENT ON TO WIN THE CANADIAN TRIPLE CROWN.
AWESOME AGAIN (1994): WINNER OF THE 1997 QUEEN’S PLATE, THIS WONDERFUL COLT WENT ON TO SHOW JUST HOW GOOD HE WAS IN THE 1998 BREEDERS CUP CLASSIC:
SCATTER THE GOLD (1997): THE SON OF DANCE SMARTLY GIVES HER THE FIRST OF TWO QUEEN’S PLATE WINNERS IN 2000. HE BROKE HIS MAIDEN ON PLATE DAY!
WANDO (2000): THIS FEISTY CHESTNUT, A SON OF LANGFHUR, WOULD GO ON TO WIN THE 2003 CANADIAN TRIPLE CROWN. AND THIS IS HOW IT ALL STARTED — “PATRICK HUSBANDS ASKS HIM FOR HIS HEART AND WANDO OPENS UP” :
NIIGON (2001): A FABULOUS COLT STAKES HIS CLAIM TO GREATNESS, WINNING THE 2004 QUEEN’S PLATE FOR HIS SIRE, UNBRIDLED:
MIKE FOX (2004): THE SON OF GIANT’S CAUSEWAY MAKES JOCKEY EMMA-JANE WILSON THE FIRST WOMAN TO WIN THE PLATE IN A THRILLER:
SOURCES USED IN THIS ARTICLE
THE QUEEN’S PLATE: The First Hundred Years by Trent Frayne. 1959: The Jockey Club Limited, Canada (Printed and bound in Canada by HUNTER ROSE LTD.)
THE CANADIAN HORSE RACING HALL OF FAME: http://www.canadianhorseracinghalloffame.com