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In the Backstretch Kitchen with E. P. Taylor

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sovereign-award winning Trainer, Gerry Belanger. I asked him about his 40 years in the sport of horse racing in Canada. His response was to share the following (unedited) personal story of E P Taylor and his vision for Woodbine and Canadian horse racing -- Dennis Mills


“Horses will be racing at Woodbine forever.”


E.P. Taylor was the president of the Ontario Jockey Club and made that most important promise to a group of us more than forty years ago while eating breakfast in the backstretch kitchen at Woodbine Racetrack. Mister Taylor was at his usual table half way along the room from the kitchen cash register near the windows that face out toward the training track. Racing manager Joe Thomas in the aisle seat, Huratio Luro, who had trained Northern Dancer to win the Kentucky Derby for Taylor, was across the table and with champion jockey Avelino ‘El Perfecto’ Gomez seated there too.


The backstretch kitchen noisy with the usual bustle of activity that morning, I was the agent for Gomez at the time, and of course I was hoping to do some riding business with Horatio Luro or Joe Thomas. So I was listening closely to the conversation from where I sat behind Gomez at the nearby adjoining table. And sure, Mister Taylor had always been a hero to me.


Edward Plunket Taylor was a hero to everyone I knew who cared about horse racing in Ontario. Mister Taylor a man with the bold vision of a lasting heritage site for horses, he had changed racing for the better when he had folded up the several small racetracks with the fire-trap, chicken coup barns that made up the local racing circuit and then created a new entity called the Ontario Jockey Club. Taylor only beginning the restructuring of racing with that consolidation of government granted race dates, he then commissioned the building of Woodbine, our awe inspiring ‘Giant of the North’ racing plant. Woodbine horse people enjoying the several training tracks and a turf course second to none in the world, everyone in the backstretch community felt blessed by Mister Taylor.


Now, and with only me, an old guy sitting here and remembering at that same window in the backstretch kitchen decades after I heard Mister Taylor’s promise, Woodbine racetrack is a paradise of green grass and with clear cool ponds, a thousand towering trees, and where incredibly, racehorses actually live and are cared for in a major city. Several thousand horses that sleep and train and race the year round here in Toronto, for them the Woodbine backstretch village is a community of barns that are numbered one to thirty nine. Race horses stabled in every barn and often the very best in the world, they are the actual beating heart of the Ontario horse industry. Horses in Ontario ultimately employing near forty thousand people in their care, most of these women and men are supported by educations earned in horse barns with pitch forks, brushes and lead shanks, rather than the books and pens of higher education. A number of these horse lovers housed in the dormitories on the Woodbine backstretch, there are more who commute into the racetrack village from nearby homes in Etobicoke or from neighbouring cities and farms. Many people residents of the community since this area of Toronto was first developed by Mr. Taylor from cow-grazed farmland, these are the same guys and gals who appear in the kitchen at five in the morning for breakfast, or in the front-side paddock for a race in the afternoon. To these people, the backstretch village at Woodbine is home.


Sharky Bianco, the operator of the very successful backstretch kitchen and a happy and lucky guy who always seemed to bet on winning horses, was another member of the racing community who regarded Mister Taylor as a hero in those long gone days. Sharky reaching the table and a welcoming smile for everyone, and especially Mister Taylor, I remember that he personally topped up each of the coffee cups and cleared away the breakfast dishes that morning. Taylor then continuing to talk with Luro, Thomas and Gomez about the limitless future of horseracing at Woodbine, he said that the Ontario Jockey Club was a not for profit entity which could never give up the rights and control to the Woodbine property. Horse racing in Ontario forever held safe within that not for profit clause, he said that Woodbine was specifically and irrevocably designated a heritage site for horses. Like the wheels of a giant tractor, Woodbine was meant to drive horse racing and subsequently the breeding of horses on our farms forever.


However, Mister Taylor did express some worry. Me, I was sitting right there close up behind my jock Gomez and listening when he said, “if there is not a sustainable breeding industry in Ontario, there will not be a racing industry.” Mister Taylor explaining to Horatio Luro, who was an international trainer and unfamiliar with our local programs, he said that most of Ontario’s racehorses are produced by a limited number of small breeders who each share a desperate need for Woodbine Racetrack to have the stalls and training facilities to ensure a first class place to race. Another stipulation, the purse structure at Woodbine must always be of sufficient generous measure that prospective horse owners feel that they have a sporting chance to recoup their investment when buying a young racing prospect.


“There can be a buyer for every horse bred in Ontario,” are E.P. Taylor’s words. The great man having acknowledged that breeding and racing horses was a terribly expensive undertaking, he stressed that purse money with real value was the key to sustained success in finding those buyers for our horses. Yet Mister Taylor did seem unsure of future changes in government policy toward horseracing and the supporting breeding industry. Plainly concerned with government and the future of racing, he said that any short sighted cuts in the purse structure at Woodbine due to over taxation by government would result in horrendous repercussions to breeders who own the farms that house the broodmares and raise the foals meant to be sold at our local yearling sales. Prospective yearling buyers, and many already suffering significant loses in racing due to the inherent difficulty of the sport, would quickly lose the confidence to continue on. More cuts in purses and yearling buyers would stampede away from horse racing at Woodbine. That exodus of horse owners a tragedy of uncountable proportions, he said the already hard pressed horse breeders would then be left with half their crop of babies unsold. Only several years of those unsold yearlings and our breeders would certainly go bankrupt. Then, and Mister Taylor actually looked sick when he said it, with no breeding industry in Ontario to fill each program with horses, racing could be finished at Woodbine. Woodbine nothing of a heritage site for horses, he expected that the future scavengers would love to knock the place down, make Woodbine into a shopping mall. Scary when I heard him say that, and of course me wondering where I was going to get a job, or what I would work at when Woodbine went bust, I remember listening real close when Mister Taylor brightened up and continued to explain.


“Most important then for the future of horse racing in Ontario, we must work very closely with all levels of government,” he said. Remarking on his similar successful lobbying efforts with the many government executives when our old leaky roof horse racing circuit was reconstructed to become Woodbine, he stated that in future times, one single individual should be chosen by the racing industry to lobby government on a continuing basis. Mister Taylor emphasizing that an expert lobbyist was vital to racing, this politically adept person would quietly and smoothly meet with and educate government decision makers in the requirements necessary for the viable operation of racing at Woodbine, and as an extension of that, supporting the horse breeders of Ontario. Elected government officials only trying to do what is right and beneficial for the people of Ontario, our representative would arrange meetings that would address any thought of purse cuts with logical rebuttal and so those disastrous plans would be reassessed before being instituted. That adept person, and always on friendly terms when working with government executives, could stop the stampede.


Now though, I’m thinking it may be too late to change things. Here it is forty years later and just me sitting alone at the same kitchen window where Mister Taylor had breakfasted that morning with Luro and Thomas and Gomez, and I’m feeling blue from all the remembering. The kitchen near empty and footsteps a hollow echo off the windows, now the people working in the backstretch community are wondering what will happen next. The recent yearling sales were a terrifying disaster unequalled at any sale in the history of racing. Just as Mister Taylor predicted, when purses at Woodbine were recently cut and then with more talk from government of more cuts, buyers and owners stampeded away from racing like they would never be back. Half of the past yearling crop having gone unsold here at Woodbine, buyers scarce and very timid bids on only the most promising individuals in the sales ring, our local commercial breeders have been left suicidal by this exodus of owners.


Mister Taylor expected that it would take two or three crops of unsold yearlings to bankrupt the commercial breeders in Ontario. His words clear in my mind “no breeding industry, then no racing at Woodbine” now I’m sitting here and counting on my fingers the years before the backstretch village is closed. What will I do if Woodbine is gone? I only know horses. Still, Mister Taylor said that a person with superior political skills to work with government executives was the answer. But thinking about that, I can’t help but wonder at all the different interests in horse racing. Would our whole industry give their full weight and financial support to such a person? And just as important, will there be time to fix things with government before Woodbine must close. The recent dismal auction sale numbers clearly indicate that there will be insufficient numbers of horses at Woodbine to fill future racing dates. Ontario horse racing certain to operate with fewer racing days, fewer races and a shrinking backstretch village, I can see three months of live racing in the future of Woodbine. All the backstretch workers surely decimated at the lack of continuing, year-round work with horses, most of my friends will be gone from Woodbine, will find jobs in the city, or even become homeless.


Sure, and Mister Taylor promised: horse racing will be at Woodbine forever. So me feeling sick at prospects of a bleak future at Woodbine, still, I can’t help but wonder: will the powers of racing ever join hands and start looking for someone with the skills to speak for racing. Again it was something Mister Taylor said, “We need a lobbyist.

One of Gerry's special moments in the Winner's Circle with Glorious Song and The Stronach Family