Hall of Fame Connections

Recently one day, as I read the names of the horses and people that make up the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame classes of 2022 and 2023, I realized that I was connected in some way to almost each and every one of them.

I spent a decent amount of time with Bulldog Hanover in the winter of 2021/22 and the summer of ‘22, feeding him carrots in his stall, in the shedrow of Jack Darling.

As for Jack, we might not be the closest of friends but I’ve known him for many years and have had a number of good conversations with him during that time.

I was able to regularly hear Frank Salive call the races at Greenwood, Mohawk and Woodbine over his years there, and was lucky enough to have him call some of the most special wins of my training career. I’ve also met him on a number of occasions and can call him a friend.

I actually presented Pure Ivory and her connections with her Canadian Breeders Championship trophy in 2006, on behalf of Standardbred Canada, shortly after I was hired to work at TROT.

The closest I got to Shadow Play was watching him race, but he brought me great thrills in that regard. Especially in that classic 2008 Messenger versus Somebeachsomewhere - one of the greatest races of all-time perhaps. I was also proud to put him on the cover of TROT in February, 2022.

I’ve only spoken to Gilles Gendron on the phone, but like me, he has a son that excels on the golf course and is a big part of his life. 

And then there’s Chris Christoforou Jr. - or as we used to call him, ‘Zorba’ (The Greek). I was one of the first trainers to list him on a horse, back in January of 1993, when he had approximately 700 career drives to his name (now he has 45,700).

I’d like to sit here and take the credit for being one of the first to ‘discover’ that young driving talent early, and I did like the way he was so very cool in the bike, for a 21-year-old, but there’s more to the story.

I’d just lost the star of my (two-horse) stable, Daylon Touchdown, in a $30,000 claimer, and I was looking to replace her with a horse in the maiden or n/w of two class. A big, strong gelding by the name of Brewero had caught my eye, and a groom I knew in the stable that had him - the Chris Christoforou Sr. Stable - told me that the son of Nero was for sale. He had just turned four-years-old and had recently broken his maiden in his third lifetime start.

I was definitely interested but had never met Chris or his father. I was told, by the groom, that this was the deal: They wanted $30,000, with a few thousand of that in cash, but that Chris Jr. was to maintain the drive.

I was basically as green as Brewero was, didn’t mind Chris’ driving at all, and loved the horse, so I approached my owners and set the wheels in motion.

I wanted to train the horse a trip but was told that he wouldn’t be training prior to his next start. They said he was in to go and that I could go second trip with him on race night - at Greenwood - and train him a mile in 2:30 or so. If I liked him I could buy him right after the race.

I warmed him up as planned, loved him, and went to the Christoforou barn in the backstretch shortly after the race - coolers and leadshank in my hands and cheque and cash in my pocket.

It was the first time that I ever met ‘The Greek’ (Sr.) in my life. I shook his hand, took out the money and said ‘I understand that the deal is your son gets to keep driving him?’

He laughed at me - heartily - and said ‘Hand me that money and I don’t care if you put John F-ing Campbell down on him next week’.

I felt like an idiot, but learned a lesson. I laughed with him and thought to myself that I liked his son’s spirit. Between the kid and the groom it was a good effort. I also thought if he was that hungry for drives, and if I could get him regularly, that I wanted him on all my horses.

Although my stable was never a large one, for the better part of the next 14 years, Chris was my main man on the track. And better yet, for the past 30 years, he’s been a dear friend.

The purchase of Brewero went well enough. He made us approximately $40,000 in purses over the next 14 months (at a time when costs were much lower than they are now) before we lost him in a $25,000 claimer. I then used that money to buy a horse by the name of Chris Seelster - one of the best horses I ever trained and probably the best purchase I ever made.

That’s where Dr. Lloyd McKibbin comes into it (HOF Class of 2023 and the one inductee not mentioned at the beginning of this column). I never had the chance to meet the man during his lifetime, but he’s credited with bringing cryosurgery to the equine world and perfecting its use on racehorses. I raced Chris Seelster in the upper conditioned classes at Woodbine and Mohawk for over three years. He was lightning fast off the gate and was as tough as nails on the front, but if it wasn’t for Dr. McKibbin’s cryo-gun and my vet, Dr. Donnie Furness, none of that would have been possible.

Thank you Dr. McKibbin!

Cheers to you my good friend Zorba!

And congratulations to all eight of our worthy inductees!

Dan Fisher - dfsher@standardbredcanada.ca