SPORTS WATCH

Running into Canadian history

The syllables carry none of the lilt of those of Northern Dancer. But on the racetrack, look out! There, Peteski is sweetski.

TRENT FRAYNE October 4 1993
SPORTS WATCH

Running into Canadian history

The syllables carry none of the lilt of those of Northern Dancer. But on the racetrack, look out! There, Peteski is sweetski.

TRENT FRAYNE October 4 1993

Running into Canadian history

SPORTS WATCH

The syllables carry none of the lilt of those of Northern Dancer. But on the racetrack, look out! There, Peteski is sweetski.

TRENT FRAYNE

Even now, even after all the years since Northern Dancer was running great holes in the wind, some skeptics still patronize Canadian-bred race horses. An intelligent handicapper from The Washington Post, Andrew Beyer, among the best-known American experts in this arcane field, came to Toronto early in September and passed judgment on Canada’s current Triple Crown champion, the chestnut colt Peteski.

“I don’t want to insult Canadians,” Andrew began, “but the horses who dominate the Canadian Triple Crown are good, good horses, but not as good as you think they are. When horses dominate against overmatched competition, they’re more apt to run worse when they get into a tough, competitive situation.”

A couple of weeks later—just last Sept. 19—Peteski found himself in just such a situation. This was the Molson Export Million, a race of a mile and one-eighth at Toronto’s Woodbine course where the purse was one million Canadian smackers, $600,000 of it for the winner, $200,000 for the runner-up and scattered tens of thousands for the rest. Peteski’s opponents could hardly have been more tough and competitive. They included, among others, the two best three-year-old colts of the American turf: this year’s Kentucky Derby and Travers Stakes winner, Sea Hero, and the Belmont Stakes winner, Colonial Affair.

Well, as everyone knows, Peteski ran away and hid on the illustrious visitors. He carried off the winner’s $600,000 pot and left Sea Hero five lengths in his wake in third place, settling for a tidy, though relatively minuscule, $110,000. Colonial Affair? Oh, this winner of the Belmont Stakes, the third leg in the Triple Crown of American racing, was far up the track in Peteski’s dust, sixth and out of the money.

On paper, Peteski is a strange-looking name for a dazzling thoroughbred. The sylla-

bles carry none of the lilt of those of the granddaddy of all the superior Canadian runners, Northern Dancer, or of Canada’s great filly Dance Smartly, the winner last fall among world-class females in the all-day U.S. racing extravaganza called the Breeders Cup. But on the racetrack, look out! There, Peteski is sweetski.

Peteski got his odd handle from the man who bred him, Barry Schwartz, a Montrealer who named the colt for his son Pete. Barry raced his horse twice as a two-year-old, then sold him in a transaction that by now may well have Barry contemplating leaping from a high window. He let Peteski go not just for a comparatively piddling $150,000, but he also tossed in an unraced two-year-old colt now showing signs of becoming a good one, too.

The buyer was Earle I. Mack, an American who, unlike the wily handicapper Andrew Beyer, is appreciative of Canadian bloodlines. After Peteski won the Queen’s Plate at Woodbine last July, Mack, a 54-year-old real estate magnate and member of the New York Racing Association’s board of trustees, doffed the grey topper that some people wear with their swallow-tail coats on Plate Day. He replaced it with a cream-colored baseball cap

embroidered with three red maple leafs and the word Canada.

And following his colt’s smashing win in that recent Molson classic, he expressed his own wide-eyed wonder. “Gentlemen, do you know what you’re witnessing in all this?” he enquired rhetorically of the working stiffs in Woodbine’s rooftop press lounge. “This is Canadian history. You get the best threeyear-olds in America to come here, the best three-year-old field ever assembled in my 30 years of coming up here. All the naysayers say, Well, who’s he beaten?’ I think the answer was played out this afternoon. He’s beaten the best.”

Peteski has emerged almost 30 years in the wake of Northern Dancer’s explosive triumphs in the American Triple Crown events of 1964. Northern Dancer became the first Canadian-bred to win the Kentucky Derby and, two weeks later, the Preakness Stakes. Then he was beaten in the third leg, the Belmont Stakes, a gruelling test of a mile and a half. A strain of this fiery little colt’s blood stirs in Peteski. It traces to Vive, who is Peteski’s dam. Vive is the daughter of Nureyev, who in turn is the son of Northern Dancer.

However, Peteski has not inherited the Dancer’s fiery temperament. In the week leading to the Molson Million, as photographers and scribes roamed the barns of the Woodbine backstretch, the celebrated visiting horses were skittish and high-spirited. Not Peteski. Peteski walked calmly, head down, plodding beside his trainer, Roger Attfield, towards the track or back to his barn. He saved the light in his eye for the stretch drive on race day.

ft is too late now, of course, for Peteski to follow his great-granddaddy’s path in the Triple Crown races south of the border. They fall in May and June. It is probable, though, that he’ll undertake the mile and one-half test of next month’s Breeders Cup Turf at Santa Anita in California. If he does, chances are he’ll do better than the Dancer did in the Belmont because he has already handled that distance and won impressively.

So there is no chance of a conversation like the one I had back in June of 1964 with Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons two days before the Dancer’s long grind in the Belmont. This was at a pre-race breakfast, a sunrise spread at the track attended by small solemn jockeys, rheumy-eyed newshounds and leatheryfaced trainers, including the 92-year-old Fitzsimmons, bent and white-haired and perhaps the most revered horseman in thoroughbred racing.

The big question was whether Northern Dancer had the stamina and speed to win, and I put the question to Sunny Jim. “Sir,” I said, “do you think he can go a mile and a half?”

I can still see those merry blue eyes and sudden smile. “They can all go a mile and a half, my boy,” he said. “The question always is, how long is it gonna take ’em.”

It took the Dancer a little too long that afternoon, but Peteski doesn’t appear to have that problem.