I will preface this story with the advisement I love Thoroughbreds and Thoroughbred Horse Racing. At the age of six I discovered the Kentucky Derby and the subsequent US Triple Crown Races, then the Canadian Queen’s Plate and our own Triple Crown series. This year will mark the 56th Derby I’ve watched. I will also express my undying gratitude to the CBC broadcasts of these hallmark races each and every year, for decades.
Starting in 1968, I also developed a passion to cheer for the greys. The KY Derby victory of Dancer’s Image and his subsequent disqualification for the presence phenylbutazone also compelled me to cheer for the underdogs. Canadian bred Runaway Groom, hastily entered into the Queen’s Plate in 1982 when his ownership became aware of his eligibility, was a surprise 2nd in that race, and then won the next two legs of the Canadian Triple Crown with victories in the Prince of Wales and Breeders’ Stakes. But it was his underdog victory in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes defeating rivals who won the KY Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes that made me his devoted fan for life. And finally, Pennsylvania bred, With Anticipation, who as a seven year old, was the 2nd time winner of both Grade 1 Man o’ War Stakes and the Sword Dancer Invitational before capping his 7th season of racing with a valiant four wide rally from last to be 2nd in the Breeder’s Cup Turf.
Fast forward to Canada’s 1992 Sovereign Award Horse of the Year, Benburb winning the Molson Export Million at Woodbine and Chopinina’s 2002 Sovereign Award, Champion Turf Mare performances, sometimes against the boys. These two champions among the many bred and raced by Steve Stavro, builder of the Knob Hill Grocery enterprises along with his ownership of the Toronto Maple Leafs and long association with sport franchises.
Despite my passion for racing, the closest I came to the race track was aboard my infamous OTTB guardian and instructor extraordinaire, Barretta. That was, until my equally TB enamoured friends determined we would visit the Yearling Thoroughbred Sales, held at Woodbine backside each September.
We arrived at the chain-link enclosure of the sales barns, me in wide-eyed wonder and slightly overwhelmed with the proximity to so much equine pulchritude. It is my belief that my friend, Liz was of the same mind-set as me, while Jane was less awestruck and intimidated, having been a race horse owner and breeder at an earlier point in her history.
I’m sure to the observers, we appeared a gaggle of naive and ill-informed interlopers. A fact that was later confirmed in conversations with the initiated inhabitants of the Thoroughbred Breeding and Racing World.
We were less than fifty feet inside the fenced enclosure, when we were approached. The man who walked purposefully toward us, was none other than Steve Stavro. Of course, we knew who he was, one cannot be Canadian and be unaware of the owner of the Maple Leafs! But more significant to us, were his Thoroughbred breeding and racing successes and his somewhat unorthodox systems and practices. I think there may have been a small, collective quiver of fear, assuming Mr. Stavro was, in fact, deployed to send us packing as pretenders in a world where we didn’t belong.
What transpired between Mr. Stavro and three women in the matter of a few moments, affected us profoundly. He did not introduce himself, but simply extended his hand in welcome and asked us if we were there to look at yearlings. I think our bumbling responses conveyed our interest in breeding race horses and a desire to learn. His sincere and genuine response to our enthusiasm and passion gave us the sense of inclusion.
Steve Stavro, an icon in the Horse Racing Industry, did not have to extend a welcome to newcomers. He did so because he wanted to share an industry and a sport to which he was deeply committed and for which he had ongoing passion. The grey horses I have referenced are just two among many of his breeding and racing successes. One of us may have mentioned Thornfield or Megas Vukefalos or Cool Victor, acknowledged with a genuine smile of delight that we knew of his horses. His parting words were his wishing us great success as participants in the sport of horse racing.
We went on to invest both in broodmares and racing. Despite our limitations we had some joy and some success. We supported an industry for which we felt passion, because we love the horses, but also in no small part, because a man like Steve Stavro offered us his welcome, inclusion and support. One of the most significant chance meetings...of my life.