Hockey's Historic Highlights

Horsing Around

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand

Horsing Around

Posted January 11, 2014

Viewed 3235 times

On November 9th, at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, a three-year old colt called “Parise” won the six-furlong maiden allowance race. With jockey Emma-Jane West aboard, he took off like a “bat outa ----” and never stopped running, even after the race was over, according to owner Mario Forione. He has named several of his horses after NHL’ers, including “Pronger”, “Kovelchuk”, “Lucic”, “Stamkos”, and “Reimer”. But, he maintains that “Parise”, tagged with that moniker in honour of the Minnesota Wild’s rambunctious forward, Zach Parise, is his best prospect.

   As we shall see, calling fillies after pucksters is not new—but it is not nearly as common as it used to be in the “Original Six” era.

  Association with the “sport of kings” has long been a sideline of shinny icons, and some titillating tales from the game’s archives are as much connected with the game as Stanley Cup presentations.

  Certainly one of the most unbelievable stories (it is no exaggeration to say one that is “stranger than fiction”) involves that human dynamo, the late Conn Smythe, the founder and long-time owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

   As most of the game’s serious fans know, he bought the struggling Toronto St. Pats, and on February 15, 1927 he presented a new image for the Queen City NHL franchise, announcing they would be henceforth known as the Maple Leafs.

  With his Blue and White sextet lagging behind the league front runners in 1930, the “Little Major” took steps to turn the club’s fortunes around. He succeeded—and mainly because of a horse! He purchased a filly called “Rare Jewell”, whose pedigree was betrayed by her first name. She RARELY did anything on the track. Smythe himself admitted “She kept running last!” 

  He had bought her for $250. from a disillusioned lady owner, Mrs. L.A. Livingston. He put her in the hands of trainer Bill Campbell—but she still kept running dead last. Yet, typical of this entrepreneurial gambler, on a hunch, he strode up to the window and “laid sixty across on Rare Jewell”. Against all odds, she came in a winner, giving him a purse of $3,570., plus between ten and eleven thousand dollars in winnings.

  Bolstered by a lot of downright daring, and scrounging monies here and there, he was able to add Art Smith and Eric Pettinger to a package worth $50,000. to snag “King” Clancy from the Senators. The rest is history. With this “missing ingredient” on his roster, his Leafs went from second last to second that season, and copped the Cup the following campaign. Not bad for just horsing around!

  The Toronto team owner was involved in the sport for several years, but finally, in 1945, he liquidated all of his interests in his stables. He cited the need to give all of his time to hockey as the reason. He claimed to have lots of thrills from this venture—that he had won virtually every stake except the King’s Plate—but enough was enough. He was one who personally tagged one of his ponies in honour of his bullish right winger, Charlie Conacher—naming it “Big Blue Bomber”.  

   Another hockey icon who was also bitten by the horse racing bug was T. P. “Tommy” Gorman, sometimes referred to as “Ottawa’s greatest sports impresario”. He was that city’s representative when the NHA governors met to squeeze E.J. Livingtsone out of the league, by simply creating a brand new fraternity—the NHL. He was manager of no less than seven Stanley Cup championship teams, and piloted four different clubs over the years—Ottawa, Chicago, Montreal Maroons, and the Canadiens.

  The one-time reporter for the Ottawa Citizen, had his finger in countless sports pies, including lacrosse as a star player. He was connected with professional baseball, basketball—and horse racing.

  He was the manager of the Ague Caliente raceway in 1929 when a bizarre incident took place. The easy winner, entered as “Little Boy”, but turned out to be a ringer imported from south of the border, named “Westy Hogan”. When the heat was finished a hose was turned on him, and his colour changed drastically. The odds makers took a half million dollar drenching on that one.

  After World War II, while managing the Montreal Canadiens, he acquired the Connaught raceway near Ottawa, among other promotional moves he installed floodlights, introducing night racing in that city. 

  “Butch” Keeling spent 12 seasons in the Big Time, commencing with the 1926-27 campaign, the bulk of his career being with the New York Rangers. A solid winger, he was a member of the Stanley Cup winning Blueshirts in 1933. After his retirement he refereed in the NHL for three years. By the time he was a six-year veteran in the world’s premier shinny loop, he owned seven race horses. That year, his entry, “Circulet” from the Seagram Stables, won a handsome silver trophy donated by the famous Maurice Chevalier of the Palace Theatre. The fifth race of that day, run at the Rock Point course, with a winning purse of $600., was named after the renown entertainer. Jockey Frankie Mann secured a good jump at the start and kept him in first place the entire heat.

  By 1935 Keeling was acknowledged as the “second highest purse winner” in Canada that season. His “Mrs. Foster” had won seven straight races. Later in his career he became known as a successful seller of platers in Ontario.

   Mervyn “Red” Dutton was another shinny big-wig whose ventures went far beyond the ice game. Both player and manager of the New York Americans, he was also President of the NHL for four seasons. He also owned and managed a construction company in Western Canada. But the equestrian game also caught his interest. In 1937 it was reported that he had three horses competing on prairie tracks. The star of his stable was “Broadway Breeze” (doubtless related to New York City’s nickname, “Broadway”). In the previous racing season he had carted off the honours in nine straight races.

   One more puckster who enjoyed time at the track, was goalie Mike Karakas, the first NHL backstop to use a first-baseman’s trapper on his catching hand. It is said that when he played in Providence he used to travel to Pittsburgh to play the ponies a bit; and, he actually worked at Lincoln Downs.

  A Canadian breeder by the name of Harry Giddings took a shine to the small goaltender and named a two-year old after him. It is said that Gidding took it slow in introducing the filly to competition, starting him out on smaller tracks. On one occasion in 1945, he entered him at Parkland in Hamilton. The first heat saw him come in seventh. Quite coincidentally his trainer, Tim Mann, was given $40. and asked to “build it into something!” He took a chance on a long shot and bet it all on “Karakas”—who won by a nose, and returned $38. for every $2. wagered. 

  He was still winning races in 1949, having stepped up a notch, competing at Connaught Raceway in Ottawa.

   Probably the scenario which best falls into the category of personal interest revolves around the experiences of Max “The Dipsy-Doodle-Dandy” Bentley. The slightly-built pivot was given not one, but TWO race horses—all within a matter of weeks.

  The first incident coincided with his first tally of the 1948-49 schedule. One of Maple Leaf Gardens directors, George McCullough, was so pleased when hockey’s most famous hypochondriac scored the winning goal against the Red Wings that he game him a colt.

  But the second incident is the more famous of the two tales. He was about to jump over the boards to taker a regular shift on Garden’s ice, when stable owner, Charlie Hemstead, shouted from his rail seat near the Leaf bench: “”Max! If you score on this shift I’ll give you a horse!”

  In about 20 seconds he was back to shake hands on the deal. He was given the choice of 12 yearlings, with the promise that if he kept on scoring winning goals he might even given him the saddle and bridle too. The thoroughbred was named “Four-Bo”, but Max insisted he was going to change that moniker. In honour of his captain, he would name it “Lucky Teeder”. This coincided with the news that he and his brother Doug were showing interest in getting involved in the equestrian business.

   And, speaking of “Teeder” Kennedy, after whom Bentley’s filly was named, the former Maple Leaf captain made a second career in that business. A follower of the “sport of kings” since he was nine years old, after his retirement from the ice lanes, he owned a quarter mile track with 36 stalls for nine years. He was a horse breeder as well, with two registered stallions, “Winter Rules”, and “Outboard”. He operated a training centre at St. Marys, Ontario for years, and was Director of Security at Fort Erie, as well as being Track Steward for 11 seasons.

  Bruce Norris, owner of the Red Wings, was into racing in a big way. While it was a hobby, he was very serious about its business element too. In 1961 he claimed that his nags had been involved in $100,000. stakes, and in that sport a good deal of luck was involved. He claimed one could invest in mares and have only one foal turn out to be a successful runner. 

  In 1968 his three-year-old, “Another Nell” was a big winner in the Gazelle handicap at Aqueduct; and in 1972 his “Wing Out” came in third in the famous Gold Cup competition at Hawthorne. But his sentimental favourite was “Boot Nose”, named after his Red Wing’s captain, Sid Abel.

  Other hockey personalities were connected with the equestrian scene in a different way. For instance, Gilles Villemure used to regularly climb aboard a sulky and steer trotters around the racetrack. Even while he was goalie for the New York Rangers, his off-season was taken up with his avocation—training and driving trotters. When not hanging tight on the seat of the race cart, he was busy training 15 horses at Richelieu Park. He owned one pony, “Gay Bristol”. During the summer of 1969 he crossed the finish line first 50 times. He retired from hockey in 1974 to devote himself full time to his “other love”.

Larry Robinson Playing Polo

  When it comes to Larry Robinson and Steve Shutt they moved up a notch, climbing right on the horse’s backs for their off-season pleasure—polo. The former was the first of the two to get involved. Even though he had grown up on a farm, he didn’t get seriously interested in horse back riding until his mid-twenties. An invitation by friends to take in a polo match prompted him to take an immediate interest in the sport, and in 1984 he took steps to participate in the strenuous activity. It is expensive. Each rider must have six horses for each match. It cost the “Big Bird” $25,000 for a pair of thoroughbreds, so the mathematics is not hard to figure. In a candid comment about the game he asserted that the rider must “one with his steed”—or he will meet failure.

  The All Star rearguard broke a leg during a match in 1987, which hardly brought smiles to his employer, the Montreal Canadiens He continued to participate following his retirement from hockey.

  Steve Shutt, who also wears the colours of the Montreal Polo Club, joined his Hab teammate after he saw how much Robinson enjoyed it.

  Several other hockeyists have been connected with these stately animals in one way or another over the years. They include “Black Jack” Stewart, Ted Lindsay, Al McInnis, and even Wayne Gretzky, who shared ownership of 12 ponies with Bruce McNall at one time.

  Like every other connection, with so many pucksters involved, there is bound to be an oddity or two worth mentioning.

  One, which takes us back many, many years, to before the turn of the 20th Century,  involves Frank “Butch” Seibert, father of Hall-of-Famer Oliver, and grandfather of Earl, also a Hall of Fame inductee. He was part of the Seibert family hockey team, although he was better known as a speed skater. On one occasion he raced a horse, which had covered a mile in two minutes and thirteen seconds—he on the Grand River, the trotter on land.

  Still in “the good old days”, this one is anything but amusing. Dick Irvin Jr. once shared that when his father, Dick Sr., was a member of the Winnipeg Monarch Allan Cup champions in 1915, each player received a motorcycle as a gift for winning. Subsequently he became an expert on the machine and this led to his becoming a motorcycle courier in World War I. 

“He was right in the thick of the war carrying dispatches to and from the front lines”., related Junior. “But, ironically, he suffered only one injury in the war; he was kicked in the head by a horse!”

    Syl Apps slid into a goalpost in January 1943, putting him out of action for several weeks. Because of his fame, the news spread south of the border and ended up the magazine, “Blood Horse”, published by the U.S. Thoroughbred Breeding Association. Because the knowledge of hockey was somewhat lacking in several circles in that country, when the accident was reported, they referred to the smooth-skating centre as a racehorse.

  Finally—the most bizarre item—Kevin Lowe once said to the injured Mark Messier: “I heard a farmer from Saskatchewan phoned to say that your knee would get better sooner if you put horse manure on it”. 

  To which the burly forward replied: “Yeah! I heard that it enhances the growth of the medical collateral ligament!”  It’s hard to argue with logic like that.

    The aforementioned Gilles Villemure always maintained that it was easier to drive a horse than to stop a puck. Probably therein lays the reason for so many pucksters owning and racing steeds. This hobby was a welcome distraction from the pressure-filled lifestyle connected with their game, both on and off the ice.

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