On Friday, trainer Roger Attfield will be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame at a ceremony held at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, New York.
The induction ceremony is available via the National Museum of Racing’s live stream on Woodbine’s website at www.woodbineracetrack.com, starting at 10:30 a.m. Attfield’s segment of the proceedings will be available at HPItv across Canada. HPItv Canada will carry the entire 2012 Hall of Fame service.
Tom Durkin, New York Racing Association’s track announcer, will oversee the proceedings.
Being honoured alongside Attfield are fellow trainer Robert Wheeler; jockeys John Velazquez and Anthony Hamilton and racehorses Ghostzapper and Planet.
The Woodbine-based Attfield, a native of Newbury, England, who now resides in Nobleton, captured his first race in Canada in 1972.
He has saddled a record eight Queen’s Plate winners and has been voted Canada’s champion trainer eight times.
Attfield, who was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1999, has conditioned three Canadian Triple Crown champions – With Approval, Izvestia and Peteski, and horses in his care have been named Canadian Horse of the Year on eight occasions.
Attfield gained his entry into the National Hall on the first ballot, hot on the heels of a stunning score in the $2-million Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf with Perfect Shirl, piloted by fellow inductee Velazquez.
Undoubtedly a legend in the horse racing industry, he is, first and foremost, a gentleman and friend to many of his fellow trainers and horsepeople at Woodbine.
David Bell, a public trainer at Woodbine for over 25 years, got his start with Attfield when both were in their native England.
“I worked for him on weekends when I was 16 in England,” recalls Bell. “It was only a few years ago…back in 1968. Roger was top of the league in show jumping in England at the time.”
Bell, who saddled John Franks’ Kissin Kris to victory in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational in 1993, has only fond memories of his times with Attfield.
“I came over here in 1970,” says Bell. “Roger came over the year before, but I wasn’t quite old enough to come over so I followed him over the next year. Roger is a great person to work for. He’s a great people manager. He’s produced a lot of good assistant trainers to trainers.”
Among those who have worked with Attfield and enjoyed success, are conditioners Mike Keogh, Sean Smullen and Ian Black, who was the farm manager for Kinghaven Farms during a peak run of success.
Black, born in the county of Berkshire, England, arrived in Canada in 1964 and became farm manager for Kinghaven Farms in 1975. In that role, Black oversaw the development of many future stars, including Izvestia, With Approval and Play the King, from the day they were foaled until they left for serious training by Attfield at Woodbine.
Black and Attfield were friends in England and the duo quickly continued their friendship upon Attfield’s arrival.
“We actually picked him up from the airport and he stayed with us for a bit until he got organized,” recalls Black.
In 1971, Attfield began his training career at Gateway Farms, and four years later he took over as head trainer of Charles (Bud) Baker’s Norcliffe Stable, winning his first Queen’s Plate with his first starter, Norcliffe.
Attfield joined Kinghaven as a private trainer in 1985 and launched a remarkable run of scores in added-money events across North America.
“I’m realizing how great it was now,” says Black. “I don’t want to seem blas‚ about it, but we won 32 stakes one year which is incredible. For the racing season, that’s a race a week.”
Black believes their friendship had a great deal of influence over the success they enjoyed together.
“We had a very good working relationship because we let each other do our job,” notes Black. “It’s very easy for people not to get along. For example, the trainer says, ‘The farm manager sent him to me in bad condition’, and the farm manger says, ‘Look at the way this horse came home from the track’. There was never any of that for us.”
Under their care, Kinghaven rolled out one star after another including Carotene, Alydeed, Alywow and Poetically to name only a few. Main track or turf, colt or filly, sprint or route, it didn’t seem to matter – Attfield would bring the best out of each animal.
“I’ve watched him for a long time,” says Black. “He has a great feel for the animal and makes the right decisions. You know he’s always thinking about how they’re doing and what they’re going to do. He’d never get set in a way that, ‘This is the way I train’. He trains them as individuals and has a great feel for the animal.”
Keogh, a native of Epsom, England, arrived at Woodbine in 1977 and started working with Jerry Meyer.
Almost immediately, Keogh knew he wanted to work with Attfield.
“I knew he was a good horseman,” explains Keogh. “You can tell talent a lot of the time, by how people’s horses looked and his horses always looked fantastic.”
Keogh eventually took on a role as the ‘shipping assistant’ in the bustling Attfield barn, when Bell was the ‘stay-at-home assistant’.
“I was on the horse van all the time shipping out to stakes, we had that many good horses,” laughs Keogh. “I travelled with all of them; With Approval, Izvestia, Play the King, Playlist, Triple Wow.”
For Keogh, one horse in particular stands out above the many who flourished under Attfield.
“Play the King,” he says. “He just had so much heart. He wasn’t bred through the eyeballs like a lot of them. He was very special horse, very special. He won the Nearctic carrying 132 pounds and (jockey) Donnie Seymour never even cocked his stick.”
Play the King, named Canada’s Horse of the Year in 1988 – the same year he finished second to Gulch in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, was an especially intelligent animal.
“He suffered from very sore shins for the longest time,” recalls Keogh. “He was that smart. You’d fill the tub up for him, take him off the wall and he’d come over and jump in on his own. You didn’t have to put him in. Then he’d jump out, take a pee when he had to, and get back in again.”
Keogh, who became Attfield’s assistant in 1986 and then stepped out on his own in 1993, has enjoyed great success following his time with the Hall of Fame conditioner. Most notably with Canadian Triple Crown winner Wando, who swept the Queen’s Plate, Prince of Wales and Breeders’ Stakes in 2003.
“I paid attention to everything Roger did,” admits Keogh. “He never trained one horse the same. They’re all individuals and that’s very important as far as I’m concerned. If you trained everything in the barn the same way, you wouldn’t come up with good results.”
Although the Kinghaven horses were well bred, any athlete struggles with issues, just like Play the King, and Attfield had his own unique way of keeping the staff in check.
“He had a saying that came from another English trainer (Ronnie Broadhurst),” recalls Keogh.
And then affecting a deep northern accent, Keogh booms the memorable advice, “If you thought it was going to be easy, you shouldn’t have got off the bloody boat.”
In recent years, Attfield has continued his tradition of winning North America’s top races with another famed Canadian owner, Charles E. Fipke.
In 2011 at Churchill Downs, Fipke’s Perfect Shirl notched a victory that until that day had eluded Attfield – a win in the Breeders’ Cup.
With fellow inductee Velazquez in the irons, Perfect Shirl was dismissed by the betting public at odds of 27-1 in the $2-million Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf.
Even Attfield wasn’t sure the odds were in his favour on a grey day at the Louisville track.
“He told me the grass was going to be soft and she might not like it very much so try to save her the best I could and finish strong,” recalls Velazquez.
Velazquez followed Attfield’s instructions to the letter, sitting in sixth position of 11 horses at the half and then launched an unwavering run to score a three-quarter length victory over Nahrain and jockey Lanfranco Dettori.
“She was going so well the whole way around, she gave me so much confidence,” says Velazquez. “I thought, ‘I’m just going to wait until the stretch to pull it out’ and she was unbelievable. I was so happy with the way she finished.”
An emotional Fipke kissed his winning horse on the nose in a jubilant winner’s circle.
“There were no words, just hugs,” recalls Velazquez. “Even the owner was surprised, because they thought the soft ground wouldn’t be good for us, but it was a great thrill and a big surprise for all of us.”
Velazquez, who captured the Waya Stakes at Saratoga with Attfield’s Kissable earlier this week, is happy to be inducted alongside a conditioner with whom he has partnered to win 13 races in 65 starts, including a memorable score with Miss Keller in the 2011 Grade 1 E.P Taylor Stakes at Woodbine, and more than $2.8-million in purse earnings.
“It’s a great honour to be recognized for the work you’ve done, and it’s the highest honour that horse racing can give you,” he says. “To be inducted at the same time with Roger, who is an amazing trainer, an amazing person to be around…I’m very thankful we get to be inducted at the same time. It’s a great thrill to have him there with me.”
Attfield, a living legend, just keeps on ticking. His friendships with Bell, Black and Keogh, and the horses they cared for together, have provided a lasting legacy to the Canadian horse racing industry.
It’s easy to echo the final thoughts of Velazquez on the subject of what might come next.
“We will hopefully continue this success together for many years to come.”
With one of the most accomplished and respected horsemen in the business still in top form, it’s a good bet that it will.