Roger Attfield loves horses. He fell for them as a boy growing up in England, where he became an accomplished show jumping rider and steeplechase jockey.
It was his love of horses that took him to Canada 42 years ago hoping to make horse training his livelihood. It was his devotion to horses that carried him through an illustrious career and made him only the second Canadian trainer to be inducted into theNational Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.
Yet, while he was being honored in a ceremony last Friday at Saratoga, receiving the highest recognition for North American thoroughbred horsemen — putting him in such distinguished company as Bobby Frankel, Charlie Whittingham and Woody Stephens — back at his home track, Woodbine in Toronto, there is little to celebrate because the future of horse racing in Ontario is in doubt.
For Canadian horse racing fans, Attfield, 72, needs no introduction. He is the best of his generation. He has been named the country’s top trainer eight times and has won the nation’s most prestigious race, the Queen’s Plate, a record-tying eight times. He has campaigned three Canadian Triple Crown winners and amassed $90 million in purses and 370 stakes wins. The only other Canadian trainer to be inducted to the Hall of Fame was Lucien Laurin, the trainer of Secretariat.
The award is doubly special for Attfield, who will be honored with jockey John Velazquez, who has been the pilot for several of Attfield’s biggest wins, including last year’s $2 million Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf with Perfect Shirl.
“Johnny has ridden so many great races for me over the years, and I’ve always had great admiration for him,” Attfield said from London, where he was cheering on his girlfriend, Tinya Konyot, a United States dressage competitor in the Olympics.
For Velazquez, the feelings are mutual.
“What a great guy and a great person to be around, and a great trainer as well,” Velazquez said after last Monday’s win for Attfield with Kissable in the Waya Stakes at Saratoga.
Attfield and Velazquez are joined by the 2004 Horse of the Year, Ghostzapper, Frank Stronach’s Adena Springs and the trainer Robert Wheeler.
Attfield speaks with reverence about some of the great horses that passed through his barn. His favorites were Play the King, who won the Queen’s Plate, and Izvestia, the platinum gray who took the Canadian Triple Crown. Those horses went on to be named Canada’s Horse of the Year, as have four others under Attfield’s care.
“They were just so professional and such interesting horses to train,” he said. “And their characters were wonderful and they always gave you their best.”
Talkin Man offered Attfield his best chance at North America’s biggest race, the Kentucky Derby. He won two major New York preps, the Gotham and the Wood Memorial, but fizzled on the first Saturday in May. Although many overlooked Perfect Shirl at 27-1 last year in the Breeders’ Cup, her performance was vintage Attfield.
But the tone in his voice quickly changes when he ponders the possibility of never having another chance at a Queen’s Plate or, more important, being unable to continue to do what he loves in the province where he has been so successful for so long.
This year, the government of Ontario canceled its 14-year-old Slots at Racetracks program, a revenue-sharing agreement that transformed the province’s 17 racetracks into racinos by installing thousands of slot machines. In the agreement, the racing industry received 20 percent of slots revenue ($345 million last year), as compensation for gambling money lost to the machines.
Since the arrival of the slot machines, Ontario’s racing industry has undergone a fundamental economic shift: it has become the envy of international horse racing, with inflated purses that attract some of the biggest names in the sport. A healthy Ontario sires program has made it possible for local breeders and owners to have a taste of racing’s riches. In turn, according to the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association, the government was the beneficiary of $1 billion last year from the slots program.
The province has a current debt of about $15 billion, and it is looking for ways to recoup money. Officials are developing a gambling strategy that involves pulling the slot machines from the racetracks, effective next March 31, and building casinos and slot parlors in higher-density areas with the help of private investors.
With horse racing in steady decline, the government argues, if the industry cannot support itself, measures need to be taken to make it viable, including reducing the number of racetracks in Ontario.
The horse racing industry is certain it will be crippled without the slots, jeopardizing the jobs of 60,000 Ontarians tied to racing. In June, Woodbine Entertainment Group’s president and chief executive, Nick Eaves, announced that without the slot revenue, Canada’s flagship racetrack could not afford to operate.
Two standardbred tracks and Fort Erie Racetrack in Niagara Falls, the only other thoroughbred raceway in the province, have been stripped of slots and will be forced to close at the end of the year. A panel of three former politicians has been created to help horse racing become self-sufficient.
For Attfield, the demise of Ontario horse racing would be too upsetting to bear. It would mean laying off 30 employees from his barn at Woodbine, and he fears most will not find jobs elsewhere.
“Ontario horse racing was so very respected throughout the world, and it’s been such a role model,” he said. “We had such a great partnership with the government. It’s going to be devastating for the horse people if it goes through the way they want it to go through at the moment. It’s going to have a considerable ripple effect.”
Michael Byrne, the owner of Park Stud, one of Ontario’s leading breeding operations and thoroughbred sale consignors, said that the horse people “are quite frightened.”
“Everybody’s holding their breath because there are so many jobs at stake,” he said, including blacksmiths, and hay and grain suppliers who will all be effected by any drastic moves in the industry.
“I’m optimistic that common sense will prevail,” he added.
Ontario horse racing has significant history: the province’s fertile land is the birthplace of the sport’s most notable sire, Northern Dancer, whose legacy lives on in so many of today’s champions.
Even an uncertain future cannot diminish Attfield’s accomplishments. And he shows no signs of slowing down. He still has his sights set on another shot at the Derby, and winning races outside North America.
Whether or not that happens, Attfield said: “I want to continue enjoying being around horses. If a horse comes along, we’ll go wherever the limits are.”