Just glad to be hereRARE INTESTINAL DISEASE CAN'T KEEP WILLMOT FROM QUEEN'S PLATE
By GEORGE GROSS, TORONTO SUN
TODAY'S 145TH running of the Queen's Plate, North America's oldest horse race, is the 35th for David Willmot. Yet, the chairman, president and CEO of the Woodbine Entertainment Group almost didn't make it. He was deathly ill in March and April.
Suntanned, relaxed and in good spirits on Friday, Willmot told me almost nonchalantly after the Queen's Plate draw and breakfast:
"I'm sorry I had to miss the draw, but I had a doctor's appointment and I couldn't change it. You see, I had intestinal problems for some time which was sapping my energy. It's called Whipple's disease and if it had not been treated, it could have killed me."
I was fascinated by the name of the disease and checked into it. The medical dictionary said that Whipple's disease is a rare disease, characterized by severe intestinal malabsorption. steathorrea, anemia, weight loss and arthritis.
Persons with the disease are severely malnourished and have abdominal and chest pains. Treatments with antibiotics help alleviate the disease. American pathologist Dr. George Hoyt Whipple discovered the treatment method and became, for his work, co-winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1934.
By looking at Willmot, his radiant smile, boyish energy and athletic build that belies his 54 years, it is difficult to visualize that a couple of months ago he stared death in the face. In fact, he talked with enthusiasm about Queen's Plates past and today's big event.
"My first Plate was in 1969 when, as a 19-year-old, I watched Merger win the top prize," said the man who became CEO in 1995 and chairman two years ago. "I recall with fondness our Triple Crown winner --Izvestia -- whom I named after watching the Izvestia hockey tournament in Moscow. Russian papers ran a half-page story about me naming the horse after their hockey tournament.
"I also remember Market Control well, the horse which had the least talent from among our horses, but Ken Skinner rode him to victory. The other four of our Queen's Plate winners were all favourites -- Steady Growth in 1979, With Approval (1989), Izvestia (1990) and Alydeed (1992).
"My most disappointing Plate horse was probably Steady Effort, which won the western derbies and in the Queen's Plate led until the 16 pole, then faded."
In today's race, Willmot fancies the Two Bit Racing Stable's A Bit O' Gold, trained by Catherine Day Phillips, although he's not dismissing Eugene and Laura Melnyk's Long Pond, ridden by Toronto-born Stewart Elliott, who almost pulled off the American Triple Crown a couple of weeks ago, but lost in the finish aboard Smarty Jones at Belmont.
Will Willmot miss anybody in today's Plate?
"Yes, I will miss the Queen Mum," he replied. "We didn't have to ask her to come to Toronto. She wanted to come every so often. And she was so much fun. In 1989, when With Approval won, Henry Wright was assigned to escort her. He behaved immaculately until our horse took the lead. Then he started to shout encouragements louder and louder. The Queen Mum looked at him and said: 'It looks like you liked one here.' She was a delightful lady."
Today, David Willmot is happy and grateful just being at the track and leaving Whipple's disease stranded at the starting gate.
Toronto's Bruce Walker, former publicity director of the Ontario Jockey Club, will attend his 44th Queen's Plate today. He witnessed his first in 1960 when the late Avelino Gomez rode Victoria Park to a record-breaking victory in spite of threats on his life ... Canadian sports recently lost two brilliant representatives with the passing of Toronto Sun columnist Jerry Gladman and figure skating executive Barbara Graham of Edmonton. Both will be sadly missed.