Woodbine year in the books

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:19 AM ET

Pigeons huddle on barn roofs under a December sky that holds all the warmth of a witch's heart. Geese walk on frozen water in the Woodbine infield, on the last day of the thoroughbred season at the Toronto racetrack.

"Even he's wearing a coat today," says the track's director of racing, Tom Cosgrove, nodding toward a sartorially attired goat, which stares balefully at the intrusion on his breakfast from the edge of Northern Dancer Boulevard.

- 8:30 a.m. -- Normally the backstretch is bustling but today it is quiet. Horse trailers wait everywhere. By tomorrow night the 700 horses here will be gone, turning the backstretch over for the winter to carpenters and the mice.

- 8:50 a.m. -- Trainer Scott Fairlie steps into a glass enclosure to escape the raunchy wind whipping across the track. Still, it's better than last year when cold cancelled the final race day.

"I had two winners, too. They couldn'ta got beat," he says, ear flaps on his woolly hat nodding as he laughs. Fairlie has 41 wins and the hard-luck story of the year in Milwaukee Appeal.

"She got beat a neck in the Queen's Plate and a nose in the Prince of Wales. We had a good year but it was a heartbreaker getting beat a neck there."

- 9 a.m. -- Three horses emerge from a tunnel.

"Just babies," Cosgrove says. Owner Anna Lisa Delmas is introducing her yearlings to the starting gate.

"Bittersweet," she says, blinking into a wind that ruffles the infield pond. "We've got 18 broodmares in foal to keep us busy at the farm but you miss this. This is the exciting part; the dreaming part. When you don't yet know what you've got."

- 9:20 a.m. -- Buck Fierheller has been babying horses to the post for more than three decades as Woodbine's assistant starter.

"I've seen horses throw themselves backwards over the gate," Fierheller says. "Sometimes they just lose it. They get spooked by noise, sometimes just the wind." He searches for a description of the thoroughbred temperament.

"How about 'Nuts'," says Lloyd, the gate driver. Everyone laughs. And sniffles.

- 9:30 a.m. -- The sign in trainer Robert Tiller's office in Barn 36 reads: Good Morning Let The Stress Begin.

"Haven't had a day off since Feb. 10," says Tiller, track curmudgeon and Hall of Famer, "but I'll be OK in three days and getting stir crazy."

Tiller is a public trainer which means he has a half-dozen bosses. He wins big, spends big; paying about $1-million annually to employ 28 stablehands, hot walkers, settle stable fees, vet bills and a shopping list of licences and taxes.

"The purses here are big. They throw us a big piece of steak but you better be ready to get your share of the steak or ... starve," Tiller says. "There's no pension. There's no business to sell. I'm the company -- my business is all up here," he says, pointing to his head.

The backstretch is a picture of incongruity. Tiller's office has dingy windows, partly hidden by twisted, dusty white blinds. There's a barn couch, a well-worn desk and he's wearing a parka that would look at home on any rack at the Sally Ann. Outside is a $125,000 exerciser for his horses. Muck and gold in perfect harmony.

- 12 p.m. -- On the front side there is a Champagne party. Glad-handing. There is a one-day handle Saturday of $3.6-million making guys in suits giddy.

- 2:45 p.m -- Behind the door reading, "Restricted access" jockeys sit smoking, playing cards or watch out-of-town races. "There's a bite to the wind but nothing like the final day last year," jockey Jim Aleney says. "I couldn't feel my fingers then."

Wayne Mercer has been doing jockey's dirty laundry for 22 years. "I've got 11,600 (jockey tops) and I know where each one is without looking," he says.

- 7 p.m. -- Lights out. On the backstretch a horse is led to a trailer. The faint sound of a radio comes out of the darkness. Somewhere the mice are celebrating.

BILL.LANKHOF@SUNMEDIA.CA


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