By Christina Bossinakis
In an era where robust stables seem to dominate the upper echelon of racing, dual Hall of Famer Roger Attfield has proven that while numbers matter, how you handle the ones you've got is often of greater consequence. And although one operation might attain a certain number of wins at half the speed of another, in part buoyed by its sheer loft, crossing the wire first remains the great equalizer. Illustrating that importance of reaching the milestone following a lifetime of churning out the highest quality runners, Attfield remains only two shy of yet another career achievement, the 2000-win mark.
“It's obviously a milestone,” he said. “I feel it's a big accomplishment considering how many horses I've actually run over the years. Honestly, I hadn't really thought about it too much until very recently. But all of these milestones are very satisfying, aren't they?”
Attfield's list of racing accomplishments would make any racing novice blush. The native of Newbury, England has accounted for 22 Canadian Classics, winning a record eight Queen's Plates, the Prince of Wales S. five times and the Breeders' S., the final jewel in Canada's Triple Crown, on nine occasions. Earning the Sovereign Award as the Outstanding Trainer eight times, the 82-year-old has also shown his might south of the border on racing's biggest days, including a victory at the Breeders' Cup in the 2011 Filly & Mare Turf with Perfect Shirl. He is also responsible for molding the careers of seven Canadian Horses of the Year and subsequent Hall of Fame inductees–Norcliffe, Play The King, With Approval, Izvestia, Peteski and Alywow. Included among Attfield's 51 Canadian champions is GI Shadwell Keeneland Turf Mile winner Perfect Soul, the leading grass horse in 2003. Among his most recent Grade I winners, Lady Speightspeare (Speightstown) took the 2020 renewal of the GI Natalma S. before adding last season's GII Bessarabian S. And already this season, he showed he still has fire power in the arsenal when Shirl's Speight (Speightstown) annexed the GIII Tampa Bay S. in February before giving his Hall of Fame trainer yet another win at the highest level in the Apr. 15 GI Maker's Mark Mile S. at Keeneland.
Scaling the Cliffs
Armed with a degree in agriculture, while specializing in farm management, Attfield was an accomplished international show jump rider in his native England, and also spent a time as an amateur steeplechase rider, before immigrating to Canada in 1970.
“I had anticipated carrying on with my show jumping career but I got sidetracked a little bit,” he recalled. “I started to help Frank Stronach out. He had a very small stable at that time, about 25-acre farm in Canada. I trained a few for him, so that got me started with the flat racehorses. I also had a few surgeries on my ear which affected my equilibrium, so I wasn't really able to carry on with showjumping anyway.”
In 1971, the Englishman began training for Roy Kennedy's Gateway Farms in Milton, Ontario and three years later, took over as head trainer of Lt. Col. Charles (Bud) Baker's Norcliffe Stable.
“Col. Baker bought a young horse named Norcliffe,” he explained. “At that particular point in time I galloped all my horses, and he approached me about training privately for him since he was concerned about how this young colt would be handled. In 1974, I went to Payson Park with him as a yearling turning two.”
Getting off to a fast start with that operation, Attfield nurtured Norcliffe to a juvenile championship in 1975 and the colt followed up the next season with a victory in the Queen's Plate, the trainer's very first attempt at the Canadian Triple Crown. The son of Buckpasser, who also won the Prince of Wales S., failed to handle the soft turf while finishing fifth in the final leg of the Triple Crown. He went on to earn 1976 Horse of the Year honors.
“In the early years, the Prince of Wales was actually held on the turf at Fort Erie,” explained Attfield. “Norcliffe won the Plate and then won at Fort Erie, where the turf was rock hard because it was the middle of the summer. But the [old turf course] at Woodbine could be very soft indeed. And some horses, like Norcliffe, just couldn't handle that soft going. He had low action, so that was really tricky. But he went on to be a tremendous horse. That really launched my career in Canada.”
While successful in his first decade of training, Attfield's career hit another gear after becoming the private conditioner for D.G. 'Bud' Willmot's Kinghaven Farms in 1985. It didn't take long for him to register his second Queen's Plate win in 1987 with Market Control before bagging lucrative $1-million bonuses when Kinghaven runners With Approval and Izvestia won consecutive Triple Crowns in 1989 and 1990. With the help of Attfield, Kinghaven rounded out the 1990 season as Canada's leading owner with over $5-million in earnings. The trainer also guided Alydeed, the 1992 winner of the Queen's Plate, to a second-place finish in that season's GI Preakness S. and added a victory in the following year's GI Carter H. In all, Kinghaven earned the Sovereign Award as Canada's leading owner on five occasions, four of those under the guidance of Attfield.
“We had a great relationship for a number of years,” he said.
Although Attfield largely made his mark handling high quality stock and many leading prospects in the north, he also proved his ability to develop less likely candidates into champions as well.
“A horse that has always been a favorite in my mind, but wasn't really the best horse was Play The King,” he said of the Canadian champion that went on to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2020. “He was a huge surprise that went on to become a very good horse. He was an absolutely useless 2-year-old. We left him in Canada when we went to Florida that year. In fact, the farm manager tried to find a good home for him as a riding horse. He was clumsy. He'd stumble over a pole on the ground and fall down, so he never went anywhere. I came back the following spring and I saw him turned out with a donkey and a retired pony. That pretty much says it all. So, we started to train him again to see if we couldn't find a way to find him a home. All of a sudden, he turned around to be a very good horse. Literally, the change came from out of the blue, which surprised all of us. I had never seen anything like it in my life before and I don't think I'll see anything like that again.”
Unraced until his sophomore season, the Kinghaven homebred won four of six starts at three, before taking seven of 13 starts at four–six at the stakes level–including Aqueduct's GIII Toboggan H. in 1987. Injured prior to that season's Breeders' Cup, he underwent surgery to insert screws into the damaged leg and was given seven months off, but had done enough to earn the Sovereign awards as champion sprinter and older horse for the 1987 season. He returned at five better than ever, winning four of six starts, including a repeat in the GIII Nearctic H., and finishing a close-up second behind eventual Eclipse Award-winning sprinter Gulch in the GI Breeders' Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs.
“He was an amazingly good horse,” stated Attfield. “Just a really nice horse to be around. He always tried his best. And he was always a barn favorite because of his laid back character. He might not have been the best horse I trained, but he definitely was one of my favorites.”
When Mark Casse's induction to the National Museum Hall of Fame was announced in 2020, it marked the latest commendation of the Canadian racing industry. However, it wasn't the first time that a horseman entered the great Hall on both sides of the border. It began with the 1977 induction of Quebec-bred Lucien Laurin (inducted a year later in Canada), who famously trained the mighty Secretariat, and the trend continued when Argentine-born Horatio Luro, overseeing the powerful Windfields Farm of E.P. Taylor, joined the U.S. elite in 1980 (he was inducted into Canada's HOF in 2014). However, Attfield remains the sole member of the illustrious bi-Hall of Fame club to win a Canadian Triple Crown. Inducted into the U.S. National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 2012, he was inducted to its Canadian counterpart in 1999, his first year of eligibility at 60 years old. Attfield further widened the chasm between himself and his illustrious predecessors, sweeping the Canadian Classic trio on three separate occasions with Kinghaven's With Approval in 1989, that operation's Izvestia in 1990 and Peteski, campaigned by Earle Mack, in 1993.
Considering the Canadian Triple Crown has been landed only 12 times since 1932, the fact that a single trainer has accounted for three of those victories illustrates Attfield's dominance in the Canadian racing landscape. And all three of his Triple Crown heros provided Attfield with rollercoaster rides that are often associated with horse racing.
Attfield's first Triple Crown winner With Approval proved he could compete, and win, on either surface. And while talented, the grey was definitely not a lock.
“We definitely saw the talent in him early, but we also knew he was a turf horse. To win the Triple Crown with him, we had to win the first two phases of it first. We thought he was capable of doing it, but it was going to be a struggle because he really didn't like the dirt.”
“When he won the Plate, it was literally a head bob that could have gone either way. He later won the Prince of Wales, but not very convincingly. I longed to see him on the grass, so when the Breeders S. came around, I just knew he'd win it. After that, he never set foot on the dirt again.”
In addition to the trio of Classics, the son of Caro also took the 1989 renewals of the Marine S. and Plate Trial S. en route to a 3-year-old championship and Horse of the Year honors. He also annexed the Bowling Green H. and Tidal H. at four. The grey was inducted into the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame in 1993.
Whereas With Approval had to earn his stripes, Izvestia was pegged a star early on. Flashing his brilliance at Keeneland when winning the Transylvania S. and Forerunner S., the grey later added wins in a pair of Woodbine stakes, including the Plate Trial S., before sweeping the triple in impressive fashion.
“I knew [Izvestia] had a great deal of ability, but after he won those two stakes so impressively at Keeneland, I began to think he could sweep the Triple Crown too,” recalled Attfield.
Later in the season, he added a win in the Molson Export Million. Named Canadian Horse of the Year, Champion Turf Horse and Champion 3-year-old in 1990, the son of Icecapade kicked off his 4-year-old season with a pair of stakes wins, including Gulfstream's Canadian Club H.
“Izvestia really took it to another level to be quite honest,” said Attfield of the colt who tragically broke down in the 1991 Rothmans International. “He was just an exceptionally good horse. He won the Triple Crown by over 31 lengths. I had a real soft spot for him.”
Flashy in both look and style, Peteski wowed Canadian racing fans by sweeping the Triple Crown by a combined 16 lengths. Setting a track record while taking the 1993 Prince of Wales, the son of U.S. Triple Crown winner Affirmed gave Attfield yet another win in the lucrative Molson Export Million, besting that season's Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero and GI Belmont S. scorer Colonial Affair, in addition to Grade I winner Kissin Kris. Following a narrow loss in the GI Super Derby, the chestnut was forced to miss the Breeders' Cup Classic due to an ankle injury and was retired thereafter.
“He was an exceptionally good turf horse,” said Attfield. “He also went through the Triple Crown impressively.”
With 12 horses officially recognized as winning the Canadian Triple Crown, Attfield has won a quarter of them, more than any other trainer in Canadian history. The only other conditioner to win more than one is Pete McCann, who trained 1959 winner New Providence and Canebora, who swept the triple in 1963.
If there is a secret recipe to Triple Crown success, surely Attfield must know.
“There really isn't a secret,” he admitted. “First, you have to be lucky and that nothing happens to them between one race and the other. A little thing like a cough could knock them off course. So timing is a big factor. But the main thing is keeping the horse fit and happy. As far as the Triple Crown goes, you have to train them with the intention of bringing them into every one of those races at their peak. That can sometimes be difficult [because of the spacing on the calendar]. You sometimes have to just let them down a little bit so you can bring them back to peak. You just can't keep them up there for an extended period of time. And experience helps you in that regard.”
Five Decades and Counting
A regular on the Woodbine racing scene, Attfield has also raced at many racetracks throughout North America, including Arlington, Pimlico, Hialeah, Belmont, Saratoga, Delaware, Monmouth, Santa Anita, etc. Attfield, who has been based at Payson Park during the winter months since he took his first champion Norcliffe there in the early '70s, continues to compete at Gulfstream during the Championship meet when the opportunity arises. Having enjoyed vast amounts of success at Keeneland, he continues to target the Lexington oval's spring meet before returning to his Woodbine base for the summer and fall months.
“I've raced all over America,” the horseman affirmed. “I think I've won stakes at every track and in every state that I've run at. At one point in time, I was traveling a lot. I had three divisions and I had a motor home to facilitate moving from one track to another. We did a lot of moving around, which is difficult to do now, especially given how we did it in those days.”
With approximately 30 horses currently under his care, Attfield recalls having as many as 65 horses during the height of his career.
“The number of horses in my barn never really fluctuated too much,” he admitted. “In the last couple of years I decided to cut back, because getting good help is getting more and more difficult. And I can't stand doing things incorrectly, so I decided to downsize. I also didn't want to travel as much as I used to. So, I don't really want to top out at any more than 30 horses.”
Attfield continued, “I've pretty much run everywhere, but I never really ran all that many horses. I went about 20 straight years averaging 20% [winners]. Last year, I may have run 20 horses in total. So, I don't run many horses anymore. But I never really did, as compared to some of the trainers out there now. And I wouldn't even want to be trying that at this point right now honestly. I know when I had the three divisions, I was working very hard. I was at every track at least once a week. Having the motor home helped a lot. But that all gets old after a few years.”
In an era that has proven wildly lucrative, yet tempestuous in equal measure for the contemporary trainer, Attfield admits that the current racing landscape has its challenges.
“To be honest with you, I'd find it difficult to be starting off now, the industry has changed so much,” he admitted. “Training is really very time consuming. You have to be a good horse person but you also have to be a good people person. You have to be very good at communicating, which quite honestly, has never really been one of my strong points. I get so wrapped up in the horses that I would forget to bring anyone else into the picture. But despite everything that has changed, the one thing that really hasn't is you need to surround yourself with the best help you can find.”
And the other ingredient for training success that hasn't changed?
“I just love horses,” he said. “And I plan to keep training until I am just not capable of doing it anymore or I just fall off my perch.”