Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Gentleman Mac Benson Takes An Early Retirement

Mac Benson retired from the world of horse racing at just 80 years of age following the end of the 2010 Woodbine campaign. In the early 1940s, while fighter planes circled the skies in Europe, a younger Mac dreamed of speeding in circles on the back of feisty thoroughbreds.

“We had a few old horses when I was a kid and the bug just really bit me hard,” recalls Benson of his childhood in Wilmington, Delaware. “I galloped horses in the morning before I went to school. When I was 12 or 13 the war was on, so I got chances that maybe I wouldn’t have gotten because there was such a shortage of help. I was just a kid with a bike and I’d ride five miles to get to someplace that I could ride a horse.”

Arravale, conditioned by Mac Benson, wins the G1 Del Mar Oaks

Embedded via the Arravale Racing YouTube Channel

He quickly graduated from riding on two wheels to four legs and before his twentieth birthday had dipped a toe in both oceans.

“I exercised horses. I went from one coast to the other for Foxcatcher Farms, which was owned by Willie DuPont for many years,” explains Benson.

When you’ve been in racing for fifty plus years, it’s safe to say you’ve seen a fair bit of history.

“I galloped a horse years ago for Willie DuPont named Rose Beam who was a real nice horse. He was by Blenheim II out of Roseretter,” recalls Benson of the durable sort who won 23 races in 107 starts and more than $100K in a lengthy career that spanned from 1947 to 1955. “I even galloped a son of Man O’ War. He was an older horse used as a stallion but we kept him under tack to keep him fit.”

Benson would take out his trainer's permit in 1958 and after initially working for Foxcatcher, he would branch out on his own with a public stable racing in Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware. Benson not only lived through history, he would eventually help create it as head trainer for prolific Windfields Farm. However, Benson would be the first to admit that he was struggling in 1976 when Taylor's chief executive, Joe Thomas, asked him if he was interested in taking some horses for Windfields.

“No use kiddin’ about it, I wasn’t raising heck in the states!” exclaimed Benson.

Benson arrived in Canada in 1978, fourteen years after Windfields had won the Queen’s Plate with the legendary Northern Dancer. With the help of his partner and assistant, Barb Przedrzymirska, the American-born trainer with the Scottish sounding name helped the famous Canadian outfit to another handful of Guineas as Regal Embrace, under jockey Sandy Hawley, shocked the favoured Overskate. The big horse was fondly known as ‘Moose’.

“He was big, but he was a runner,” recalls Benson.

Moose proved to have a lot of speed, making his first start as a three year-old in a rather short race considering the long-term goal of winning the Plate. It was a debut that shocked E.P Taylor’s farm manager Joe Thomas.

“When I ran him four and a half furlongs at Greenwood, Joe said, ‘you’re crazy’, but he won,” laughs Benson. “Joe couldn’t believe he could win that and he did so in an exceptionally fast time.”

Regal Embrace raced his way through three more allowance starts at Woodbine. In his final prep for the Queen’s Plate, Regal Embrace would race a mile and an eighth just one week before the big event. This time it was Thomas who concocted the unorthodox plan.

“Joe liked the idea of running a week before the plate,” says Benson. “He felt if you ran two or three weeks before the Plate then you’d have to do something major with your horse before the Plate. Whereas if you run him a week before, you can practically walk him to the Plate.”

Intent on knocking off the heavy favourite, Benson and Thomas made note of an unusually speedy Woodbine surface on the day of the Plate and cornered their young jockey.

“Joe and I went to see Sandy in the jock’s room. We came up with the idea that there wasn’t much speed in there,” drawls Benson. “He had an outside post and if he made the front easy, Sandy could use his own judgment. Sandy was an exceptionally good rider and with the horses inside of him he could see what was going on. We told him, ‘if you’re on the front fine, just use the horse as you see comfortable’.

Sandy Hawley was a winner for Mac Benson

Hawley could not have been more comfortable.

“They came out of there and this horse just galloped on to the front and Sandy rated him real well and when everybody started to make their move, he made his move a good bit earlier and had the jump on them,” states Benson. “And it turned out right. Overskate was the horse to beat and he was coming on like gangbusters but he just couldn’t get to us.”

Seven years later, Benson would return to the Queen’s Plate with another horse of gigantic proportions - - the filly La Lorgnette who, at 17.1 hands, towered over her competition.

“Even as a two year-old she showed tremendous talent. She was a big gangly two year-old and I’ve got pictures of her winning the Natalma and if you look at it head on it looks like two horses running at you her legs were running in such directions,” laughs Benson.

La Lorgnette was prone to colic and struggled with her health over the winter. But as the 1985 season commenced, the Val De L’orne miss was soon back in training with Benson and her perfect partner, gentle jockey David Clark. The journeyman jock had earned a reputation as a nurturing type with two year-olds and he meshed well with the hot filly.

Even after winning the Oaks, La Lorgnette was not expected to prevail in the Plate over an intimidating 3-to-5 entry – a daunting triple-team of Sam-Son Farms horses – Imperial Choice, Dauphin Fabuleux and In My Cap. But the big filly took the lead along the backstretch under an astute read by Clark. The jockey, sitting high aboard the big filly, held on for dear life as La Lorgnette rumbled down the stretch to earn the honours.

Ice Bear in the Woodbine walking ring under the watchful eye of Benson and Chantal Sutherland

As Windfields faded from the racing picture in the 1990s, Benson branched out to work with other owners including George Strawbridge and Robert Costigan. It soon became apparent that the trainer had a way with the ladies as Benson made headlines overseeing a pair of Costigan runners, Inish Glora and Arravale.

“It was fortuitous on my part,” recalls Costigan of his association with Benson. “I had some horses at Windfields and Mac was E.P. Taylor’s trainer. I had a nice mare that had run a couple of times in Vancouver and moved to race in Toronto.”

That nice mare was Inish Glora who, as a five year-old, was transferred to Benson’s care at Woodbine in 2003 where she would flourish despite a tumultuous beginning.

“Most people did not realize that in February of that year she had fractured her pelvis in an unfortunate paddock incident, but he was able to get her back on track and this was reflective of his skill as a horseman and a hall of fame horseman,” states Costigan.

Under patient handling, Inish Glora was nursed back to health and won three races highlighted by the G2 Canadian Handicap. The mare was honoured as Canada’s Champion Female Turf horse for her efforts. The mare maintained her match fitness under Benson and would capture the same Sovereign Award a year later thanks to victories in the G2 Nassau and Victoriana Stakes. She remains the only repeat winner of the award.

Benson continued his winning ways with the Costigan filly Arravale. Just like La Lorgnette did years earlier, Arravale would capture the Natalma. However, it was as a three year-old that the filly would flourish into a turf prodigy winning a pair of Grade 1 events, the Del Mar Oaks and the prestigious E.P Taylor Stakes at Woodbine.

“The greatest race to win though was the E.P Taylor Stakes,” recalls Benson. “Judy Mappin, who is the daughter of E.P Taylor, presented the trophy and it was the last year she was there to present and that was quite a thrill.”

Arravale wins the E.P Taylor Stakes

Embedded via the Arravale Racing YouTube Channel

Arravale would win double honours in 2006 as Canada’s Champion Turf Female and notably as Horse of the Year and Benson’s part in the process is not forgotten by Arravale’s owner.

“His reputation is beyond reproach and I think it has been a wonderful career,” says Costigan. “If the horse had the ability and the will to win, Mac would get them there and to a level of fitness they would achieve to their utmost potential. It was an honour and a privilege to have horses in his barn.”

Inish Glora wins the Canadian Stakes

Embedded via the Arravale Racing YouTube Channel

Benson would end his career winning one final stakes event with the Strawbridge filly Sugar Again, but for many it is his work in the turquoise and gold colours of Windfields Farm for which he will be remembered. It seems to be the way Benson will remember his career as well.

“We have a great picture that hangs in our house of Barbara in the morning aboard La Lorgnette that the late Michael Burns took of her coming down the path at Woodbine with the sun in the background and it’s really a stunning picture. Noreen Taylor has the same picture hanging up in one of her rooms. It almost looks like a painting.”

It is a fitting work of art for a trainer who painted such broad strokes on the canvas of Canadian racing.

* * *

While Mac has retired from training, his beloved Barb will continue to train horses at Woodbine including one they own together by the name of Magical View. Mac, who obviously has an eye for good horses, might even try his luck at picking some horses for owners as well. I wish them both the best of luck.

For more on Regal Embrace, I highly recommend this Jim Coleman piece printed June 19, 1978 in the Calgary Herald entitled, Taylor has midas touch with rejects.

In the build up to the 1985 Queen's Plate, Sam-Son seem assured of winning the big one with their trio of runners Dauphin Fabuleux, Imperial Choice and In My Cap. Jack Lakey's July 15, 1985 piece for the Montreal Gazette declared Sam Son Farm should take Plate.

However, it was La Lorgnette who would win the Queen's Plate on a tragic day for Sam-Son as Dauphin Fabuleux broke a cannon bone in his right leg. The Toronto Sun filed a report on July 15, 1985 entitled, Filly prevails at Queen's Plate

In depth infomation for both Arravale and Inish Glora can be found on Carolyn Costigan's Arravale Racing website: A tribute to Inish Glora and A tribute to Arravale.

For more on Mac Benson, I point you to his trainer profile in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.


Bernard McCormack said...

Keith this is a wonderful article on Mac one of my very best friends in racing. A Class guy and a Gentleman's gentleman. Spending a morning with Mac and Barb at the Woodbine barn was always a fun time and they thought me plenty about the game. Mac trained a lot of homebreds but he has a great eye for a horse. I am glad Mac will be keeping his hand in the game. Enjoy Mac.

Anonymous said...

I wondered if Mac ever rode my horse, originaly from Winfield farm. His name is Riding Master.
Blood line Northern Dancer, The Minstrel. Master Willie, Musical Ride parents of Riding Master.
Born 1985 raced, bowed a tendant in race, came in 2nd at Queens Plate. Kept at Winfield farms I think for 2 years hoping he would recover. Then I bought him at auction 1991. He is now 27 years and I am faced with putting him down soon. Just was hoping maybe Mac knew of him.What a fantastic horse he turned out to be.
Also thought Mac would like to hear he is still alive.
Donna Woolsey
Ancaster on
903-304-3475 or I would love to hear from you Mac