Special horse made headlines during summer of '67 at ASD while Winnipeg hosted Pan-Am Games
It was Canada’s Centennial and Winnipeg was playing host to the Pan American Games, yet a young racehorse, Wake Island, found a way to make headlines in the local sports pages in the summer of 1967.
Most of you have probably never heard of Wake Island, and that’s quite understandable, as his entire racing career lasted only five short weeks – but what a ride it was for his veteran trainer, loveable Irishman Joe O’Neill, and his youthful and strikingly gorgeous owner, Rosemary Henderson.
Wake Island’s racing career began on Canada’s 100th birthday, July 1, 1967. Could the stage have been set any better than that? You just had to know that he was going to be something special!
Wake Island was entered in the second race on the Dominion Day card. An unraced 2-year-old, he came from modest beginnings, so he found himself in your basic $2,000 claiming race. The Free Press “Graded Selections” comment said it all: “First Start.”
There was something special about Wake Island that foretold his future. He was a chestnut colt by Decathlon out of the mare Mid Pacific, who in turn was sired by Polynesian. Polynesian was also the sire of the great Native Dancer, who won 21 of 22 lifetime starts, his only loss coming in the 1953 Kentucky Derby. Wake Island was a $17,000 yearling, but Rosemary bought him in the spring of 1967 for $600.
Wake Island won his first race in convincing fashion and it might have gone unnoticed were it not for the fact that he paid $34.50 to win and closed out a daily double that paid $908.20. What happened over the next few weeks was magical, as Wake Island got better with each outing! He reeled off four consecutive wins and by the beginning of August he remained undefeated!
Wake Island had done everything that had been asked of him. Five starts. Five wins. And he could go long or short. Four-time leading rider Dick Armstrong rode him three times and said that riding Wake Island was like driving a Cadillac. While the young colt improved with each outing, he developed a habit of only running as fast as he needed to in order to win. And oh how he loved to win!
It was during the month of July that I fell in love with Wake Island – a love affair that is hard to explain. I never saw him run, but I followed his exploits through the written word of Free Press scribe Elman Guttormson and for me it was like I was there for each of his races.
Keep in mind that this was back when plenty of space was devoted to horseracing. There were detailed reports in the paper after every night of racing. If someone sneezed at the track you could read about it the following day in Guttormson’s column in the Winnipeg Free Press, or in Harold Loster’s column in the Winnipeg Tribune. How I miss those days!
By the end of July, Wake Island’s secret was out. He was a runner. And even though he started the year as a $2,000 claimer, he was to be entered in the prestigious Assiniboia Downs Gold Cup on August 5. He would be the only 3year-old in the race and the only horse who had ever run for a $2,000 “tag.”
Wake Island had caught the public’s fancy. He was a “Cinderella” horse living a fairy tale! Despite the impressive 10-horse field that day, Wake Island was sent postward as the betting public’s fourth choice at a respectable 5 to 1. Sadly, there would be no fairy tale ending to this race.
Wake Island’s amazing run was over. He ran his heart out in the Gold Cup, but he got no closer to the lead than sixth before fading to finish ninth. The Gold Cup had taken its toll, and Wake Island experienced knee trouble. Trainer O’Neill said the horse was done for the year and would be rested at his barn over the winter.
In March 1968, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that O’Neill’s barn in Rosser was destroyed by fire. Tragically, Wake Island was one of 13 thoroughbreds that perished. In a horrible twist of fate, Wake Island was one of four horses that had been led out of the barn, but was so spooked that he broke free and ran back into the burning barn. This behavior is not as odd as it might appear to non-horse people. Horses consider their stalls as their home, their safe place, and when faced with danger they will seek out the “safety” of their home.
Following Wake Island’s death, Rosemary Henderson branched out into breeding and training. In 1969 she became one of the early trailblazers for female trainers at the Downs. She ran a modest sized stable for a very loyal clientele. Those that knew her said that she was a caring person known to cuddle her horses, and that she always made sure her charges were healthy, happy and fit. Her horses responded in kind, performing well, very well!
Like Wake Island, Rosemary Henderson’s life was done too soon. She had battled cancer for most of her life and she was forced by poor health to quit conditioning horses in October 1985. Peacefully, she passed away on August 19, 1986 at the youthful age of 52.
This past winter Rosemary’s son, Terry, contacted me to let me know that his sister, Melodie Lynne had passed on November 23 at the tender age of 55. Her sudden passing was disturbing, as I had come to be acquainted with both Terry and Melodie in my quest to obtain pictures of Wake Island.
Well there you have it, the story of Wake Island and now, in that big backstretch in the sky, I see Rosemary Henderson with her babies, daughter Melodie and Wake Island.