Before the end, Graeme Mitchell found his horse of a lifetime

Mitchell lost his battle with cancer this week, but T H McMurry helped ease his pain.

by Melissa Keith

Sixth to the opening quarter in his Sept. 30 Ontario Sires Stakes Grassroots final, T H McMurry stepped out near the half to chase cover. Coming down the stretch, driver Jody Jamieson guided the 1-5 favorite into position for a strong sprint to the wire. Despite leading the Grassroots 2-year-old male pacers into championship night at Woodbine Mohawk Park, T H McMurry didn’t respond with his characteristic late kick. He finished fifth, over four lengths behind the 1:50.2 photo finish won by Enforcer.

The season was over for the $22,000 yearling who had exceeded the promise of his humble beginnings. T H McMurry (profiled here in HRU back in June) had won half of his eight starts, all in OSS company at Mohawk. He broke his maiden at first asking, in OSS Gold there on July 10. Going into the $75,000 Grassroots Final Saturday night, he looked more like a Gold contender, riding the crest of a three-race win streak. He was the reason show wagering was barred in his 10-horse divisional final.

Despite a disappointing end to T H McMurry’s 2-year-old campaign, trainer Jeff Taylor told HRU he was satisfied with how the gelding came out of the race.

“He was fine,” Taylor said. “I turned him out at the farm yesterday. He’s been out in the pasture since [Oct. 5]… He’s bucking and kicking and playing out in the field. It’s just time for a break… He did everything we asked and above. We couldn’t be happier with him.”

One owner couldn’t share in the gelding’s post-season delight, or look forward to next season. Graeme Mitchell died on Oct. 3, just three days after T H McMurry’s last race of the year.

Three months ago, Mitchell had said he was cautious about going on the record about his hopes for the son of McWicked—Waasmula.

“Well, if you write it up before, and he comes out as a lemon…” the Rideau Carleton Raceway handicapper said with a laugh. “You know what? I’ve been in this game so long, and that’s the first [good] one I really have. I’m concerned about talking about him until I see.”

After winning his June 24 baby race for driver Doug McNair and trainer Dave Menary, Mitchell was ready to say more about T H McMurry, starting with the gelding’s unexpectedly-low price in the 2022 London Classic Yearling Sale: “There was a cut on his leg… It was a scratch from a fence… I think that turned a lot of people off… This horse would have sold for $50-, $60-thousand, minimum, in Kentucky.”

Although the 2-year-old did not race at Rideau Carleton, his training was based there, as was his ownership group, consisting of Siobhan Andrusek, Ottawa, ON; Mitchell, who had relocated from Montreal, QC to Gloucester, ON after the closure of Hippodrome de Montreal/Blue Bonnets, and Jeff Taylor, a PEI native living in Gloucester, ON.

“We were colleagues at work,” said Taylor. “I’ve been working at the racetrack at Rideau for over two decades now. I’ve been track-surface supervisor/manager for 20 years.

“[Mitchell] was kind of a work acquaintance/colleague, and then when I got back into the racing side of it, we were in touch more, because he was on the analytics side. He actually came with me to the sale last year, and there wasn’t really any plan on going down there and buying as a group. Him and Siobhan came down basically to see the experience… A couple of weeks after I got [T H McMurry] back, I was approached by Graeme and the other partner [Andrusek] and we were able to work something out.”

The partnership gave Mitchell a long-anticipated last chance to own a top horse: He was battling colon cancer throughout T H McMurry’s early lessons and stakes campaign.

“Graeme had a routine of coming in the mornings,” said Taylor. “He liked watching the colt jog. It was excitement for him… something to keep his mind occupied.”

Stabled on the Rideau backstretch in Barn “A”, T H McMurry showed the characteristics of a good horse before he proved it on the racetrack.

“The thing about him is, he’s just that particular horse where you know he’s going to give it his all,” said Taylor. “He likes his job. He always has his ears up. He’s the first one with his head out [of the stall] in the morning. If he doesn’t get out on the track and jog first, he gets a little bit pissed off. He won’t be mean or anything like that, but he’ll grab your shirt when you walk by his stall, or he’ll bang the door. He wants to be out there, and he wants everybody to know he’s out there.”

Raising hopes with his first OSS Gold leg on July 10, the gelding showed disappointing results in subsequent July 21 and August 19 OSS Gold legs at Woodbine Mohawk Park, finishing off the board.

“After his last Gold, I brought him home and I trained him the whole time,” said Taylor. “He stayed with me right at the racetrack here at Rideau. We just trucked up for the few starts that we raced there [Mohawk] at the end.”

The arrangement suited T H McMurry.

“It made sense to just to take him home and reset things, get him back to home base…” Taylor said. “He turned things around pretty quick and that last month, I think he was arguably as good as any Gold [division pacer] going.”

Taylor said 295-mile trips to and from Campbellville, ON didn’t bother the gelding.

“You wouldn’t even know he was on the trailer, he hauls that well,” he said. “I actually hauled up two McWickeds each week: [Rideau horseman] Robbie Robinson’s colt McWicked Time and [T H McMurry]. They trained down together all winter, and then they trucked up and back and forth the last month of the season. Those two got to be buddies.

“His last four starts, we would go up the night before. We stayed at Rob Fellows’ farm; they were nice enough to accommodate us. It was just a quick jog from Fellows’ place over to the racetrack at Mohawk, so it worked out well.”

Unfortunately, Mitchell’s illness prevented him from traveling with Taylor and T H McMurry.

“I’m glad he got to watch him on TV,” Taylor said. “You know, that colt, he did everything we asked and I was glad that Graeme got to see how good he turned out to be. We kept him informed; when the colt was in, how he trained, through text and stuff like that. The communication was there, but the last couple of weeks…”

There would be no last conversation between them. T H McMurry’s final start as a 2-year-old was swiftly followed by Mitchell’s passing.

“He had messaged me a couple of days before I had went up for the final,” Taylor said. “I had been talking to his grandson, Tyson, and he had let me know that [Mitchell] was tired and spent a lot of his time resting. In a way, I guess we kept our distance, out of respect for everything. We didn’t want to bother him too much.”

The trainer said T H McMurry would stay at the farm of Melanie Leach, 20 minutes outside of Ottawa, ON, until it was time to train back for his 3-year-old season.

“Once we get through this next round of yearling sales, we’ll sit down and look at the schedule and we’ll make a decision from there,” Taylor said. “We’re definitely in the line for some extra stakes next year, just [based on] what he proved he can do this year. We’ll be knocking on the door, getting back at those big boys again next year, for sure.”

Returning without Mitchell as co-owner will be tough, although Taylor confirmed Friday (Oct. 6) that T H McMurry is not for sale.

In June, before the gelding brought his dreams to life, the Rideau Carleton handicapper known as “Professor Frydoc” had been hesitant to predict too much.

“I’ve been in it 55 years,” Mitchell said at the time. “Am I superstitious? Not really, but you know… I mean, he did train awesome: a mile in 1:57 over that track at Classy Lane.”

At the time, Mitchell said he was being asked, “Do you want to sell him?”

His reply: “I said, ‘Geez, what do you want me to do? I don’t even know how good he is! Sell him? You’re going way too fast for me! Slow down!’”

Spending time with T H McMurry took his mind away from cancer.

“I used to go to the barn every day and see him, and he just stood there,” said Mitchell.

He spoke highly of Taylor’s work developing T H McMurry (p, 2, 1:51.2s; $67,564) into a well-rounded racehorse.

“If you don’t teach them, then they don’t even know how good they are,” Mitchell said. “If they turn into an orangutan, then they’re not really that good anymore. If you teach them manners, and teach them how to race, that’s how they become good. That’s all I’m for. I’m just hoping that the potential [T H McMurry] shows, turns out to be for real.”

Professor Frydoc’s longshot came through. For real.

A celebration of life for Graeme Mitchell will take place on Monday (Oct. 9) from 4 to 8 p.m. at Kelly Funeral Home (Walkley Chapel) in Ottawa, ON.