By Perry Lefko
The Canadian Thoroughbred horse racing community is mourning the passing of Bill Graham, a larger than life figure in the industry as a prominent owner, breeder and builder in various capacities. He passed away Wednesday at 81-years-old following a battle with lung cancer.
Graham, a burly individual who played three seasons as an offensive lineman in the Canadian Football League, had been involved in the business for almost 50 years. He was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2014 and was scheduled to receive the E.P. Taylor Award of Merit at this year’s Sovereign Awards along with fellow breeder/owner Gus Schickedanz for their lifelong dedication and commitment to Thoroughbred racing and breeding in Canada.
Graham was a successful businessman in Graham Brothers Construction, which built highways, roads, bridges and industrial developments, including three race courses at Woodbine Racetrack and the surrounding area.
In addition to breeding and racing, Graham contributed his time as a Vice-President of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of Ontario, Director of the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society, Commissioner of the Ontario Racing Commission, a Steward of the Jockey Club of Canada and a member of Woodbine’s Board of Directors.
“I think we’ve lost one of the major, current founders of the breed (in Canada),” said Dermot Carty, Director of Sales at Adena Springs and Director of Sales of International Bloodstock Agency. “It’s a huge loss.”
Trainer Mike Doyle, who had a long association with Graham and conditioned several horses for him for some 40 years, added, “He really, really enjoyed every aspect of the horse business because it was different than his other business. He worked hard on a regular basis. He did his own matings. He listened to his farm manager, he might have even talked to [others] about it at the races, maybe get a little input. He was a big, tough guy. He did what he was he going to do anyway.”
Among Graham’s many accomplishments was breeding 2012 Canadian Horse of the Year Uncaptured (Lion Heart), who won six of seven races as a 2-year-old and more than $500,000. A multiple graded stakes winner for owner John C. Oxley, who bought him as a yearling for $290,000, Uncaptured won more than $1 million in lifetime earnings. His many victories included the 2013 Princes of Wales S., one of Canada’s Triple Crown races.
Graham, who could be tough on the outside, but was considered a gentle soul by those who knew him, operated under the name Windhaven Farms in prominent pink and blue silks and had properties in Ontario and Kentucky.
Carty said that whatever Graham did, he put his mind into it, including horse racing.
“He surrounded himself with some pretty sharp individuals,” Carty said, noting Bob Hancock, who managed his farm in Ontario for about 35 years, and Tim Beeston, who managed his Kentucky operation for almost 25 years.
“Between those two and himself he managed to develop not only an eye for great broodmares, but also to breed horses that could run,” Carty said. “He was a great guy, and once you got through the gruff [exterior], he was a lot of fun and he was decent. He turned out to be a great breeder and was always looking out to improve on whatever he had. He had another 150 acres added to his farm in Kentucky to make it better. He always did things top class.”
He continued, “He put his heart and soul into it and got results. He didn’t do things halfway. He was always looking for value in his mares. He bought a mare off of us in foal to Ghostzapper (Awesome Again) for $85,000 and sold the baby as a weanling for about $500,000.”
Peter Berringer, President of the Ontario Division of the CTHS, said, “Bill Graham’s participation and enthusiasm for the horse racing industry was inspiration for everyone. He will be remembered as one of the most influential builders, breeders and owners and will be sorely missed. Our condolences to his family and friends.”
Graham bred and raced a top 2-year-old filly, Tiz Breathtaking (Tiznow), a winner last year of three of five races, including the GIII Mazarine S., before suffering a leg injury.
Ken Richardson, Graham Brothers’ Secretary and Vice-President of Administration, said Graham was successful in the construction business because of his commitment to do well, his commitment to his fellow employees and his attention to the details of a project. He said Graham was equally diligent in his involvement in horse racing.
“It certainly wasn’t a hobby when you have 50 horses,” Richardson said. “It started out that way, I know that. He enjoyed the competitiveness of the horse racing industry because Bill was a very competitive person himself. He loved to be around the horse racing industry. I can recall Bill being up extra early every morning going to watch his horses work out before he’d come to work in the construction industry. He was into all aspects of it. He just took a great interest in it.”
Graham had a particularly strong impact raising and racing fillies, winning many of the premier distaff stakes races in Canada, beginning with Sugar Raiser (Flag Raiser), who won the Boniface S. in 1973. One of his more popular winners was Blondeinamotel (Bates Motel), a winner of the 1989 Canadian Oaks.
In 2012, he won his first Sovereign Award as Breeder of the Year with just 32 starters that won 20 races, including six stakes. In 2013, he bred 20 winners from 29 starters that earned $2.2 million. Captivating (Kris S.), dam of Uncaptured, was named the 2013 Sovereign Award for Broodmare of the Year.
“When I got into the breeding business I was the new pup on” the block,” Graham said several years ago. “The big guys were Windfields, Stafford, Kinghaven, Sam-Son and [Frank] Stronach.”
He won his first Sovereign Award as an owner with Wavering Girl (Wavering Monarch), voted Canada’s top 3-year-old filly in 1989. He also won the Sovereign Award for 1998 champion 2-year-old filly Fantasy Lake. In 1997, he won the Sovereign Award for champion 3-year-old filly Cotton Carnival (Dixieland Band).
Majestic Kahala (Majestic Prince), trained by Mort Hardy, was Graham’s first major filly winner. She was victorious in several stakes, including the E.P. Taylor in 1977, and was later sold for $2.5 million. Graham sold one of her offspring, Malaak (Dream Ahead), for $650,000 at Keeneland and she became a major stakes winner in England.
Graham is survived by his two daughters, Valerie and Jackie. Funeral arrangements are pending.