07/20/2006 11:00PM

Riding greats relive memories of '64


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - An interesting group of former jockeys accepted Woodbine's invitation to appear at Thursday's ceremonial draw for the inaugural Northern Dancer Breeders' Cup Turf.

Sandy Hawley, Robin Platts, Larry Attard, and Hugo Dittfach, all of whom are enshrined in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, were joined by Bobby Cormack, Lloyd Duffy, John LeBlanc, Richard Grubb, and Sam McComb

The Northern Dancer Breeders' Cup Turf is the racing highlight Sunday afternoon, when Woodbine marks its 50th anniversary. That made Cormack, who rode in Woodbine's first-ever race, on June 12, 1956, a very appropriate guest.

"It's my main claim to fame," said Cormack, 75, who now lives in nearby Campbellville and has been retired from race-riding since 1967.

McComb and Dittfach also bring some significant history to the occasion. Both raced against Northern Dancer and Bill Hartack in the 1964 Queen's Plate.

McComb, 77, is training a small string at Fort Erie these days for his wife, Audrey. He likes to claim the distinction of having the best view in the house for Northern Dancer's Queen's Plate. McComb's seat was aboard Langcrest, who finished closest to Northern Dancer, beaten 7 1/2 lengths as the runner-up.

Langcrest, sent off at 57-1 (Northern Dancer was 3-20), held a prominent position from the outset and was on the lead midway down the backstretch.

"I was all alone around the top turn, and I thought 'Where's that big gun?'" said McComb. "Then I saw the shadow of a horse hitting the track, and I thought 'Here he comes!' There I am, pushing and whipping and scrapping. I'm running out of breath myself. I look across the track, and there's Billy Hartack, feet on the dashboard. Of course, he won as he pleased."

McComb's connection to Northern Dancer's Queen's Plate did not end with the finish.

"Back in the jocks' room, I was joking with Hartack," said McComb. "I said, 'Why didn't you pass me your whip? You didn't need it.'

"He said, 'Here, you can have it now.' "

That whip has become a family heirloom, framed and occupying a prominent position in McComb's home before being passed on to his daughter, Susan Milligan.

"She keeps it in her office," said McComb.

Dittfach, 70, also rode in the 1964 Queen's Plate. His mount, Top Ruler, dueled with Langcrest for six furlongs before tiring to finish seventh in the field of eight.

Dittfach, who trains a small string here at Woodbine, also recalls riding against Northern Dancer on other occasions. One occasion was the 1963 Cup and Saucer Stakes, in which Northern Dancer, under Ron Turcotte, was beaten three-quarters of a length by Grand Garcon and jockey Dick Armstrong.

"The only reason he didn't win the Cup and Saucer was that he came on the inside of me," said Dittfach. "He could have come around all the horses and won the race."

Dittfach and Jammed Lively tried Northern Dancer and Turcotte again that fall here in the Coronation Futurity.

"His saddle slipped on him, and I came at him with everything I had," said Dittfach. "Ronnie was sitting on his withers, with his saddle forward. He looked at me like, 'Where the hell do you think you're going?' He just tapped his whip, and the horse opened up on me."

Northern Dancer went on to win the Coronation Futurity by 6 1/4 lengths, and Jammed Lively held second.

"That's when I knew how great Northern Dancer was," said Dittfach.

McComb, looking back, heartily agrees.

"Northern Dancer had to be the greatest Canadian-bred of all time," said McComb. "I have to feel sorry for our owners, breeders, and trainers who had a horse born the same year as Northern Dancer."