Photo: Fort Erie
I was three-years old in September of 1961, and still two years away from my initial foray to Fort Erie Racetrack with my father. "Pops" as I often called him was a regular there, so it was a natural occurrence that he was present and an eyewitness to a most peculiar event that transpired on September 2nd. Through his often told, hilarious recollection of what unfolded back on that warm summer day, coupled with kind help from the Fort Erie media department, I've been able to combine both accurate sources in presenting this blog.
As with any sporting venue that has endured well over a century, one-hundred sixteen years and counting, Fort Erie Racetrack, situated about 7 furlongs from the city of Buffalo, across the Peace Bridge spanning the Niagara River, has seen many memorable moments throughout those years. Opening day, June 16th, 1897 was certainly the first. Some others that are extremely note worthy: The first American Triple Crown winner (1919), Sir Barton, raced at Fort Erie. The legendary Northern Dancer, winner of the 1964 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, learned to race at Fort Erie, breaking his maiden there as a 2-year old in 1963. How about the Queen Of Canadian racing, Dance Smartly? After winning the 1991 Queen's Plate, the filly followed up with a win three weeks later in the Prince Of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie, the tracks showcase race of the meet, before going on to victory in the Breeders' Stakes to sweep Canada's Triple Crown. Later in the fall, Dance Smartly won the Breeders' Cup Distaff earning her an Eclipse award as best three-year old filly, plus two Sovereign Awards as Canada's best three-year-old filly and the most coveted Horse of the Year honor. There was also the monumental upset of Alydeed by Benburb in the 1992 running of the Prince Of Wales. Heck, even the great harness pacer, Dan Patch, once thrilled the Fort Erie fans in the early days with his tremendous display of talent and athleticism.
However, if you ask any longtime fan of the track what single event stands alone, it would be the wild ride a horse named Puss n Boots gave jockey Ron Behrens in front of 14,000 plus fans. The horse, owned by Buffalonian Roxie Gian, was brought up from Florida by trainer Frank Merrill, one of the all-time great Fort Erie trainers. Merrill knew the horse was quite talented, but also was aware the horse was a "head case." Puss n Boots had almost jumped the fence at Gulfstream Park when a piece of paper blew across the track. So, Merrill didn't know what to expect when he put the horse on the turf at Fort Erie, but the horse looked like a sure winner when he opened up on the field by 5-lengths coming into the stretch. Behrens, who was up from the States to ride at Fort Erie that summer was aboard, but for some reason, still unknown to this day, reached back to hit the horse right-handed, and as he did that, Puss n Boots ducked in a little bit, and his eyes were attracted to an opening in the hedge. The opening was there because the gardeners used that path everyday to get to the many flowers and shrubs in the infield. Much to the chagrin of Behrens and the thousands of fans who backed the horse, Puss n Boots went right through the opening at full speed, and headed for one of the infield lakes.
When the horse realized he better stop, he tried to put the brakes on, but slid on his rear end for approximately 50 yards, and actually went into the lake backwards. Jockey Behrens had bailed out by the time he realized Puss n Boots was going in the water. His attempt to swim out to rescue the horse was futile, as he realized he himself couldn't swim. So trainer Merrill jumped in to rescue the rider, then Merrill had to be rescued because he couldn't swim either. The entire starting gate crew stripped down to their underwear on the turf course in front of the grandstand, and ran and jumped into the lake to bring the two men to safety. The crew then launched a boat and finally got the horse back on land after 45 minutes of swimming around.
The spontaneous plunge was chronicled in almost every newspaper and horse racing magazine in North America. However, two years later, Puss N Boots made amends for his waterlogged mishap when he proved he really could run in a straight line over that very same turf course by defeating an excellent field of top grass runners in the high-class Niagara Stakes.
Before he passed away in 1990 at age 71, Merrill saddled 3,968 winners, however, it was Puss n Boots that gained the conditioner more notoriety than any other.
In memory of the quirky equine's impromptu folly, which will forever be part of Fort Erie folklore, the Puss n Boots Cup race is contested each year on the turf. The race is normally held on Labor Day, but this year track officials moved the $30,000 event back to Sunday, just one day shy of the 52nd anniversary. After the trophy presentation, the winning jockey and trainer take what has become the "now" traditional plunge into the same lake Puss n Boots made famous more than a half-century ago.
Photos courtesy of Fort Erie Racetrack