Alfie, the Major and a King’s Plate coronation
TORONTO, May 26, 2023 – No one, not those standing shoulder to shoulder in the packed grandstand, and not the diminutive jock, knew they were about to be part of history when the gates burst open at the start of Canada’s most famous horse race on that day 72 years ago.
Georgina MacDougall wasn’t around on May 26, 1951, when her father, jockey Alf Bavington, guided E.P. Taylor’s 3-year-old gelding Major Factor to victory in the 92nd running of the King’s Plate, played out in front of 35,000 fans at Woodbine Park.
The rallying one-length win would be Bavington’s only Plate triumph. It would also be the last time the race would be run as the King’s Plate until its return in 2023.
First run in 1860, the Queen’s Plate was named after Queen Victoria after she gave her royal assent for “a plate to the value of 50 guineas” to be awarded to the winner of the race held in Toronto.
Following the succession of King Edward VII in 1901, the event changed its name to The King's Plate (and would remain so during the reign of George V, Edward VIII, and George VI), before once again returning to the Queen's Plate (Queen Elizabeth II) in 1952. With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II last September and the accession of King Charles III to the throne, the race has once again become the King’s Plate.
On his victorious afternoon, Major Factor was part of an entry with the formidable Britannia, a multiple stakes-winning filly also owned by E.P. Taylor, who had stamped herself as a bona fide Plate contender.
Bavington was handed the reins of the brown son of Boswell trained by ex-fighter and jockey Gordon (Pete) McCann.
Small in stature, he stood 5-foot-1, Bavington became a larger than life figure the day he won the Plate, a victory that wasn’t widely anticipated when the 21 starters were sent on their way over 1 1/8 miles.
“Gil Robillard was given the chance to pick which horse he wanted to ride, and he went with Britannia,” MacDougall shared. “So, dad got Major Factor. I was reading the stories the day after the race, and everyone was in shock that Major Factor won. It talked about how the horse was just plodding along the backstretch, taking in the scenery, and Mr. McCann, who was the trainer, had to run around the other side of the tote board to see what was unfolding. He saw the turquoise and gold silks and thought Britannia had made it because she was in front for most of the race. He did a double-take and realized it was Major Factor.”
It was the start of a unique riding trifecta for Bavington.
“My dad was very proud of the fact he won the King’s Plate. The year that he won the Plate, we didn’t have the Canadian Triple Crown then, but he actually won all three races that would become the Triple Crown. Major Factor won the Prince of Wales with dad on him, and they switched him to Libertine, who he had ridden before, and he won the Breeders’ Stakes with that horse. So, it was his own Triple Crown. He won other big races, like the Cup and Saucer in 1950 on Libertine. He had some success during his racing days, but like many jockeys, it’s hard to keep the weight down.”
How Bavington made it into the irons is a story in itself.
It was a chance meeting in his early teenage years that eventually led him to a life in the saddle.
“He was 15 when he was sitting on the front step and his older sister Jeannette was dropped off by her future mother-in-law Mildred Kane,” recalled MacDougall, of the first female owner to win the Plate, in 1940 with the McCann-trained Willie The Kid. “Mildred asked, ‘Who’s that?’ and my dad’s sister said, ‘That’s my brother.’ When they asked Jeannette what he does, she shook her head and said, ‘Nothing.’ It was during the Depression, he had dropped out of school and there wasn’t much for him to do. They asked if he would ever consider riding horses. He told them, ‘I don’t know how to ride them.’ But Pete McCann took him under his wing and the rest is history.”
Bavington’s connection to horses extended beyond the racetrack to the battlefields of World War II.
The idea to enlist in the Canadian military was the result of a night on the town with some of his fellow riders.
“I don’t know who the other jockeys were, but they were out drinking one night and one of them said, ‘Let’s go enlist.’ They went down to the office when it opened and out of the five of them, only three were accepted. The guy who came up with the idea had rheumatic fever growing up and probably knew he wasn’t going to be enlisted. But dad and two of the other guys went overseas.”
Bavington’s time in Europe included hours spent on horseback.
“Dad never really spoke of the war. He was in Germany, Italy, and The Netherlands as a gunrunner. The one thing he did tell me was that he got to ride in Holland. One of the generals found out that he had racing experience and asked him to ride. He got a couple of furloughs to do that. He also had the role of taking the meals out to the front because of his stature. He had to place blocks on the pedals, so he could see through the slit of the tank. I have his medals with me, which I look at from time to time. He was and still is big in my heart and we are all very proud of him.”
Although she never saw her father race, MacDougall, born in 1963, did see him as a respected figure on the racetrack during his years as an outrider.
After he would gallop horses for a handful of trainers in the morning, Bavington would then supervise the races and spring into action when necessary.
Whenever he was called upon, Bavington never flinched.
“My dad was a humble man, a hard worker who didn’t take any nonsense. I think a lot of people would remember him as a no-nonsense, gruff kind of a guy. When you are 5-foot-1, and managing a 1,000-pound animal, I think you have to push your ego to be bigger than the animal you are sitting on. As an outrider, something he did for over 30 years, he was witness to some of the greats like Northern Dancer and Secretariat. He witnessed many tragedies, but also helped to prevent some too. One time, the starting gate was stuck on the track, and he galloped right into the race to stop them. I remember people wondering, ‘What the hell is Alfie doing?’ But that was dad. On the racetrack or during the war, he was the same fearless man.”
Bavington displayed similar fortitude when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1989, the same year his daughter graduated from nursing school.
MacDougall didn’t expect her father to be around long. She also didn’t anticipate him giving up cigarettes.
She was happy to be wrong on both fronts.
“Dad always had a cigarette in his hand. Some of the pictures we have of dad on horseback, he even has a cigarette in his mouth. When he received his cancer diagnosis, I thought at the time that he wouldn’t quit smoking and that he wouldn’t make it very long. To my surprise, he never smoked again."
Bavington’s cancer battle would become a life-changing experience for MacDougall.
“I fully intended to work at Etobicoke General because we lived in the neighbourhood, but I applied to work at Sick Kids Hospital, and I’ve been there ever since. I would say that it was my dad’s misfortune that helped me get that job because I wouldn’t have been downtown visiting him and I wouldn’t have walked over to Sick Kids and applied. In the end, we got 13 more years with him, which was a blessing.”
Bavington passed away on April 28, 2002.
His last outing was at a familiar, treasured spot.
“I took dad to the track for his 80th birthday, just two weeks before he passed. He had one last day at the races, but from a different viewpoint. We took him to the dining room, which he had never been to before because he was always working on the track. It made him feel very special.”
As it is any time MacDougall pours over pages and pictures of that 1951 Plate win, a victory that has taken on even more significance with the renaming of the race back to the King’s Plate.
MacDougall and her entire family plan to be in attendance on August 20th for the 164th running of North America’s longest continually run stakes race.
One week later, she’ll attend her youngest son’s wedding.
“It was one of those things where you knew the Queen would eventually be replaced on the throne, you just didn’t know when that would happen. Over 70 years after the race was renamed the Queen’s Plate, our family wondered, ‘Is it going to be the King’s Plate now?’ We weren’t sure. We heard some talk that it might stay as the Queen’s Plate, out of respect, but we were hoping that it would go back to the King’s Plate. And when it did, we were elated. I know dad would be too.”
Chris Lomon, Woodbine Communications / @WoodbineComms