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November 8, 2017

By Beverley Smith for

TORONTO, November 10 – Jockey Frank McTague sacrificed just about everything to fight for his country in World War II.

He sacrificed the best years of his riding life. He sacrificed his health. In a very small way, he lived a charmed life. In many, many other ways, not so much.

He was born into a family of eight in East York, of Irish heritage and a father who was a Roman Catholic priest. Alas, the marriage did not last, and his mother was forced to make ends meet on her own. And she had to do it during the Great Depression.

So four of her sons turned to the racetrack to become jockeys, probably for the first time in racing history. (This predated the Turcotte family.) Anything to make a buck. They were smallish, perhaps not quite small enough. The oldest of the four, James, stood 5-foot-4; Joseph (Jo-Jo) was about the same, maybe an inch shorter; Charlie – who ended up being the most prolific of the foursome – was smallest at 4-foot-11; and Frank, the youngest, was 5-foot-2.

During the 1930s, Charlie (everybody called him Bud) was a top rider at Toronto tracks. He won the Cup and Saucer three times and rode in seven King’s Plates (Queen’s Plates) from 1937 to 1953.

Frank didn’t have the chance. The youngest of the four, he joined Bud working at J.E. Seagram’s racing outfit. When Frank started work for Seagram, he was only 12. When he finally won his first race, a maiden jockey’s race, it occurred on Sept. 17, 1937 at Old Woodbine Park, riding a horse for Conn Smythe, who was to become a regular patron of the boy. He was 16. That year, Bud won his first of three Cup and Saucers, with Sufferin.

Photos of Frank McTague aboard Goanwin in the winner’s circle at Woodbine Park. (Provided by Beverley Smith)

James later became a hot item as a trainer, overseeing as many as 65 horses at U.S. tracks, (he was 20 years older than Frank), while Jo-Jo was riding at Aqueduct and Bud was a top rider in Toronto. Frank worked at getting his young career going.

Just before World War II was declared, Frank and a handful of his riding buddies showed up at an army recruiting office in Toronto, as a lark, a practical joke. None of them weighed much more than 90 pounds. What army would take them on? They would just kick them back out the door, right? But the officer took one look at them and said: “Great! We need little rats like you! You’d make great little motorcycle dispatch riders!”

The army took them all right away. There wasn’t much discussion. Frank was 18. It was early 1939.

They were not drafted. They volunteered. And they didn’t consider backing out or not giving it their best shot. That’s just the way it was back then.

Frank’s small size was an asset as a motorcycle dispatch rider. He would be more agile than a taller man. He would weigh less on a bike, which often had to traverse the mud and horrible terrain.

Motorcyle dispatch riders carried messages from military headquarters to army commanders on the field, because telephone or telegraph messages were deemed a security risk. They faced constant bombardment and artillery gunfire. Frank spent six years dodging bombs and gunfire in Belgium, Italy and France. They worked 12-hour shifts regardless of the weather (mud, rain, snow, heat) and rode hundreds of miles in a day, alone. At night, it wasn’t smart to use headlights. Worse still, they could be captured.

Frank was never captured. That was the only charmed part of his life. He managed to escape detection for years, wherever he was.

The DRs as they were called were often considered the “free spirits” of the war. They were normally attached to a unit, but they were constantly on the move and without much direct supervision. They were the best sources of rumours. Frank strangely fit into the profile. He was always a happy sort, no matter what he faced – and to the end of his life, he faced a lot. He always had a smile and a joke on his lips. “It didn’t matter how bad life got,” said daughter Betty McTague, married to Hugo Dittfach. “Life was good.”

Once Frank was shot in the lower ribs on the right-hand side while he was in Italy.

But the worst incident occurred somewhere in Europe, when Frank ran into a landmine on the road in 1944. The explosion threw him into the air, gave him a serious concussion and broke both femurs. “The helmets that they wore in those days were crap,” Betty said.

A photo of the letter that Frank McTague’s mother, Bessie, received when her son was injured after hitting a landmine. (Provided by Beverley Smith)

He spent a long time in recovery in England, then went right back to work. “People were different then, than people are now,” Betty said. “You committed yourself and you saw it through. If they had been at war for 15 years, my dad would have been over there for 15 years. He wasn’t going to quit and come home.”

While he was in Europe, his mother became a paraplegic when hit by a car on Christmas Eve while carrying the turkey to a family member’s house. All of the brothers sent home money to help keep her comfortable. Frank had his wages reassigned to his mother. She later fell off a stretcher and became a quadriplegic.

With the war over, Frank returned home, weighing 147 pounds, rather heavy to become a jockey. But with great difficulty, he lost the weight and continued to ride from 1945 to 1960.

Also, because of the head injury, he experienced horrible headaches for the rest of his life, and sometimes, he would black out. Doctors determined that he had been having seizures and heart attacks since he was blown off the motorbike, but they never tied his injuries to the accident. In fact, doctors deemed his teeth contributed to his headaches. So he had all of his teeth pulled. It didn’t help.

He received no help, because at the end of the war, he had hurriedly signed away all of his rights. He was single then. After he returned, he married Betty’s mother, who already had two children. Together they had three more.

Also, McTague picked up a drinking habit while in Europe, facing danger every day. “They always said you never know what tomorrow will bring,” Betty recalled. “So let’s live for today.” In the last four years of his life, Frank wrestled that demon at bay and was sober.

In 1960, when he stopped riding, his wife pushed to have the Department of Veterans Affairs recognize that head injury. They began to investigate, but it took the DVA eight years to release a conclusion that his injuries traced back to his encounter with a landmine. Frank’s wife finally got the notice on July 16, 1968.

But four days before that, on July 12, 1968, Frank died of a massive heart attack while standing in trainer Ted Mann’s tack room at Fort Erie racetrack. He was 48 years old.

When his wife showed up to collect the benefits, she was told the benefits accrue only to the veteran, not his wife.

War is heart-breaking. In every way.

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