Roy Steele is a man with his fingers in a lot of pies. He's a noted handicapper, largely of the Thoroughbred persuasion, with a website called horsewhispererusa.com, regular guest appearances on the Horse Racing Radio Network (for which he won an Eclipse Award for their 2010 Breeders Cup broadcast), and contacts throughout the thouroughbred and harness racing industry.
But while he has great depth of knowledge about the runners, his decision to emigrate from Great Britain to Windsor, Ontario, some time ago may have guaranteed that his attention would eventually turn to what he calls "the chariot racers."
Harness racing, as most of us know, isn't much more than a weekend hobby sport in the British Isles. But in Windsor -- despite the sliding fortunes of the tragically neglected Windsor Raceway in recent years -- Standardbreds rule.
Nick Plain, a friend who was previously the simulcast manager at Windsor Raceway, persuaded the Thoroughbred aficionado to purchase a share in adaughter named Zorgwijk Jade. And from there, Steele has found himself talking Thoroughbreds by day, but cheering on his Standardbreds at night.
"Being in the wagering business, I realized that there's a lot of money on offer in harness racing, especially in Canada," he says.
And just as one would expect of a veteran punter, Steele has gambled on an $800 investment and won.
When returning from the Forest City sale in London, Ontario, a year ago, he happened across an estate auction on the road between London and Sarnia. The farm had belonged to Ike Matthews, who had been a small breeder of cattle and horses.
"There were all these animals among the construction equipment," remembers Steele. "One of the horses was a pacing yearling by( -Sweet Reflection, by Big Towner), who I like very much. His babies have gone for $20,000 to $30,000 at Harrisburg.
"This one was a bit undernourished, covered in mud, and sandwiched between a backhoe and a bulldozer. There was no one there apart from us. I paid $800 for him, on my credit card."
The horse that was revealed once the mud was curried off, was pleasingly put together, and it didn't take long to show he had some talent.
"He has a great temperament, and he has that big rolling gait like's," says Steele.
"My partner, Mark McGuinness, came up with the idea to name him after a charity to draw attention to the sport. I loved the idea, but you wouldn't believe how difficult it is to name a horse after a charity!"
Cancer research was their first choice for a cause, but after having been stonewalled by miles of legalese and red tape emanating from both Lance Armstrong's Livestrong campaign, and Prostate Cancer Canada, Steele decided to change tactics.
"The lawyers vetoed everything we suggested. With a lot of these charities you're just supporting the suits in the fancy offices on Bay Street," he says. "Then I thought of Old Friends."
Old Friends is a registered charity providing a forever home in Georgetown, Ky., for retired Thoroughbred racehorses, especially (but not exclusively) those with stakes records and high profiles. President Michael Blowen, fittingly, is another old friend of Steele's -- and he was delighted to make a deal on a handshake.
Steele's gelding, now renamed Oldfriendskentucky, is donating 20 percent of his earnings to support his Thoroughbred cousins at Old Friends. In return, Old Friends's 40,000 followers on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are helping to raise the profile of harness racing.
The partners placed Oldfriendskentucky with trainer Steve Roberts of Melbourne, Ontario, a friend of Plain's. They decided to wait until the end of December 2011 to debut their bargain purchase -- and Oldfriendskentucky rewarded their patience. He laid down two sharp efforts in a row, finishing second at both Windsor Raceway and London's Western Fair oval, and quickly capturing the attention of handicappers, who sent him off at very short odds by the time he stepped on the track a third time.
On Jan. 10 at Western Fair, Oldfriendskentucky smoked the field from gate to wire, breaking his maiden in 2:01.1 with Alex Lilley in the bike.
"We've already had a six-figure offer on him," Steele says, "but we didn't want to let Mike and Old Friends down. So we said, let's live the dream.
"All the race-callers have been briefed to explain the horse's name and spread the gospel of what we're doing here."
Oldfriendskentucky is still experiencing some growing pains.
"He's got tremendous gate speed but he doesn't really know what to do when challenged yet," says Steele.
Two subsequent starts have been disappointing, with a jumped shadow and a thrown shoe accounting for a fourth place finish at Windsor on Jan. 18 (interference bumped him to seventh). He was a well-beaten sixth in a $6,930 conditioned pace at Western Fair on Jan. 31, in sloppy conditions brought on by an uncharacteristic thaw, but as Steele observes, "He's still learning. We think he'll be better on a bigger track, and we're hoping to take him to the Youthful Series at Woodbine if he's ready.
"He's a very game little horse and we're excited about him, but we're going to take it one race at a time."
Should Oldfriendskentucky turn out to be as nice a racehorse as Steele, Roberts, and McGuinness are hoping, they are even planning a trip to the Red Mile in the fall, complete with a visit to Old Friends.
And now that Steele has a model in place, he's envisioning an entire stable of horses trotting and pacing for charity. With two moreyoungsters in his shedrow waiting their turn, we could be witnessing the beginning of a movement.
Editor's Note: The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.
by Karen Briggs, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent