Mike Stevenson notches 1,500th career win

04:16 AM 25 Jul 2014 NZST
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Tyne Valley, harness racing
Driver Mike Stevenson drives Tyne Valley to his 1,500th career driving victory at Truro Raceway on Tuesday night.
Photo by Kyle Burton

What seemed like eternity to Fredericton native Mike Stevenson has now become history.

The 49-year-old driver landed his 1,500th career driving victory Tuesday night in the first race aboard Tyne Valley at Truro Raceway.

Eternity lasted a streak of 20 consecutive races without a victory for Stevenson, until he finally got to the winner circle Tuesday night.

"It's a relief to be honest. It feels good to get the monkey off of my back actually," he said. "I'm pretty proud of it, for where I've been the last five or six years, to be on the straight and narrow and get something like that makes you kind of see the right side of things."

Stevenson used a perfect pocket ride to ensure his 1,500 trip to the winner circle.

"I looked over at Paul (Lanigan) through the lane and said, 'Thank god it's off my back.'"

During those 20 races, he picked up six second-place finishes.

There was one close call on Thursday that Stevenson wishes he could have came through on. Sail Through finished second, beaten only a quarter of a length in track record fashion. Stevenson trains the filly for his owner Dan Ross.

"I really wish it would have been Sail Through in Summerside, I would have loved to have won it with one of Dan's," Stevenson said. "He stuck by me through a lot of stuff over the past six years, he's stood by me and had confidence in me."

Nearly four years ago, none of this looked like it would have been possible.

On Oct. 11, 2010, Stevenson was notified that he had tested positive for controlled substance and would be subjected to a five-year suspension. Stevenson had run into drug problems before and this was not his first suspension.

At the time Dr. Paul Hogan of the Maritimes Provinces Racing Commission said there would be nothing to appeal and the suspension was in place.

Stevenson a winner of over $4.3 million dollars in purses, admitted himself into a drug addiction program and started to see a councillor every second week.

He said Hogan directed him in the right direction to getting back into the sport he loves, and he is thankful for that.

He was taking weekly drug samples and turning them into the commission. His councillor was contacting Hogan every second week about Stevenson's progress.

Nine months later he was granted a hearing in front of the racing commission and was reinstated on July 13, 2011.

Stevenson said he owes a big thank you to four people for making win number 1,500 possible at this time.

"Dan Ross, Kenny Arsenault, Earl Smith and Richard Campbell - when I had my five year suspension, it wouldn't have been possible to get back except for what those guys did. I wouldn't be back yet," he said. "That's not forgetting the hundreds of emails that were sent to the Maritime Racing Commission."

He said it was a real eye opener to see those four guys do what they did.

"For those four guys to come up and stand beside me and say what they said, I get choked up thinking about it still," said Stevenson trying to hold back tears.

"What those guys did makes it seem like it's all worth it. It was the first thing I thought of (last night), that's why I wanted to win it in Summerside, so I could get all of this out in front of them," he said. "Last night, two of the people who were first to congratulate me were Kenny and Earl."

Stevenson was born into a rich tradition of harness racing. His father Bobby was a well-known trainer in New Brunswick in the early 1970s before he made his move to Foxboro, MA, to pursue a career in harness racing. His mother Diane was the clerk of the course and program director at the Meadowlands for almost 20 years. His sister Janet is also heavily involved in harness racing and is married to Delaware mainstay Eddie Davis Jr. His other sister Gloria is best known for being the caretaker of Nihilator during his three-year-old season.

He didn't have much of a choice but learn the trade.

"I trained my horse, which I'll never forget, when I was five-year-old and sitting in my dads lap. I can remember we went a mile in 2:23. Ever since then it was all about racing."

Mike made the move to Foxboro with his father, but after his parents divorced he returned home to Fredericton to finish high school. He started qualifying horses at the age of 16, and as soon as he finished school he headed down the States with a small stable of his own.

At the age of 17, he picked up his first lifetime win aboard a three-year-old filly named Game Blast at Northfield Park in Ohio.

"I had been driving a colt of my fathers in the fairs all that summer, he had won three or four races but they didn't count them," Stevenson recalled. "I had been driving for three or four months before that."

Stevenson said he can still remember the win because the next morning the papers read, "17 year-old Stevenson has a blast at Northfield."

"Number one, it was big, 1,000 was really special, but last night considering everything that happened since I picked up my 1,000th, to me, last night meant more then the other two."

In the fall of 1986, he was approached by well-known trainer Peter Blood. Blood asked him if he would be interested in joining him as his second trainer and Stevenson jumped at the opportunity.

"He taught me more then anyone in this business. To me he is one of the best colt-men who have ever took a breath, not only is he good at training them but he is the best person in my eyes to go to a sale and pick one out."

Stevenson gives Blood credit for a lot of success with his own stable on P.E.I.

"I attribute everything that I learn with my babies and the success I've had with my babies to Peter Blood. I'm really glad I kept my eyes and ears open, and I had my head about me at the time. I learned a lot from that guy."

Working with Blood gave Stevenson the opportunity to drive some special horses. One of those horses was Quality Of Life. The horse that Stevenson said gave him his most memorable win.

"Right now it has to be Tyne Valley last night," he joked. "It would have to be Quality Of Life at the Red Mile when he won in 1:50.1, I was kicking myself afterwards for not hitting the wheel disk at least once because he would have broke 1:50."

That was also the fastest win of Stevenson's lengthy career.

In 2003 Stevenson returned home to New Brunswick to try and get away from the demons were following him, but it wasn't until the fall of 2003, after facing more trouble with drugs, he made the venture to his new home, Prince Edward Island.

Island horsemen and now co-worker Wade Sorrie was in Saint John and asked Stevenson to come work on his farm. While working there, Ross approached him to train a two-year-old colt named War Dancer who went on to win the Atlantic Breeders crown.

Ross then approached him and asked him if he would be interested in going to work for him, and the rest is history.

An honourary Islander, Stevenson picked up one of his biggest wins at Summerside Raceway in 2004 when he guided Igoddago to his first ever Governor's Plate in 1:55.3.

"I can remember to this day going by the upper turn with all the people flowing onto the track at the old paddock, all I could hear was 'Track record, track record.' And my whip got caught half way down the lane, and we ended up tying it," he recalled. "For Mike Campbell to put me on that horse, after he drove him all the time. It was special."

When Stevenson first arrived on P.E.I. he said he was welcomed with open arms, and it really made the turn around much easier.

"I'd like to thank the harness racing community in P.E.I. in general, when I showed up a lot of people could have been judgmental. Wade took me under his wing, people like Cindy MacDonald welcoming me to her farm and guys like Duane MacEachern and Darren Trainor putting me down to drive their horses."

Stevenson did some reminiscing on his career and said it was a toss-up between a great horse in Jaguar Knight and a $2,000 claimer in My Buddy Mark, for who his favourite horse was.

My Buddy Mark picked up Stevenson's 1,000th career victory at Exhibition Park Raceway in September of 2006.

"When I came across the boarder (retiring home), I had My Buddy Mark, my clothes and that was it," he said. "He is the horse that got me going when I got back, He helped me build my stable. The first year we were in Saint John he was voted Fan Favourite and Claimer of the Year."

Jaguar Knight was a horse Stevenson got the chance to drive for his father at the Meadowlands in 1994.

"Yeah he was just a maritime bred down there, but if you stop and look what that horse did that spring at the Meadowlands, there's very few horses that did what that horse did."

After leaving the Maritimes stake scene, he struggled to find his ground but during the end of the meet at the Meadowlands he won seven of his final nine starts including a victory in 1:51.2, becoming the fastest Maritime bred ever at the time.

"He put a little no-name guy like me on the map during Saturday nights at the Meadowlands. They had to contend with me, I didn't have to contend with them. I could just set him out first over, God forbid the first guy to come three deep on him, because there hasn't been one get by him yet."

After returning to the winner circle 1,500 times, Stevenson said there is one main reason he continues to do it.

"Winning. It's what I love to do, I've never done anything but harness racing."

He will turn 50 in December, and if you asked Stevenson if there was one more race he could win, he wouldn't even have to think about it.

"Not only to win it, but just another chance to get back into the Gold Cup and Saucer. Whether you're in it or standing at the fence you can't help but get goosebumps," he said with passion. "When you go under that spotlight, it's like there is nothing else but the Gold Cup."

Red Shores would like to congratulate Mike Stevenson on his career milestone - number 1,500. Wednesday night in Summerside he will be presented with a gift as for his special accomplishment.

by Bo Ford, for Red Shores

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