Maritime horsemanhas been involved in the harness racing industry for over half a century and there is not much Phil hasn't seen and as time has passed his passion for harness racing has never faltered.
"I am 29 years old so I've been doing this for 9 years now" Phil says with a laugh. "They say I am 70-something now and I started when I was 15."
Phil has the spirit of someone a quarter of his age and if anything, Phil's passion and enjoyment for the sport has only grown deeper roots as each season passes. "It's the best sport in the world!" says Phil.
Harness racing is facing uncertain times and the need to garner upbeat public attention is right now. Phil explains the only direction left for the sport to go is up and the more I get to know people within the industry, from drivers to trainers, grooms to joggers, announcers to handicappers I can sense the tide turning for the good. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done, but with a positive outlook and demonstrating to the public the immense passion the horsemen and women possess, sooner rather than later fans will be flocking to the grandstands.
"It's a tough deal out there with so many things to compete against for the attention of the young generation; we haven't kept up our end as horsemen and management to grab their attention." Phil says. "I just don't think we have done our homework, we never paid attention to the public. We took the public for granted I think and we didn't promote our sport to them. We thought (the public) should come bet on us, but there was so much stuff starting to take place and we didn't have the proper leadership as horsemen and we didn't have the proper leadership from track management to look after the public.
"We just thought the public would keep showing up to the races when we should have been buttering (the public's) bread and we are still not doing that." Phil explains how he would love to see the grandstands full at every track and wishes harness racing garnered more positive media attention.
"More needs to be added to it, giveaways and good food and stuff like that. You just can't give them a hotdog and french fries and think you're doing good." Phil adds, fans need to be treated in a way where coming to the track is more than just a onetime thrill. "Make people feel like they want to come back next week to good food and they're thinking 'the track puts on a good show we should come back next week and bring some friends.' That's the way you got to try and make people feel in my opinion."
Last year Phil thought the local tracks were going to be shut down, but what actually happened was the tracks continued to thrive by continuing to advertise, putting people's pictures in the local papers and making sure there were continuous giveaways to the fans.
"It's amazing the stuff they've done" says Phil. "They advertise you could get your face in the paper and it made a great difference. (The tracks) did all the small things they could do, like I say, there is so much for the younger generation to get them interested... because today they have their faces stuck to their telephones and computers 24/7. We got to put on a good show for the grandstand."
Phil is as straight forward a person one can meet and it's a pleasure because Phil tells you his thoughts openly, but in a classy way. Phil is not rude or abrupt, rather diplomatic and caring is his approach to discussing the harness racing industry.
In 2008 Phil won the prestigious O'Brien award for horsemanship. "They don't come by too often" Phil laughs. "I was pretty lucky to get it.... There were probably a lot of people who deserved it more than I did. I sure appreciate it. I didn't go down to accept the award... I don't really know why, maybe they should have hit me on the head."
Aside from shoeing, breaking-in, training and driving horses, I asked Phil what he hasn't done to date and with a boisterous laugh he said he wasn't sure. "I've been around so long sometimes you try and do it all. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't work out to well." Phil acknowledges. "I've been lucky to have pretty good owners. That's the big thing, good owners and treating them right. I always try to keep everything straight and tell the owners how it really is.
"In horse racing, the media will advertise something bad many more times than they would something good. So always be honest." Phil says in regards to treating horses with care. In Phil's eyes, if a horse isn't well, you don't push the horse because in reality, like humans injuries will occur and that affects everyone, but most important of all, the horse.
Looking back over his career, there are several horses that stand out in Phil's mind, one of them being Dunachton Gale. "We bought him here in Truro at a yearling sale. He made around $200,000 racing here in the Maritimes. He was a cheap horse but anytime you can race around the Maritimes and pick up $200,000 you got a fair horse."
Phil has also won 2 Gold Cup and Saucers as a driver/trainer, the first in 1978 with Nickname in a time of 2:02.2 and in 1986 with Rev Your Engine in a time of 2:02.1. "They put on a great show in Charlottetown... now with the out of town horses you have them going a mile in 1:50 or 1:51. It's one heck of a show that's for sure" says Phil. "It's good for racing because people want to see the fast mile. I remember when I won it with Rev Your Engine the centre field was packed and it was just unbelievable and they still get just as big of crowds now."
Phil is a fan of what Jeff Gural is doing down at the Meadowlands. "He's building the public's trust and he's probably on the right track. The betting is up and people will want to go down that way and that will benefit the horsemen in the long run. If no one is betting there's no racing."
Nowadays Phil has four horses in his care, however Phil admits "...we've been busy all winter. In the winter time I usually head to the woods and do my rabbit hunting, I like to get to the outdoors and get my hunting time."
"I have Beagles and we hunt rabbit and hunt deer" says Phil. "During the winter time we try to get out at least two or three times a week. A group of us go, bring our lunch and have a good time spending the day in the woods."
With the intense winter weather the Maritimes encounters, Phil makes sure he has his sled for the dogs and has his snow shoes. "It's some pretty rough days at times, stone cold but we got the four wheeler and the sled for the dogs behind. It's good fun! The biggest deer I got was about 220 pounds.... I used to hunt a lot of bobcats, and there's still quite a few around."
For the upcoming season, Phil is looking forward to the stakes season, watching the young horses improve.
"Brent McGrath has a colt from, Melmerby Beach and I would put him on the calendar to watch." Phil continues, "He's a three year old who trained in Florida and he's really nice. I think he's in Paul MacDonnel's hands now and Paul is very high on him and they're getting him ready for the big races."
One thing Phil wants all harness racing fans to know is that his horse always comes first no matter the situation. "They always have to be fit to race and able to put on a good show." Phil says. "I like to help the young driver's out... seeing them start out and doing their best and not over drive their horse."
Phil has three sons, Brian, Dale and Keith. "Keith and I own some horses and Paul Langille is like a son to me." Once Phil started talking about Paul, it sounded like he was getting a bit choked up; it was quite a feeling to absorb, hearing Phil describe Paul's talents and work ethic.
Phil has a lot of heart and still has a lot left in the tank to continue his work within the harness racing industry.
By: Roderick Balgobin www.supernovasportsclub.com Twitter: ScSupernova