Day At The Track

Robert Shepherd agrees that "patience is key"

05:24 AM 18 Mar 2014 NZDT
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Robert Shepherd, harness racing
Robert Shepherd and wife, Jodilyn, celebrating his 2,000th win

It was 10 years ago in 2004 that harness racing driver Robert Shepherd was getting ready to drive The Bruster in the Nat Christie Memorial at Stampede Park in Alberta.

This was Robert's third stakes race as a driver following his first in his native province of Prince Edward Island and the second in Alberta. During the race, Robert had The Bruster sitting almost 10 lengths behind the leader and on the final turn home, Robert swung almost five wide and drove The Bruster past the field for the thrilling win.

The very same horse was purchased for $500 as a yearling and secured close to $85,000 in purse winnings at the time of the 2004 Nat Christie. At that time, Robert was the youngest driver to win the Nat Christie.

An interesting note is that Robert broke his femur a year before the race and The Bruster ended up having a cracked knee shortly after the purchase. It's amazing how they both healed and joined to win such a prestigious race. It's a fairy tale story that perseverance pays off!

"I always try to play it smart" is what Robert says about his style of driving. Patience is what Robert preaches and explains it's the best way to understand all that is happening around you. Robert explains, "If you get over aggressive too many times, a month or two down the road, that horse is going to get tired and not want to push himself. Then you're going to wonder what is wrong with the horse."

Robert is 33 and gives credit to his learning's from training horses which allows him to better understand the horses when he's driving. "I can be aggressive or more laid back" says Robert. "It all depends on the horse, they're all different."

From PEI, (Prince Edward Island), Robert moved to Ontario and worked for leading trainer Kevin McMaster. From there, Robert moved to Alberta to further his career in harness racing, working for Bill Landers and Keith Clarke. After some time of jogging, driving and training horses in Alberta and of course winning the Nat Christie, Robert relocated to Ontario where the purse money was then much higher. As soon as Robert's younger brother Patrick finished school, he came to join Robert in Ontario to form a formidable trainer-driver duo. Robert states that "...Patrick knew right from the start he was going to train horses."

Currently, Robert does a lot of driving for his trainer/brother, Patrick Shepherd who is 21. There is a twelve year difference between the brothers which could lead to Robert and Patrick being more distant with one another, but that is quite the contrary. "We're just like any brothers, we have our spats but at the same time we are best friends. We might argue today and tomorrow it's forgotten about."

Robert breaks down the synergy between them as Patrick is more aggressive, and Robert is more passive and this allows them to complement one another.

As a young boy, Robert remembers his father taking care of horses in the mornings and during the evenings. In between, Robert's dad worked a full time job and every evening when his father came home, Robert would help his father with the horses.

In 1999, Robert and a buddy Mark Bradley moved down to Florida for 8 months to work. "I had just gotten my license in PEI" Robert says. "We were grooms and assistant trainers.... We had about 15 horses and we worked with the babies. We jogged and trained them. We made a lot of good friends down there.... It was a great experience for us"

For someone who has been on the horse racing business for over a dozen years, there is very little about Robert online, (the harness driver that is. The name Robert Shepherd does result in over a billion matches). Robert admits he is very low key and says "I just got on Facebook a month ago. I don't even have an email address. Well, I think I have one made up and my friend made it up for me, but I can't (remember) what it is."

"Coming from PEI, it's different, I mean I like my cell phone now but I never had one until I was in Alberta. Even still, it's hard to get a hold of me by phone." Roberts says with a laugh.

Someone Robert has a lot of respect for is trainer Susie Kerwood and acknowledges how much Susie has helped him. "She's been great, from the start she helped me out" says Robert. "She vouched for me and got me started when I first got here (to Ontario). She's a very good person."

A few years back, Robert was unfortunately part of two racing accidents, one of which he was dragged off the track by a runaway horse and in the other, he ended up fighting for his life. This is the down side of any sport. Horses, like the drivers, are athletes and in any sport such as football, hockey, basketball and baseball, freak accidents and/or injuries occur. Whether human or horse, it's always sad. Luckily for Robert, he's been fortunate to bounce back each time and the accidents never hampered his spirits. "This is what I love" Roberts says. "If you love it, no matter what happens nothing changes."

You can catch Robert driving at Flamboro Downs, where he has a lot of support from friends and family. Robert also drives at Grand River and Western Fair Raceway. Even though Robert races year round, his preference is the summer season where he can break out the short sleeve jacket while racing. As for what's his favorite style of track, he prefers the half mile tracks, but Robert will be happy with anything if it results in a win! Last year Robert finished 5th in the drivers' standing at Flamboro Downs, and currently he is in 1st place for the 2014 season at Flamboro Downs.

Away from the track, Robert kicks back with a soda and friends to watch hockey. Being from the Maritimes, Robert grew up a Montreal Canadiens fan, but since residing in Ontario he's gotten caught with Toronto Maple Leafs' fever. I wonder what happens when Montreal comes to town. "My friends get so fired up, it's hard not to enjoy it" he says.

Along the stairway leading to his man cave, Robert has framed pictures from his Nat Christie victory. In the man cave itself, Robert has a huge TV and a comfy recliner to rest from a tough but fun day at work.

By: Roderick Balgobin of twitter:ScSupernova

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