Day At The Track

Young drivers in the spotlight in Canada

11:35 AM 10 Apr 2015 NZST
Comment (...) Tweet Share Email Print
James MacDonald, harness racing
James MacDonald, who at age 28 recorded his 1,000th lifetime win last season

There are some athletes, who are to their sport — like jam is to peanut butter. They come together like eggs to bacon. They blend. They become one, an osmosis in the world of sweat — like Jordan and basketball; a puck and Gretzky, baseball with The Babe. One without the other is intellectually indigestible. So, it is, that harness racing has always had its Filion and a Waples.

Or two.

Jody Jamieson is a multiple O’Brien Award winner and John Campbell is regarded with a reverence rarely heard this side of a Gordie Howe conversation.

Some, such as Sylvain Filion, who leads the drivers’ standings with Canada’s top harness circuit moving to Mohawk Thursday from Woodbine, continue to hold the standard high for the old world order.

But, look close enough, and it is evident that standardbred racing is also coming into a new age.

The twitter generation is making its move.

A younger, perhaps bolder more aggressive, and evidently a talented wave of young drivers has taken a foothold in the industry.

Perhaps never before has so much young blood lined up horses behind a starting gate.

“I think it has changed quite a bit,” says Doug McNair, who at age 25, sits second in the driver’s standings behind only Filion.

“Even if you go back just a few years, most guys had to be in their 30s before they could race (on the Woodbine/Mohawk circuit) full-time. Me, Jon Drury, and a couple others, all came in about the same time and I think it’s good for the sport.

“When you have the younger drivers well, they tend to hang out with a younger crowd and I think it might get more younger people ... a new generation of people coming out to the track.”

There is certainly a new generation taking over on the track.

With the switch-over to Mohawk, three of the five top drivers have yet to see a 30th candle lit on their birthday cake.

Drury, from Rockwood, Ont., is fifth with 37 wins. McNair, has 62 wins in 332 starts, just six behind Filion. James MacDonald, who at age 28 recorded his 1,000th lifetime win last season, sits in third spot with 44 wins.

“I think I’ve got a lot of good years ahead. Most of the better, older drivers didn’t get to their best until their mid-30s,” said MacDonald, who grew up in a racing family in Prince Edward Island.

“A younger group is starting to break through ... a few of us have gotten noticed.”

Noticed is a modest way of putting it.

McNair surpassed the 2,000-win mark last year and ranked as the top Ontario Sires Stakes driver.

In 2008, at age 18, he became the youngest driver in harness-racing history to win a $300,000 purse in the Battle of Waterloo.

Horses, he has always realized, would be his life.

His father Gregg, one of Canada’s top conditioners with over $31 million in career earnings, got him started in the sport.

“I was only five or six years old maybe when it happened, but there’s a picture in my bedroom of me sitting on a bike in the winner’s circle after (Filion) won a race with one of my dad’s horses. Now I’m 25 and I’m getting a chance to go out there every night with some of these guys. How great is that. Sure, I have my bad days sometimes and I’m not happy when I leave the track — but there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing,” said Doug, “lots of four- and five-year-old kids dream of going to the NHL. I always dreamt of going to the track and racing.”

Like McNair, Drury and MacDonald both grew up in racing families.

Unlike McNair, Drury and MacDonald had to find, or rediscover, their passion for racing after some alternative adolescent diversions.

“I played hockey, I played baseball. You name it, I played it,” said MacDonald, who enjoyed his job at the track canteen in Charlottetown, but rarely hung out at the family or track barns.

Both his parents worked at the local track, the family was into the breeding business and his brothers Mark and Anthony were already on track to successful careers as drivers.

“My brothers were always obsessed with the horses. I wasn’t,” said MacDonald.

After graduating Grade 12, he worked a summer in Campbellville for his brother Anthony but, “I didn’t enjoy it that much to be honest” and he returned to college in P.E.I.

Everything changed the following summer when he went back to Campbellville and his brother put him on a bike.

“I don’t really know what changed. Maybe I was older. Maybe it was just I knew people and had more friends but I loved it.”

And, the game, it turned out, loved him back.

Last year, he drove Muscle Babe to a stakes-record performance in the $178,287 Standardbred Breeders of Ontario Association final for three-year-old filly trotters in an impressive 1:54.

His purse earnings this season already top $800,000.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else. Even if I’m having a bad night and I go to the gate I still believe I’ve got the best job in the world.”

Drury could be building racetracks rather than racing on them.

While he also grew up in a racing family — his father Barry worked at Mohawk, still trains horses and once worked for the legendary Ron Waples as an assistant trainer at the old Meadowlands — he toyed with the idea of becoming an architect.

“I really enjoyed it, and woodworking in high school. I thought about going to university but I ended up finishing high school and ... well, racing kind of took over. I guess it was just in my blood.”

He started at a small track in Woodstock, his father gave him a leg up with a few horses.

“Mostly it’s about opportunity. You have to get a chance to drive some decent horses ... when people see you winning at the smaller places they start to be more willing to let you go to the big tracks,” said Drury.

A move to Kawartha Downs a few years later and teaming up with top trainers Corey Johnson and Carmen Auciello was the birth of his “Made It” moment.

“I was a regular driver there (Kawartha Downs) and they started using me and we developed a relationship and it just snowballed from there,” said Drury, who also raced at Pocono for Auciello.

“It was a great experience. I think it really helped me to be to where I am at today. It’s a different style of racing (at the Poconos), it taught me a lot and I think its made me a better driver now.”

Since then he has become an integral part in the development of O’Brien Award winner Vegas Vacation, guiding the colt to victory in his first lifetime start at Mohawk Racetrack.

Ultimate goals: For MacDonald? “You try not to look at the standings but you do ... It would be to win a drivers title at WEG,” he said.

“To me the biggest thrill is still to have a full card against the best drivers that I grew up idolizing. We’re young ... at this age you’re eager to prove (yourself). We want to win and be like the guys who’ve been in this sport a long time.”

Thursday, McNair has six races on the opening card at Mohawk in a season in which he is off to his best career start, and one he hopes will culminate with his ultimate dream: The O’Brien Trophy (awarded annually to Canadian harness-racing’s best and brightest) and a driving championship.

“I picked up some good horses to start the year and it just seems to have snowballed from there,” said McNair.

“In 2013 I got nominated, along with Filion, for driver of the year. He was always one of the guys I idolized when I was a kid. When that happened I felt like I belonged.”

They have taken different paths to get to where they belong, but standardbred’s young guns are arriving at the finish line together.

Said Drury: “When you’re racing at Woodbine and Mohawk you’re obviously doing something right. Just knowing I’m racing with the best is kind of a special feeling ... In the past, owners have always gone with the experienced guys. It’s nice to see some of the younger guys get a shot, with good horses, because I do think it’s good for the sport.

By Bill Lankhof for the Toronto Sun

Reprinted with the permission of the Toronto Sun

Comment (...) Tweet Share Email Print

Read More News About...

Stallion Name

Next article: