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SC Rewind: Remembering Bill

Published: October 12, 2015 9:26 am ET

Last Comment: October 13, 2015 8:25 am ET | 1 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's Rewind Robert Smith recalls the long career of Wm. R. McDonnell, who recently passed away. Bill is remembered by the host of friends and associates he met in a variety of positions he filled within the sport.


Wm. R. "Bill" McDonnell in the foreground shares a light-hearted moment with his colleague Bill Galvin on the right during Grand Circuit week at Greenwood in 1972.

Writing this week's Rewind has been a bit more difficult for me than most; there have been times when I had to set it aside and gather my thoughts. I abide by the old saying "We only have so many friends in a lifetime, and when we lose one it hurts."

The sport of Canadian harness racing recently lost one of its longest serving members and I lost a personal friend. On September 14, William Ross McDonnell passed to his eternal reward, just a bit short of his 80th birthday. I am thankful for the past several years when we corresponded regularly and got together from time to time. We have shared much during that time.

"Bill" as he was always affectionately known ("Ross" to a precious few), was born into a" horse" environment on Hamilton Mountain. His grandfather and his father before him were horse-loving people, not to mention his uncles and other family connections including his late Uncle Jack Kenney. The McDonnell name is among the oldest and best known in the sport and a number are still involved to this day. Bill's first cousin Terry predeceased him by just a week or so.


A very young Bill McDonnell in the 'sulky'

Bill took an interest in horses, harness racing and indeed every aspect of the sport at a very young age. He could recall visits with his father to the once famous Manchester Farm at what was then called Galt and seeing the old time sires such as Lee Harvester. He met and remembered all of the people who owned and raced horses. I am certain that he knew at a fairly young age that he would someday be a part of it all.

Bill's father Tom McDonnell was a starter in the old days before the coming of the starting gate. He started races in the system known as 'open scoring', where horses came rushing up to the starting wire without much 'law and order'. Recalls were frequent; often several at a time. He knew, as did many, that if the sport was ever to prosper and advance something had to be done. In 1946, with the help of a welder by the name of Fred Metcalfe, he set about designing and building his first mobile starting gate. Earlier that year it was introduced in the U.S. by Steve Phillips at Roosevelt Raceway.

Rather crude and basic by today's standards, he made it work. Mounted on the family car, which was a 1939 Plymouth Coupe, he sold his idea to the organizers of the Bluewater Driving Club. On May 24th 1947, the gate was put into use for the first time. Tom and his assistant Jim MacDonald and young Bill -- not yet 12 years old -- left Hamilton for Sarnia the night before and stayed in a local hotel. They wanted to leave nothing to chance so were there in plenty of time for the 2:00 p.m. post time. The day went smoothly and it marked the dawning of a new age in Canadian harness racing. From this day forward the old antiquated mode of starting races began to disappear.

Bill continued to travel with his father wherever the gate would go. Soon 'copiers' watched and more gates showed up all across the land. Despite the success of the invention, the senior Mr. McDonnell was granted a patent but was never able to enforce it so did not benefit as one might have envisioned. At a young age Bill was pressed into service and drove the car on many occasions, long before he was of licencing age. He could tell of many harrowing experiences that came his way. While he eventually became a licenced starter, his more favoured task was announcing the races which was traditionally part of the starting crew's job.

He began to hone his announcing skills and in time took his spot at the microphone in the judge's stand at most of the small tracks across Central Ontario and into Michigan. His first ever announcing job came at Owen Sound in 1951 when the noted announcer Tory Gregg was unable to make the trip. Race calling in those days was not an easy task. Races often competed for track time with other events especially at Fairs. P.A. systems were woefully inadequate and activities in the centre field often blocked portions of a race, causing the announcer to "fill in time" until the field reappeared. Bill rose above it all and established himself as a first class race caller, one year calling the Maple Leaf Trot. In 1961 he became part of history as the first announcer at London's Western Fair's inaugural night race meeting.

In one of our many visits Bill related an interesting incident related to his early announcing days. At some small Town race meeting a judge (who knows what his qualifications were?) had an enterprising idea. With no photo finish camera on the premises he brought along a very early version of a Polaroid camera. It worked fine, particularly when the winner's margin was a length or two. In a hotly contested finish he snapped a picture at what he thought was the precise moment the horses hit the wire. Not so according to virtually everyone else in the judge's stand, not to mention the crowd. He would take no one else's word; his barely dried foggy picture would stand. An irate driver, and a large fellow to boot, quickly made his way up the long ladder of the judge's stand to make his case, but was eventually calmed despite the validity of his case.

Based on the relative uncertainty that the harness sport was able to provide a then young Wm. McDonnell, following high school he decided to pursue a career in banking. After a few years and a number of moves, he decided to accept the position of Secretary Manager with the Canadian Standardbred Horse Society. His years spent at the bank undoubtedly yielded a lasting benefit that would affect the rest of his life. In 1960 he married his sweetheart Marlene Westphal, also a bank employee.

At about the time he joined forces with the C.S.H.S. the sport was growing and rapidly changing. He took a very active part in the Association's sales as part of his duties, including the inspection of yearlings at consignor's farms. In 1967 an important milestone was reached when for the first time the sale topped $100,000 in sales under McDonnell's leadership. As an indication of prices back then, it took 204 horses being sold to reach that figure.

Around 1970 Bill was hired by the Ontario Racing Commission and it was from here that he spent the next nearly 30 years, the majority as Director. He saw the sport grow and expand in virtually every direction. He was charged with the task of keeping up with the latest technology and trends. He attended numerous conferences, symposiums and workshops to confer with officials from other jurisdictions. Over the years he was responsible for hiring many people for judges and other O.R.C. positions. His signature appeared on thousands of passes; perhaps even the old one I still have from around 1971.

Bill enjoyed his work and was respected by those around him who realized his tremendous dedication. Brian Webster, who has known Bill for well over half a century and hails from the same area, recently summed up his feelings by saying "harness racing has lost a good one, an absolute book of knowledge on our history with a character forged on humility and integrity. I served with Bill on the Industry Appeal Board, where his common sense and fairness always shone through...His passing was a real loss to us lifers."

In 1998 Bill officially retired but he was still "on duty". A few years later the miracle of bypass surgery extended his life. He was a Director on the volunteer Board Of Directors with the Grand River Agricultural Society (owner/operator of Grand River Raceway) since 2007. His work on behalf of the K of C continued tirelessly, his attendance at Sunday mass and his voice in the choir at his home Church of St. Boniface in Maryhill was part of his ambitious routine. Despite his somewhat declining health in recent times, he retained his enthusiasm for his family and the things in life that he enjoyed. He was active to the very end. Bill seldom failed to compliment me on the latest Rewind.

The long career of Wm. McDonnell has transcended the ages. When the mobile starting gate revolutionized harness racing Bill was aboard. When soft hats gave way to protective helmets, Bill called the action. When racing under the lights made its debut in Ontario, Bill was high atop Western Fair, often stepping out into the bitter cold to get a better look. When the sport needed a reliable steersman for several decades, Bill was there again. He was one of a handful of people who personally remember first hand both Dufferin Park and Thorncliffe. Even in his retirement years he continued to care, attending annual functions and milestone events.

Today I bid a fond farewell to William, as always our time here is all too short. I will miss him and our friendship, but I am grateful for the time we have shared. I along with many others are better people for having known him. I extend my sympathies to Bill's wife Marlene, their daughters Kelly, Kim and Tracey and everyone in the McDonnell clan as they move on without him. It is my firm belief that once here, we remain as long as anyone remembers us.

Bill's memory will always be close at hand.


Happy Thanksgiving!

I would like to extend my best wishes to everyone in the Rewind reading audience and hope that You have a wonderful Thanksgiving, regardless of how you celebrate it. We all have much to be thankful for, not only now but throughout the year. While Thanksgiving is not associated with gift giving there is always something appropriate for any occasion. Take a moment to tell those around you how much you care about them. Few people care how much you know, but everyone likes to know how much you care.

October 13, 2015 - 8:25 amOnce again Mr. Smith as

Once again Mr. Smith as always you bring us part of the past with your rewind knowledge, as most of us would say, "Those were the good old days". You mentioned Brian Webster, I remember the good old days at Windsor Raceway with Gerald Aikens, Larry, Gordy and Ray Remmen, Brian Webster, George Brown when after the races we would sit down and have a few beers. Brian sure has come a long way compared to those early years, real glad to see that.


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