Horse owner, Jim Walker, waited more than 30 years to be named an O’Brien Award finalist.
When the day finally arrived, Walker was stuck on an airplane, desperately trying to get back in time. By Chris Lomon
Jim Walker had waited over 30 years for the moment – the opportunity to hear the name of one of his horse’s called on the evening that crowns Canada’s standardbred champions. And he got his wish. It just wasn’t in the way he expected.
Well before January 28, the date set aside to fete the 2016 O’Brien Award winners, Walker and his wife, Anne, had made plans to vacation in Costa Rica, which meant they wouldn’t be in attendance at the annual gala that takes place in Mississauga, Ontario.
Walker, a long-time horseman from Port Perry, Ontario, knew Mass Production, the ultra-consistent son of Muscle Mass he co-owns, had a legitimate shot of being recognized as the country’s best two-year-old trotter. The only thing standing in his way of hearing the bay’s name announced live? Nearly five hours of flight time and almost 3,800 kilomteres.
“It was one of those things where we booked the trip well in advance, at some point last summer,” recalled Walker. “I’ve been in horse racing 32 years and never really had to work around the O’Brien Awards – unfortunately – in the past. We’ve had some nice horses along the way, but no O’Brien nominees. It’s great to be nominated, but once you are, you definitely want to win. What happened was that we ended up getting back into Toronto very late, right at the end of the awards night.”
Walker had plenty of time to wonder if Mass Production had indeed copped top honours in his category. After an agonizing wait, he finally got his answer on the Toronto Pearson International runway.
“You always hope you’re going to win,” admitted Walker. “When you’re on a plane, you don’t have Wi-Fi. As soon as the plane landed, the announcement came on that you could use your phone again. I went immediately online and checked it out. I was pretty happy. It made for a nice drive home, knowing he’d won. There was nice competition and you just never know. There are no guarantees, so it was a very pleasant surprise.”
A surprise that was also accompanied by several congratulatory voicemail and text messages, including one that Walker, who currently co-owns 20 standardbreds, received the following morning.
“I’ve had horses with Garth Gordon forever and I got a text from him the next day saying, ‘You’ve been in horse racing 30 years and you finally win an O’Brien. You can go on vacation any time and you a win O’Brien maybe once.’ He was needling me, giving me a hard time. Hopefully, it isn’t the last one we win, but it very well could be.”
Mass Production might have something to say about that.
The gelding produced several big performances in 2016. Bred by Stan Klemenic, he won five of nine starts and netted in excess of $285,000 in his rookie campaign. Highlights included four Ontario Sires Stakes (OSS) triumphs, capped off by a sizzling 1:54.4 stakes record effort in the OSS Super Final.
Rick Zeron trains, drives and co-owns (along with Walker, Bruno Dipoce and Rene Allard) the $32,000 purchase at the 2015 Canadian Yearling Sale.
“He was the first one we purchased that year and he was purchased at the [Standardbred Canada] sale in Flamboro,” recalled Walker. “We didn’t pay a ton of money. There were others that we bought - if we had to pick out who would be an O’Brien winner at that point – that stood out more than Mass Production. He was a little lost early on in his career. When he had the lead and wasn’t chasing, he’d seem a little lost. A lot of young horses can be like that. But at the end of the year, he had matured a bit and we knew he was pretty good. When he set that mark in the OSS Super Final – and won by nearly nine lengths – I wasn’t expecting that. But, it’s all worked out very well. He’s a really nice horse.”
Walker has had some other nice ones of note over the years, including a bay son of Real Desire who contested the 2013 Little Brown Jug.
“We still have Resistance Futile with Blair Burgess,” noted Walker, of the now seven-year-old pacer. “I think he probably – not to take away anything from Vegas Vacation – could have won the Jug that year. He won his elimination (at 24-1) in 1.49.3, and then was second over in the stretch in the final. I’m not saying he would have gone past Vegas Vacation, but there was a chance. But, he made a break and it was at the worst possible time. It was disappointing. He had some quirks and made some breaks over his career. He should have done a lot better, but he had a mind of his own at that point.”
Resistance Futile, after only making three starts in 2016, has already won twice during the 2017 Woodbine winter meet for owners Walker and the Burgess Stable, in rein to Burgess’ son Taylor.
Hensell Hanover, a bay son of Albatross, banked nearly $500,000 in a whopping 189 career starts, contesting the Little Brown Jug and Meadowlands Pace, both in 1995.
“He won the American National and the Canadian Juvenile [at Blue Bonnets],” recalled Walker. “He was second in the elimination of the Meadowlands Pace. He got injured during fireworks and banged his knee against the stall. He was in the final (finishing 10th), but he just wasn’t himself.”
Hensell Hanover was also second in his heat of the Jug, before finishing fourth in the final behind winner Nicks Fantasy.
Walker did, however, experience some good fortune with a horse he owned in the early 90s, who went by the name of Majoritys Captain. He owned one-third of the pacing son of Silent Majority, in partnership with Garth Gordon and Robert Lee. The trio made the decision to sell the bay after receiving a lucrative offer.
“We paid $14,000 for him in Harrisburg,” noted Walker. “We ended up getting a really nice offer. The good part for me was that I was able to pay my mortgage off and then spend some money on some other nice horses.”
These days, Walker, who co-owns horses with Zeron, Burgess, Bob McIntosh, Mike Saftic and Ohio-based trainer Garry Martin, is enjoying the standardbred life as much as he ever has. It certainly helps when you have a rising star like Mass Production in the fold.
“To me, it doesn’t matter if you own 50 per cent, 33 per cent, or whatever,” said Walker, who owns Tim Hortons restaurants in Oshawa and Whitby. “If the horse wins, that’s still a big kick.”
Perhaps his now three-year-old trotting talent can deliver a few more thrills, both on and off the racetrack.
One look at past O’Brien Award winners on the Standardbred Canada website, and it’s obvious that repeating from age two to three in the trotting colt division is no easy feat. It’s a rare double that hasn’t been achieved since Armbro Officer was successful doing so in 1995 and 1996.
“Next year, we probably won’t be nominated and I’ll be watching the feed to see who else wins,” Walker said with a laugh. “You can always hope, whether it’s Mass Production repeating, or another one you have.”
For now, he’s content in knowing he’ll soon have a treasured piece of hardware to add to his office.
“I have a space in my office waiting for the O’Brien trophy.”
Walker also has vacation plans set for Costa Rica next year. “It’s in March, so this time, I’ll be around for the awards,” he noted.
And perhaps he’ll have a horse to punch his ticket to the big night.