view counter
view counter

SC Rewind: O'Briens & Awards Nights

Published: January 28, 2017 8:45 am ET

No Comments | Jump to Comments

In this week's Rewind Robert Smith adopts an "O'Brien Awards" theme. His piece presents a short reminiscence about the late Joe O'Brien and also includes some vintage photos from award nights long before the advent of the modern day get-togethers.

Tonight is a very special night on the calendar of Canadian Harness Racing. The very prestigious O'Brien awards will be handed out to a precious few owners, drivers, trainers and various others who have stood at the head of their class during the 2016 racing season. They have been privileged in some way to be associated with greatness. It is an honour that is not taken lightly and one that places the award receiver in very special company; for some it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Along with each award goes a trip into the long and colourful history of our sport.

Way back some 28 years ago in 1989, the O'Brien Awards were conceived and in 1990 the first group of recipients felt the thrill of holding one of these prestigious awards based on the 1989 season. Thankfully many of those folks are still with us; a goodly number are still actively involved, striving to add yet another trophy.

After a long and in-depth study, the name for these awards was chosen to commemorate an extremely great horseman named Joseph Cyril O'Brien. Mr. O'Brien passed away on September 24, 1984, obviously unaware that his name would live on in such a meaningful way. "Gentleman Joe" as he was often called, was a man of humble beginnings and the early lessons in life and horsemanship stayed with him forever. After leaving home at the age of 18 with just $6 in his pocket, he eventually molded himself into one of the sport's most memorable and accomplished performers.

Left: A very early photo of Joe O'Brien taken by famed harness racing photographer and Journalist Jerry Shively [Hoof Beats]. Right: Joe O'Brien is shown in the winner's circle following a victory at Lexington's Red Mile with Armbro O'Brien, a name with obvious inspiration. Joining him are owners Elgin and Vivian Armstrong. This trio were long-time friends in addition to their business relationship

The following passage is a short excerpt from a previous Rewind written about Mr. O'Brien a couple of years ago.

"From the small dusty tracks of Prince Edward Island and other Maritime locales emerged not only a great horseman but an equally fine and upstanding man. From a time when a few dollars was considered a successful day's work to the pomp and frills of winning races like The Little Brown Jug and The Hambletonian came Joseph O'Brien, the ultimate professional. The decision to name Canada's top awards​​ after him​ in harness racing ​ was a fitting choice and one that will surely stand the test of time. It is based on his overall superb combination of talent, endurance and lifetime dedication to his chosen profession.​"​

The first ever O'Brien award was presented to Ilene O'Brien, the widow of Joe O'Brien on the evening of January 20, 1990 at the inaugural gathering. Doing the presentation is Stan Bergstein, harness racing icon. The awards now in their third decade seem to grow in stature year after year.


The following is a random collection of old presentation photos at various functions in the years prior to the advent of the now famous O'Brien Award galas. Following the photos is a short description of the history behind the presentation of trophies.

Max Webster (centre) representing the O.R.C. makes a presentation to the sport's top two drivers Gilles LaChance (left) and Ron Feagan in this 1968 photo. Feagan led the nation with 213 wins, LaChance had 206, both considered huge numbers back then.


The family of Dr. Glen Brown are shown as the great mare Fan Hanover is honoured with a trophy in this 1982 scene. From left: Kim Sawatsky (family friend) daughter Lynne Brown, Gord Sherwin representing O.H.H.A., Dr. Glen Brown, Mrs. Pat Brown, daughter-in-law Emily Brown and Glen's son, her husband Jim Brown (in back) and front right are Pat's sister Gwen and her husband Bob Munro [Harness Horse]


Wm. Galvin, long-time O.J.C. Publicity personality, presents an award to horseman Wm. Wellwood and his wife Jean in this shot taken around 1970.


​At the 1973 C.T.A. Awards dinner ​in Toronto. The connections of Jambo Barb accept the three-year-old trotter award from 2nd V.P. James LeLacheur of Edmonton on the far left, next is Donald Richardson, John Rowe and trainer-driver and co-owner Ray Ellicott on the far right. The filly was a seven-time winner and banked $34,613 in a Canadian campaign.


​On the left George Feagan, co-owner of H. A. Meadowland p, 3, 1:58 2/5 with his grandson, Ron, receives the CTA Three-Year-Old ​Pacer of the Year ​silver tray​ from John J. Mooney of the​ Ontario​ Jockey Club, Lt​d. This award was earned during the 1967 season, now 50 years ago.

A short note about the presentation of trophies in horse racing, from the writings of Daniel Denton found in an English newspaper following a visit to America.

The awarding of silver objects in North American horse racing is believed to date back to around 1668. This first silver cup referred to as a porringer (the dictionary describes a porringer as a small shallow bowl) is on display to this day at Yale University. While this was for thoroughbred races, the same practice was later adopted by harness racing.

The following short passage describes the circumstances under which the initial silver cup was awarded at what is believed to be America's first racecourse called "Newmarket Course" located near Hempstead, New York. This was not far from the eventual location of the fabled Roosevelt Raceway.

"Toward the middle of the island lieth a plain sixteen miles long and four broad, where you will find neither stick nor stone to hinder the horses' heels, or endanger them in their races. And once a year the best horses in the land are brought hither to try their swiftness. The swiftest are rewarded with a silver cup."

view counter

© 2021 Standardbred Canada. All rights reserved. Use of this site signifies your agreement and compliance with the legal disclaimer and privacy policy.

Firefox 3 Best with IE 7 Built with Drupal