NDC Contender: Dave Kelly

Published: November 20, 2022 11:10 am EST

The 2022 National Driving Championship (NDC), presented by Standardbred Canada, is inching closer and the field of eight drivers who will compete for the chance to represent Canada is set. Each of the drivers were top performers in their regional event and will compete against the top drivers from across Canada on Nov. 24 at Century Mile in Edmonton, Alta. Trot Insider spoke with each of the contenders about a variety of topics leading up to the big event.  

Dave Kelly is posting career numbers while racing predominantly on tracks that aren't his preference. He has already doubled his best season purse-wise with a current tally of $1.375 million (previous best of $668,000) and his 200 wins has shattered his 2020 total of 122 victories.

While discussing the upcoming 2022 National Driving Championship on Thursday (Nov. 24) at Century Mile, Kelly told Trot Insider that his preferred track configuration is the two-turn oval like the one he'll be driving at later this week.

NDC contender Dave Kelly

*All stats as of Nov. 20, 2022.

"I am personally a bigger fan of the mile than I am of the smaller tracks," said Kelly, the Future Star Award winner from the 2019 O'Brien Awards. "I drive at Fraser and Century Downs; Century’s basically a five-eighths, Fraser's a five-eighths and I grew up on the half-mile tracks back east. I like the mile tracks because you’re getting your horse to go the best mile he can go and you’re not power driving and trying to make it to the turn first. You’re just out there. You can be patient and I think that works to my advantage more than anything."

If that track size matters, so will familiarity with the horses competing. There is only so much a program can tell you, and Kelly's knowledge of the horses involved will play a part in both how he drives in the NDC and the horses he selects.

"I kind of know their tendencies and their strengths and weaknesses, so I might be able to use that to my advantage where the other guys are just getting on for the first time and, you know, even the horses that I don’t get to drive out here regularly, you see them every week so you kind of get a feel for what their strong points are and what they’re not really good at. It gives me a little bit of an insight that they don’t have."

Dave Kelly, winning at Century Mile

Whether that insight can translate into a competition title on Thursday remains to be seen.  But Kelly recalls exactly where he was when fellow Nova Scotia native Sidney Crosby scored the Golden Goal for Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and he's extremely excited to have an opportunity to create that once-in-a-lifetime moment for himself and wear the Canadian colours on a global stage. 

"That’d be probably the coolest thing ever...that’s probably the pinnacle of what anybody wants to do in their career. There’s not a Canadian NHL player that doesn’t want to go to the Olympics and put the Team Canada jersey on."

Standing in his way of achieving that dream are seven of the nation's best: Gilles Barrieau (Atlantic Canada), Marc Campbell (Atlantic Canada), Pascal Berube (Quebec / Eastern Ontario), Samuel Fillion (Quebec / Eastern Ontario), Doug McNair (Ontario), Louis-Philippe Roy (Ontario) and Mike Hennessy (Western Canada).

Hennessy is certainly a known quantity for Kelly. The others, not so much. 

"I got to race against Dougie out here because he came out a couple times for the B.C. stakes. So, I’ve driven against Dougie and Marc and Gilles and obviously, Mike. So, the only new guys I don’t think I’ve driven in a race with are Louis and Pascal and Sam," noted Kelly. "It will be interesting to see just how the dynamic of everybody fits together and those first couple races where heads clash together with driving styles. It’ll be fun to try to play that out."

While Kelly admitted he could reach out to his brother Colin — who competes on the Ontario circuit — for some insight on those unknown quantities, he noted that any scouting reports might not contain relevant data.

"You can watch replays and stuff like that, but it always seems like people’s tendencies go out the window for the first little bit in those [competition] races," said Kelly. "Everybody kind of drives that horse and the adrenaline gets going a little bit more than what it’s used to and you’re maybe pushing the go button a little quicker, a little sooner than you should, so it’ll be interesting to see if their styles hold true to form."

On the topic of form, Kelly has always wanted to visit Europe. Not just to take in the sights, but to watch and study the form of Europe's top trainers.

"I've always wanted to go over. Before I started racing full-time, I always thought about taking like six months and going over to just see the difference in training techniques, see what they do differently than what we do and just kind of compare the two," said Kelly. "I mean, there’s a lot of Swedish and Finnish horsemen that have come over and done really well. There’s obviously a knack to what they do just as much as there is for everybody here in North America. So, it would be cool to get over there and see the different ways that they train and they kind of run their barn."

While observing, Kelly would likely also have some questions regarding driving as well. In the World Driving Championship host countries, trotting is the predominant gait. In Alberta, there are no trotters.

"I’ve trained trotters before, but I’ve never actually drove a trotter in a race so for me, it’d be a first for Europe and a first for trotters, so it’ll make it really interesting."

Looking ahead to Thursday, Kelly provided insight on his strategy for the NDC competition races and how he's adapted — and hopefully learned — from his previous driving challenge experiences.

"This year here for Regionals, I took it race-by-race," said Kelly. "I look at the program and I think I probably have a pretty good shot to be third, but I need something to work in my favour to be first or second. I tried to drive to make sure I'd get that third and then, hopefully, you know you have a little luck and you do end up second or first if a couple of guys get into a battle here or there. I found I did  better that way than the first time I competed in Regionals, I tried to win every race and it didn’t quite work as well."

Fans of harness racing saw Kelly in action when the Standardbreds returned to Century Mile on Friday (Nov. 18). He picked up a pair of wins and finished in the top four in 10 of his 11 outings. Similar results this Thursday could punch his ticket to Europe.

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