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Gelrod Reflects On Bill Robinson

Published: December 27, 2020 11:10 pm ET

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Bill Robinson and Monte Gelrod have been associated with some of harness racing's most revered performers from the latter part of the 20th century. Gelrod recently chatted with Trot Insider for a reflection of an individual that he feels was very misunderstood during his heyday.

One of the most prolific trainers in Canadian harness racing history, William (Bill) Robinson passed away on Friday (Dec. 11) at the age of 74.

"He suffered from Parkinson's for six, seven years now. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's, and when you look up Parkinson's and read about it, that's the time they usually give you ... they say six, seven, eight years," noted Gelrod. "The last year or two has not been good for him at all — back and forth to the doctors and switching medications — it's not Bill Robinson. We all remember Bill Robinson -- big, stout, strong man, and it just took its toll and got the best of him."

Gelrod recalled how he and Robinson first became acquainted, with an inquiry about a horse that Robinson was campaigning at Greenwood Raceway in the 1980s while Gelrod was working as a pit boss in Atlantic City.

"When I was a kid, I was in the horse business, then I went to work in the gaming business. I kind of met Bill over the phone. A friend of mine was working in the race office at Greenwood, and she would send me programs. I would go through the programs because I thought that, for me to break back into the horse business I thought I would want to be an agent, which eventually I was as well as training when I was with Bill.

"I made a phone call -- I didn't know Bill Robinson from the man in the moon -- I made a phone call to the owners of the horse, Matt Daly and his brothers. I called them to see if they wanted to sell the horse while I was still working in Atlantic City, and they said, 'Well, to be honest with you, he could be for sale, but you need to call his trainer, Bill Robinson.' They gave me his number. I called Bill, started to talk to Bill, and he goes, 'Well, to be honest with you, he could be for sale, but he's got a real, real, real bad knee. I'm not sure if you'd want to recommend selling that horse to somebody.'"

Gelrod was pleasantly surprised by the candour.

"I said to myself at the time, 'This guy is either the most honest person in the world with me or he's just making up a story about some issue that the horse has and they don't want to sell him.' So, I left it at that and followed the horse. In his second start after that discussion, he broke his knee. I got a call back from Bill, and Bill said, 'Good thing I told you about that horse.'

"We started a discussion, and he said, 'If that's what you want to do, buy and sell horses, I've got a lot of owners here that are looking for horses. I've never really broken into the stake game; I'm kind of a homebody. And Bill always was a homebody; he never wanted to leave Hagersville, Ont., to be honest with you."

And so it began; Robinson would send horses to Gelrod for stateside stakes engagements, and the duo enjoyed nearly unprecedented success in the early to mid 1990s. With that success came questions that prompted many, in the eyes of Gelrod, to jump to conclusions and create assumptions that weren't true.

Bill Robinson, Precious Bunny and Pam Schmidt in a 1991 photo taken for the Toronto Star's Santa Claus Fund after owner Peter Heffering donated $5,000 to the fund in Precious Bunny's name

"Bill was, to me, a very, very misunderstood person in the business. People thought Bill was very egotistical, but that is such the opposite. He was just such an introverted person that, if you sat next to Bill and he knew you, he wouldn't say two words to you only because that's Bill. But, start a conversation with him, and you wouldn't be able to shut him up. That's how introverted he was. He was always kind of on the shy side, and his boys were a total reflection of that, too.

"Bill was quiet, but he'd give you the shirt off his back," stated Gelrod. "You call up Bill and ask 'What do you think I should do with this horse?' He'd help anybody. When I hooked up with Bill, I trained horses, but I never did a day's worth of good in the business. I really didn't know a horse very well. But what Bill taught me about horses...the man understood horses and routines and rigging."

Robinson and Gelrod established a bar for earnings on the training side that many felt would not and could not be touched, until one U.S.-based trainer shattered all earnings records and continues to set new standards.

"Ron Burke came up to me at the baby races this past summer at Gaitway Farm. We got talking, and he said, 'When I was at The Meadows with my father and my brother, we were watching what you and Bill were accomplishing. We used to look at each other and say, Some day, we're going to get there.' And God bless him, he has. Ron Burke is a force in the industry. But back then, what we did, $12 million in one year -- in 1993 -- between the United States and Canada? No Standardbred stable even thought about making that kind of money. It was the first time that the leading Standardbred stable made more than the leading Thoroughbred stable. Bobby Frankel made, I think, $11-point-something million that year, and we made $12 million. He read about it in The Blood-Horse, and he called Bill to congratulate him."

When Robinson excelled, according to Gelrod, was simply understanding the horse.

"The first thing he used to tell me, was, 'Kid, just take all the rigging off. Get the shadow roll, get the head poles off, get the boots off. Drop their head 14 holes, let their hopples out, and start from there.' He was always a big believer that horsemen are way too quick to put on rigging. If we raced a million horses, maybe two of them wore shadow rolls. These horsemen nowadays, you're training a horse and they'll step over a shadow, rather than wait for that horse to show you that he's going to do that four, five, six more times, they'll throw a big shadow roll on him.

"Billy O'Donnell said it best: 'You always knew when you were driving a Robinson/Gelrod horse because you couldn't see the horse's ears during the race.'"

Monte Gelrod (second from left) in the winner's circle after winning the 1999 Breeders Crown win Red Bow Tie

Besides horsemanship, Gelrod noted that Robinson also taught him a lot about life.

"Anybody that knows me knows I was a person with -- for lack of words -- a bad temper. I've since then grown up. Bill, I'd talk to him on the phone — he'd harness me when it was time to harness me, 'Calm down, relax, it's nothing.' He would just let individuals be themselves. Just a great guy and a great horseman."

While acknowledging Robinson's record isn't spotless, Gelrod still feels Robinson's resume is worthy of Hall of Fame induction.

"It's kind of ludicrous that he's not, as far as I'm concerned. And I might be biased because of my relationship with him and what the man has done for me in my life, but really, when you sit down and look at statistics and races won and money won year after year after year, the man deserves to be in the Hall of Fame."

Those statistics -- 2,738 wins, $54,842,872 in purse money -- with multiple O'Brien Awards and divisional champions on both sides of the border, place Robinson among harness racing's leaders. Very few major races eluded the duo but Gelrod was quick to recall the ones that got away.

"The one race that ducked us was the Hambletonian — we were second in it, third in the Hambletonian Oaks — never won the Hambletonian. We were second in the Jugette seven times, but won the Jug with Precious Bunny. He was the horse that launched us into the Grand Circuit, and then it just went on and on.

"Bill had wonderful, loyal owners. Weren't afraid to spend their money, and bought some really nice horses through the years."

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