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From Keener To ‘Capper

Published: March 31, 2020 4:48 pm ET

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With a very light schedule of harness racing taking place throughout the world right now, it was easy to catch up with lifelong harness racing fan and bettor Melissa Keith.

A recent winner of the 2019 John Hervey Award (for feature writing) at the Annual Dan Patch Awards, Keith, of Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia, had been a recent addition to the ‘Bettors’ Corner’ featured on the Ontario Racing website.

Keith’s Friday night in-depth analysis for The Raceway at Western Fair District was just starting to heat up when, all of a sudden, Ontario harness racing came to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “My favourite win of the season was Rubber Knows beating Dan Dar Mal on that final Friday night card (March 13),” Keith explained. “She was my Ontario Racing ‘Spot Play’ of the night on the Bettors’ Corner and she’d return $50.90 to win!”

Keith’s interest in harness racing goes back to the days of Sackville Downs, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, attending the races with her dad and brothers. “I can remember my elementary school class getting a tour of the backstretch, back in the day, as well. I became fascinated by these amazing animals and the unique world of the racetrack.

“Sackville Downs had incredible crowds and handle up until it closed in the 1980s, so simply attending the races was enough to cultivate a strong interest in harness racing. There were several stars at the time who captured everyone’s imagination: Winners Accolade, Waveore and Angels Shadow were the ‘big three.’ When my dad signed me up for riding lessons, naturally I was paired up with a retired Standardbred pacer (Starshot Lobell). I took some heat for occasionally letting him pace fast under saddle on the farm’s training track!”

After many years of watching and wagering on the horses around the Maritimes, Keith was bound to find a few favourites along the way. “My favourite racehorses, past and present, is a long list! The first horse that I really followed closely was a pacer who came to Sackville Downs, from Sudbury Downs, in the 1980s: a good-looking pacing stallion named Syd Grattan. Carl Jamieson trained and drove him. Many years later I learned Syd Grattan was the horse Carl credited with really getting his career moving forward. There was also a trotting stallion by the name of Sunbound who was driven and also trained, I believe, by Ken Arsenault (not the Kenny Arsenault still active on PEI). I cheered for him trackside every race and he was the first horse I ever got out for a winner’s circle photo with. They weren’t the winningest or fastest horses at Sackville Downs, but they were charismatic and exciting to watch. My dad’s friend Charlie Piper bought a grey gelding by Smog named Irish Fog and I became a fan of this pacer as well.”


Melissa Keith, pictured at Standardbred Canada’s O’Brien Awards Gala.

It’s years later now, and after learning to play the horses growing up around Sackville Downs, we asked: When was it that Keith would actually stumble upon The Raceway at Western Fair District as a betting option? “My earliest memory of The Raceway is watching and wagering with my dad at the Sackville Superbowl OTB and finding out that it was a tough track to handicap! And then I wasn’t following racing so much, during my university years, because there was no track around and no online wagering yet, but I got drawn back into it immediately in the Moni Maker era. I remember going to Champions OTB on Bloor Street, on a Sunday morning, to watch her in the Prix d’Amerique. She was one of a kind!

“This year is tough, with horses sidelined now right as the Grand Circuit races were scheduled to start with the MGM Borgata (formerly George Morton Levy) and Blue Chip Matchmakers Series at Yonkers. It was disappointing, but understandable when The Raceway closed as a coronavirus precaution back on March 19… So my favourite ‘active’ horses, right now, are hopefully going to come back strong: Gimpanzee, Shartin N and hopefully Bold Eagle makes it back to North America.”

Looking back on some favourites at The Raceway at Western Fair District, Keith says she really enjoyed the 2014 edition of the Molson Pace. “That race featured such a gutsy effort by State Treasurer. He had a rough start and had to close from last for a three-horse photo finish with Foiled Again and Apprentice Hanover. He got there just in time! Scott Coulter is probably my favourite driver at The Raceway; he seems to get the best from any horse and rates horses so well on the front end. From past Western Fair drivers, Dave Wall and Trevor Ritchie both obviously went on to have great careers with great trotters… I associate them with Goodtimes and Peaceful Way, two of the best trotters I’ve ever seen race.

“Past performers Button Up and Lady Latte were a couple of my Raceway favourites as well. Before the COVID-19 hiatus, I was enjoying the emerging rivalry among Windsong Ophelia, Warrawee Usain and Super T – three talented young trotters who were ready to duke it out again on March 20, which ended up being cancelled. Talbot Eh Plus has probably been my favourite horse this season. She’s won half her starts, racing respectably at Woodbine Mohawk Park and dominating at the mile distance on a half.”

And one last bit from Keith on handicapping The Raceway: “Handicapping The Raceway for Ontario Racing has really highlighted the quality winter racing at Western Fair. Wagering is up, which reflects that as well. Favourites often win, but there is value to be found and that last turn is always full of suspense. I’ll be looking forward to another Camluck Classic, but more than that, I’ll be looking forward to the return of the regular London races that keep the sport rolling.”

(Shannon ‘Sugar’ Doyle for The Raceway at Western Fair District)


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