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'Virtual Tack Room' Remembers Careers

Published: May 30, 2020 11:19 pm ET

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Champions of Canadian harness racing were honoured in a trip down memory lane on the final episode of ‘Virtual Tack Room’, a show produced by Universum Media and put on by members of Prince Edward Island’s harness racing industry to shed light on the industry while racing across North America remains dark during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Clarkie Smith, joined hosts Lee Drake and Peter MacPhee of Red Shores along with race historian Jerry McCabe to look back on his long driving career in harness racing. Brent MacGrath, Reg Petitpas, Paul MacDonell also joined the show to talk about the memory and legacy of Somebeachsomewhere, and Mike O’Brien later joined the show to pay tribute to star horseman Joe O’Brien.

Smith, one of four boys and a girl from his family, began by recounting his family’s history in the sport alongside photos taken back during Smith’s time racing. The first photo was of Smith’s father winning a race against Clarkie, who finished third and out of frame in the photo finish. The second was of a race Clarkie’s father lost on the wire to a horse driven by Lloyd O’Brien, brother to hall of famer Joe O’Brien.

“Now Lloyd had a bunch of good horses out at Halifax at that time,” Smith said, “and he went to Maine and then he went to Foxboro. He was killed in a bad car accident just when he was starting to get real popular. It was a sad thing. I didn’t know him but dad did know him and they said he was a real good fellow and a good driver. On the back of that photo you’ll see some writing that my mother put on. She said ‘Dad went to sleep!’ He was coming down the stretch and thought he had it all won, [but] then Lloyd came up on the outside and beat him. I didn’t bother arguing with him over that.”

Smith, with a career spanning more than three decades, also spoke about his memories of winning his first pari-mutuel race.

“I can remember the first drive [I had] was in Chatham, New Brunswick was [with] a horse called Bounty Hunter,” Smith said. “It was a three-dash affair; there were three heats. Donny Simmonds, a friend of mine, we took from here up to Chatham for an early closer. It was quite an afternoon—three heats—and I was lucky enough to win the first two, and the third heat I got beat—I finished second. I don’t know who was tiredest: the horse or me. But it was a big day, and it was one race—you’ll never forget your first win but that day we were lucky enough to win two heats and finish second.”

Clarkie made his debut in the Island’s signature race, the Gold Cup & Saucer, in 1962 with a horse named Tammany Hal, trained by Stanley Mayo for whom at the time Smith also worked. Smith discussed his memories of first getting to race in the classic event, which at the time also had the richest purse for which he ever competed.

“Another fellow got that horse from Saint Johns and raced him Monday night,” Smith said. “After that race, Stanley and Jack Brown bought him and they put him in the Gold Cup and I raced him. It was two heats, and [in] the first heat there was a bad accident in the first race. If you had a scorecard there were two or three horses who didn’t finish, and I was lucky enough to miss it and finish second.

“Then we had to go out in the second heat—and there was a horse in there called Bob Brooks and Greg MacDonald was driving him… he was one that went down in the accident. They got him back up and got him ready. Today he would’ve been scratched because he went down, but we went out for the second heat and we left out of there. I finished second again. I was pretty proud of myself finishing two-two. I thought that was better than a one-three or a DNF-one.”

Later trainer Brent MacGrath talked about the beginnings of Schooner Stables as well as the campaign of Somebeachsomewhere.

“I was looking for a group of people we could throw a couple dollars in,” MacGrath said on forming Schooner Stables. “If we didn’t have any luck, it wasn’t going to be all that serious or nobody was going to miss any meals or education. That’s all you had to do to qualify and it was a really good group.”

After purchasing Somebeachsomewhere for $40,000 from the 2006 Lexington Selected Yearling Sale, MacGrath spoke of training the colt down at Truro as well as the moment when he first thought the later world champion had Grand Circuit potential.

“When we first took him to Mohawk that summer [of 2007]—he was heading up to start in the Gold Series and then the Battle of Waterloo was the first plan. Obviously I had a relationship with Paul [MacDonell] and I had been telling Paul about him all along that I was high on him. [But] Paul [and] most of the drivers hear that from most trainers all winter. I thought we should go a mile in [1]:58—take a couple seconds in for the track change.

“I remember handing the lines to Paul and going to the grandstand so I had a good vantage point. I timed him—I had the watch on him of course. I saw the first quarter in 33 seconds and I’m saying ‘What are we doing here? We must be going another trip.’ He came a back half in :55, went a mile in [1]:58. I remember running down—it looked pretty impressive [and he] looked pretty comfortable to me. I knew that drivers spend some of their time talking the trainers and the owners down a little bit because most of us overrate our horses, [but] I remember the first question Paul asked me was if he was paid into the Metro. That was music to my ears.”

Reg Petitpas, another member of the Schooner Stable, talked of his favourite moments owning Somebeachsomewhere, including one race the son of Mach Three won that he feels was the horse’s best.

“One of his best races for me definitely was the Messenger,” Petitpas said. “Of course we all know the way Yonkers races—if you draw inside, you definitely have a bigger chance than somebody drawing the outside, and ‘Beach’ had drawn the outside that night. You had to be there to see it, but it was pouring rain. I mean from the grandstand you could hardly see the horses on the track. Of course Beach put [in] a performance of his life as far as I’m concerned; to me, that was his best race ever.”

Somebeachsomewhere’s driver Paul MacDonell followed to talk about his memories of the Hall of Fame horse. One memory of MacDonell’s was of the power Somebeachsomewhere brought more off the track than on the track.

“It was just something you didn’t see prior to that—maybe with Niatross, I was a little young at the time. He gathered a following that you wouldn’t believe with the press—they were always wanting a glimpse of him. I can even remember in the fall when we went to Red Mile… people came from all over just to get a glimpse of him—they want to watch him train, they wanted to be [near] him before the race, after the race… just to see him up close. That was really special for all of us, everybody was enthralled with that. Even to this day, there’s rarely a week that goes by when someone doesn’t come along or either mention him or have a poster or a card or something for me to sign. It’s just amazing 12 years later I’m being asked for autographs on a poster.”

Mike O’Brien, nephew to Joe O’Brien, joined to close the show talking about the legacy of his uncle along with his family of horsemen. O’Brien brought with him many pictures from Joe O’Brien’s career, talking of his uncle’s start in the business to his move to Atlantic Canada to becoming the second trainer for Castleton Farms. Along with Mike O’Brien aired a recording of Joe O’Brien talking on a radio show in 1983 called ‘Island Sports Rap’ about the greatest horses with which he’s ever associated.

“I have always thought Scott Frost was the greatest horse I ever drove,” Joe O’Brien said in the recording. “I bought him as a yearling and had him all his life. He was the first horse in history to ever win a race in two minutes—he was the first two-year-old, either trotter or pacer. He was a very, very fast horse and was such a good-mannered horse. I think perhaps if I had him today I could win a couple million dollars in one year with him… at that time we raced for very small purses.”

Mike O’Brien also talked about the honour his family felt when in 1990 the annual Canadian harness racing awards were renamed the O’Brien Awards, as well as the honour of having the O’Brien Awards held in Charlottetown in 2014—the 25th anniversary of the O’Briens.

“We were very pleased that [the awards] came to P.E.I. and of course we’re very honoured and proud about Joe’s accomplishments; what he achieved over the years. And I have to give a shoutout to Kent Oakes because at that time Kent was on the board of Standardbred Canada [and] he was in a position to do something and he did do something. The event was very successful… to my understanding it was the largest crowd ever. It meant a lot to people who probably who would never get to be there in Toronto. It was so ceremonial the way they do everything. We were very pleased.”

This week’s episode served as the last of the series. However Lee Drake said at the start of the program that the ‘Virtual Tack Room’ could return in the foreseeable future but that production will halt for now. The episode was produced by Universum Media and is available for viewing below.


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