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Fleming: 'It's Even More Special'

Published: July 19, 2021 11:50 am ET

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Nearly a dozen years after his most recent training win, Leo Fleming landed back in the winner's enclosure with Marlbank Road this March. And now, with Marlbank Road having won again and two-year-old trotter Three Finger Pour off to a respectable start on the Ontario Sires Stakes Grassroots circuit, Fleming has thoroughly relished the opportunity to be back in a hands-on role in the sport he loves.

Marlbank Road and Three Finger Pour are two of the 12 horses Fleming currently owns, and also two of a handful under his direct care since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic led to his return to the training ranks. But, even when he was making the three-hour daily round trip from his Campbellville, Ont., home to downtown Toronto for his executive job with a major hospitality company, Fleming never let his involvement on the backstretch lapse.

"I was the owner that was out there on his holidays and days off training his own horses, jogging them, looking after them," Fleming, who serves as the vice president of asset management for InnVest Hotels, told Trot Insider. "I had been like that for a while, and then ... this year was kind of interesting."

Fleming, who grew up on a farm near Tweed, Ont. — an 80-minute drive east from Kawartha Downs — got his first taste of harness racing at age 14, when he paddocked Standardbreds for his neighbour at the now-defunct raceways in Quinte, Belleville and Kingston. In the time since, he got married, raised three children, and worked his way up the ranks in the hospitality industry to his current position, staying active as a hands-on owner all the while — until much of the hospitality industry screeched to a standstill a year ago. For Fleming, the change of pace — chiefly by way of the lack of a daily and unpredictable time-consuming commute from Campbellville into the heart of Toronto's bustling business district — opened a window for him to jump head-first back into training.

"We have about 100 hotels, and I look after all the renovations to the hotels," he explained. "They could be in Vancouver, they could be in Québec City, they could be in Halifax, so I'm flying all over and hiring all the people, and I have a team to manage the projects. This year, everything hit the brakes with COVID, so it gave me this opportunity where, instead of me commuting three hours because our office was right beside the Royal York downtown across from Union Station — I used to commute three hours from Campbellville in there every day, an hour and a half each way — I had those three hours back, and that gave me the opportunity to train some myself this year."

For someone who is used to being on the go constantly and flying to and from properties from Vancouver to Halifax and everywhere in between, training enabled Fleming to stay busy while his 'day job' transitioned to a more remote setup:

"It was good for me, because it gave me something to do," Fleming continued. "I think I would have been very restless — used to travelling all the time, and then being told that you have to work from home and stay still that much."

With the new-found spare time he enjoyed over the past year not having to endure lengthy at, at times, unpredictable commutes, Fleming decided to re-establish a small string of his own with partners Bill Manes, Steve Papillon, Gerald Lilley and Bill Cripps, who share in various combinations on Marlbank Road — who broke maiden in 1:53.1 in March and recently won again on June 29 at Georgian Downs — and a pair of rookies, including the aforementioned Three Finger Pour, who closed respectably to finish fifth of 11 in his career debut, a $22,850 Grassroots event at Woodbine Mohawk Park, on Thursday (July 15).

A back-row start didn't do Three Finger Pour any early favours — nor did stalled third-over cover, but as soon as Phil Hudon angled him three-wide around a struggling Real Cool Moves with three-eighths of the mile remaining, the Muscle Mass-Jayport Sweetheart colt accelerated to close significant ground and finish fifth — only three lengths in arrears of favoured winner Feel The Force.

The decision to start him in stakes company came after two promising qualifiers, the latter a 2:01 win at Mohawk on July 2.

"I was very happy with him after the first one because I knew he had lots of trot," Fleming said. "Just making him mind his manners, and it was educational. So, it was good. I expected him to go a good mile in the second one, and he did."

Meanwhile, Marlbank Road has just started to make up for lost time after an ankle injury cost him his two-year-old season, getting in the win column on March 25 in his fourth career start and winning again on June 29 at Georgian Downs. After a 10th-place finish in his Ontario Sires Stakes Grassroots debut on July 10, the son of Sportswriter is slated to race again on Tuesday (July 20) in an $8,600 conditioned event at Georgian.

As Canada works its way out of the pandemic and back to 'normal life,' Fleming is seeing the hospitality industry return to a sense of pre-pandemic activity. But how that shift in activity will relate to Fleming's ability to continue training — he anticipates being back in his scaled-back downtown Toronto office two days a week come September — remains to be seen:

"We're just starting to see things recover," he said. "We had a huge project in Québec City at our Hilton we're just finishing, and this is one of the first weeks where we're actually seeing a hotel feel pre-pandemic time, so it's positive on that side.

"For me, as it relates to training horses myself, we'll have to see what happens. So I'll be training them until some time in September, and then I may have to either hire someone to help me or move the horses to other trainers so they can take over full-time."

Regardless, Fleming's new hybrid work schedule will still enable him to maintain some semblance of hands-on experience until he can commit himself to the sport on a full-time basis again come retirement.

"I know it will allow me to be more involved with the horse that I was," he shared. "For me, this is the stepping to retirement. After retirement, I would like to train three or four of my own. This has been a trial run for me; I quite enjoyed it."

And, given the early potential shown by Three Finger Pour and Marlbank Road, Fleming can almost assuredly bank on more training wins — and the unique feeling of being so directly associated with that success.

"As an owner, when your horse wins, you get a lot of satisfaction," he said. "But, as somebody who's there every day working and looking after those animals, it's even more special."

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