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SC Rewind: The Start Of 'Magic'

Published: July 31, 2021 10:59 am ET

Last Comment: August 5, 2021 4:13 pm ET | 10 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

In this week's Rewind Robert Smith looks back some 40 years to recall a milestone event in harness racing history. That year, which was 1981, a then 33-year-old Canadian born horseman became the first driver in history to win over $4 million in purses in a single year. That fellow was Maritime-born William "the Magic Man" O' Donnell. This Rewind also covers some other milestones in Bill's fabulous career as well as some recollections of his first good horse.


The "Magic" Man (Photo courtesy of Northeast Harness News)

William O’Donnell set a new money mark in 1981 when he became the first harness driver to win over $4 million in a single year. O’Donnell was born on May 4, 1948 in the small coal mining town of Springhill, Nova Scotia. He was brought up in the business as his father was a horse trainer for most of his life as well as working in the mines. “I wanted to drive harness horses more than anything in life. I was fortunate to have some very good teachers as my father and uncles both drove and taught me lessons that have stayed with me over the years.” He also spent some time on the Ontario circuit as a caretaker in the Wm. Wellwood stable; a pretty good way to learn as well.

Married and a father at a young age, O'Donnell soon found that it became increasingly difficult to survive on the small purses paid for training and racing in the Maritimes. This prompted a move to the States when an opening became available in the powerful Jim Doherty Stable then located at Rockingham Park in 1970.

The William O’Donnell Stable was opened the following year but things were pretty lean to start, until Pete and Iva Gray needed a trainer to take their stallion Travelin Boy to Rosecroft Raceway for the Atlantic Seaboard Series. He won with this horse in just the fourth drive of his career and confessed, “guess I got lucky that day — the horse should get the credit because I was so nervous I could hardly move in the sulky.” He won this race and $4,592 and this was the beginning of his career. They were soon to become a successful pair.


Bill O'Donnell makes a historic visit to the winner's circle as he scores an upset victory with Travelin Boy the horse that launched his Hall of Fame career in 1972 (Photo courtesy of Northeast Harness News)

 


Travelin Boy reaches the wire a winner for Wm. (not yet "Magic") O'Donnell in this 1972 race at Rockingham Park (Photo courtesy of Northeast Harness News)

The story is told that on May 20, 1972 at Rosecroft Raceway in Maryland, O’Donnell was informed to “get dressed and weigh in” and drove Travelin Boy home a winner. O’Donnell affectionately calls Travelin Boy “the horse that made me.”


A young Bill O'Donnell early in his racing career with Travelin Boy an early standout performer (Photo courtesy of Northeast Harness News)

The next year the Grays gave him more horses and he was soon on his way to greater heights. In 1978 the decision to move to Saratoga proved to be wise as Bill won 300+ races and then followed a similar pattern in 1979. Each year better stock was added to the stable and then the big move was finally made to try the Meadowlands. From here his HOF career began to unfold.

In September of 1981 Bill O’Donnell returned home to drive at Sackville Downs for “Harness Racing Day.” The editor of Atlantic Post Calls, Doug Harkness summed it up by saying , ”O’Donnell came home to a hero’s welcome. It didn’t take him long to demonstrate to fans why he’s a top driver. He's out and moving — making for exciting racing. He raced in thirteen of the twenty events, and had a great time.” Quite a tribute for a small town-boy!

Indeed 1981 was a memorable year for Bill O’Donnell. In a little over a decade the entire scene had changed. Bill is quick to remember the Grays; in his words, “Without them I would probably never have been heard of. I’m very grateful that they had faith and confidence in me.” Harness racing holds many of us in this very same way....all it takes is that one lucky break!

The following is an excerpt from a piece posted on the sportnovascotia.ca website:

"The world was beginning to take note of Bill O’Donnell. His career skyrocketed after he moved to the Meadowlands in New Jersey where he had the opportunity to drive the world’s fastest trotters and pacers. In 1985, he established a record by being the first driver in history to earn more than $10 million in a single season. On August 4, 1985 he drove Nihilator to the first ever sub-1:50 race mile with a world record of 1:49.3 Nicknamed the “Magic Man” for his ability to bring home winners with his famous stretch drives. O’Donnell has won close to 5,000 races, finished second 3,800 times and third 3,200 times in 25,000 starts in the highest quality harness racing circuit in the world."


The above photo taken in 1982 shows "Magic Man" Bill O'Donnell scoring in world record time with Genghis Khan in 1:51.4. (Photo courtesy of Northeast Harness News)

Quote For The Week: "Stay away from negative people, they have a problem for every solution." - Albert Einstein

Who Is It?

How many people can you identify from this picture taken many years ago following an O.S.S. event?

Who Else Is It?

"The long and the short of it." Can you identify the two gents pictured above and include the name of the horse if you can.

August 5, 2021 - 4:13 pmThis week's pictures were

This week's pictures were solved, with a few variations offered. The correct answers were as follows:

Top photo was from July 1984 taken trackside at the old Elmira track. Winning horse was Hornby Glory, OSS 2 Y.O. Trot winner pictured with trainer-driver Wm. Wellwood and owner John Grant and I believe his son Brad is next. A couple of people identified the groom as Danny Sanford; not sure about that one but probably true.
Bottom photo was part owner Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain, famous basketball giant (listed at 7 feet 1 inch, or 2.16 metres) with his horse Rivaltime and driver George Sholty who I think was about 5 ft. 6 in.
Thanks folks for all of your insights and additions.

August 1, 2021 - 9:28 amI would say the Groom in

Steve Jewitt SAID...

I would say the Groom in picture num 1 is Mr Danny Sanford.

July 31, 2021 - 9:58 pmWilt the Stilt Chamberlain &

Wilt the Stilt Chamberlain & his horse Rivaltime (by Good Time) & driver/trainer George Sholty

July 31, 2021 - 3:32 pmThe first picture is Danny

The first picture is Danny Sanford, Armbro Fame, Bill Wellwood, John Grant and maybe Brad Grant.
The second picture is Wilt Chamberlain with his horse Rivaltime and trainer driver George Sholty.

July 31, 2021 - 2:44 pm1. Bill Wellwood 2. Wilt

Eric Warren SAID...

1. Bill Wellwood

2. Wilt Chamberlin, Raven Hanover, George Sholty

July 31, 2021 - 1:49 pmWho else is it? Wilt

Bert Clish SAID...

Who else is it?
Wilt Chamberlain, Rivaltime and George Sholty. Nice story on the Magic Man.

July 31, 2021 - 1:15 pmthe first picture is Bill

kent benson SAID...

the first picture is Bill Wellwood and John Grant
the second picture is Wilt Chamberlain and George Sholty

July 31, 2021 - 12:06 pmWho else.... Wilt Chamberlain

Who else....

Wilt Chamberlain and George Sholty

July 31, 2021 - 12:01 pmIn the peak of Bill

Bill Bigler SAID...

In the peak of Bill O'Donnell's career, there was NEVER a better driver than him!

July 31, 2021 - 11:17 amGeoff Maltby, Woody, John

Gord Brown SAID...

Geoff Maltby, Woody, John Grant.
Lew Alcindor, Boyden Hanover, George Sholty.


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