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Rekindling Gold Cup & Saucer Magic

Published: August 21, 2020 11:46 am ET

Last Comment: August 21, 2020 6:23 pm ET | 1 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments

On Saturday (August 22) two New Brunswick-owned pacers will take part in what many consider the biggest half-mile race in Canada, the Guardian Gold Cup & Saucer at Red Shores Racetrack & Casino at the Charlottetown Driving Park.

This year, with the effects of COVID-19 running rampant and affecting the sport of harness racing, the prestigious event saw only one horse ship in from Ontario. On an average year, the Gold Cup would attract not only pacers from Ontario and Quebec, but entries from south of the border, as well.

That opened the door to local entries, and those included in the COVID-19 'bubble' of all Atlantic provinces. This past Saturday night, Father Ofthe Year made the final on the strength of his fourth-place finish in which he paced his own mile in 1:53.2 for veteran horseman Mike Downey.

Also advancing to Saturday night’s final is four-year-old Moncton-based pacer Woodmere Ideal Art, owned by the Ultimate Stable of Greater Lakeburn, and trained by owner Sifroi Melanson. He has had many top overnight horses through the years, including Rakland Fine Line, Dance Hanover, Instant Shadow, to name a few. In line to catch-driver David Dowling on Saturday, the pacer surprised many after a third-place effort and pacing his own mile in 1:52.1, by far his fastest charted time ever in the Maritimes. He was only beaten two-and-a-half lengths behind the highly touted Dr. Ian Moore pacer Casimir Richie P, the favourite going into Saturday’s finale.

Father Of The Year is owned Dr. Mitchell Downey, son of Mike Downey, and it’s been a dream of his to win the Gold Cup & Saucer with one he owned and/or bred -- just like his dad did when Mitch was just 10 years old.

Thirty years ago this week, Mike Downey captured the elusive Gold Cup & Saucer with a tough overnight pacer, Tigerbird for owner Ashley Sloat of Fredericton, N.B. At that time there were a number of local entries racing that year, which is same scenario that the event finds itself in this season due to restrictions of outside horses.

“I remember almost every detail of Gold Cup Night 1990," Dr. Downey recently told Scott Waddell. "Earlier in the card, dad drove a horse named Talc and got locked in the two hole. Never getting out to race, I thought 'was this how the night was going to turn out?'"

When it came time to contest the Gold Cup & Saucer, Mitch said, “I remember leaving everyone and going off to watch the race myself. Back then you could only pick up pieces of Boomer's (Kevin Gallant) race call. I remember hearing :56.4 as Earl Smith zoomed by the half and the crowd was elated as they approached the half-mile. Past the half I was cursing under my breath as dad was once again locked in the box.”

With a patient steer by Mike Downey, it was time for some magic to happen that night on Prince Edward Island. “When 'Tiger’s (Tigerbird's) red shadow roll came streaking across the wire and I saw my dad celebrate I started screaming and running to the track," said Mitch. “Two of my friends and I arrived at the winner's circle first. Back then, police security roped off the winner's circle, and being 10 years old we just ducked it.

“When dad came back (to the winner's circle) he hugged me so hard, he nearly broke my collar bone,” Downey mused.

One of the many memories and one that Mitch was hoping to keep for a lifetime was a memento from his dad.

“Back then the big thing was to get the drivers' whips. An unknown kid at the time asked Dad for the whip and he said, 'I’ve already promised it to someone.' He turned and handed it to me. It’s stowed in my trophy room with [whips from] such greats as John Campbell, Bill O’Donnell, and Doug Brown.”

Another post-race ritual for youngsters back then, and still holds true today is that kids love to play their heroes by grabbing a race bike, and a whip, and using that adrenaline to lug and pull the winning bike around the barns after the races.

“We must have lugged that wooden Brodeur bike down the homestretch for hours after the race,” recalled Mitch. “Since the race usually goes to post at midnight or after, the night was a late one, or should we say, the early morning...We arrived at the hotel and I remember before I closed my eyes it was 4:06 a.m. and we caught the early ferry off PEI. I rode home with Ashley and Joan Sloat.”

Involved in the industry since as long as he can remember, Mitch usually heads to U.S. every year to scratch that itch of what it’s like to have a yearling and to watch him develop. When asked how he came to pick out Father Ofthe Year, he let technology lend a helping hand.

“I picked out the colt based on his video. I had about $15,000 to spend on a colt and was bargain hunting. Into the video strode this handsome horse. Held himself with purpose. Tall. Strong. Athletic. I had to buy him. Being an embryo transfer foal likely deterred a few people and his sire Royal Mattjesty was one of most correct horses I’ve seen. He just lacked producing that great horse. But he makes racehorses, which is the type of horse I was looking for.

“For $7,500 we thought we had a steal. I wish I could say the rest has been history. But it’s been a roller coaster. Speed has never been the issue, as evident by his 1:51 clocking in his second start in Ontario and pacing in (:)53 last year.”

It is one's hope that their horse remains healthy and strong, and Downey admitted that there have been some challenges with Father Ofthe Year in that respect. “Injuries and surgeries have plagued the horse and, along with a serious bout of colic requiring surgery, it’s been nothing short of a journey...the highs and lows of harness racing."

When it came time to evaluate the pacer for a possible Gold Cup entry, a solid training trip at Exhibition Park Raceway a week before the trial tipped the scale in favour of a giving the horse a shot. That, and the fact that his dad was on board. “Dad was adamant I should trial 'Father.' But on the 30th anniversary of our family’s win in the Cup I felt it was important for my dad to try and turn back time. He’s still crafty and I wanted him to have this shot.”

Mitch and his dad have a special relationship, and harness racing -- like it does for so many -- provides a time to spend valuable time with the ones you love.

“I’m my dad's biggest fan. At 69, he is a complete horseman -- shoes, trains and drives. Together with my Aunt Ellen (Father Ofthe Year’s trainer) and my mom it’s a family operation. Seeing the video of my kids cheering on dad is something I won’t forget. Winning this race has been my goal since I’ve gotten into owning breeding and training and driving. It is so hard to win it. Post matters. Track condition matters. Horse health and soundness matter. To have my dad, at 69 years young, win it would be unreal.”

Mike and Father Ofthe Year have drawn Post 4 in the $60,000 final. When asked how he sees the race playing out Saturday night, Mitch had the following to say.

“Vance Cameron says it’s the greatest race on a half-mile track in Canada, but I believe it’s the greatest in North America."

August 21, 2020 - 6:23 pmBest of luck Mike! I was

Best of luck Mike! I was cheering you on from home last weekend, would love to see you win it all. You drove great in the Trial, placed him where he had to be to make the show. Go get em!

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