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It's About Time

Cam Fella

Thirty years after Cam Fella retired from racing, a new effort seeks to get “The Pacing Machine” recognized by Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.

Story by Chris Lomon

His impact on the Canadian sports landscape is undeniable. His accomplishments, far too numerous to document, rival that of any prolific athlete. Yet, for all the triumphs, top-rate performances and rightful adulation, there is one thing missing from Cam Fella’s career: a rightful place in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.

Liken his exploits to a hockey player and he’d be Wayne Gretzky. Compare him to a basketball legend and he’d be Michael Jordan. Football? Think Walter Payton. Baseball? Babe Ruth.

In the equine world, Cam Fella is the standardbred equivalent of Canada’s greatest thoroughbred, Northern Dancer, a multiple stakes winner, including a much-heralded triumph in the 1964 Kentucky Derby, and a sire of countless champions.

To date, only two horses have been inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, the aforementioned Northern Dancer and world champion show jumper Big Ben.

On January 15, Cam Fella was officially submitted to the nominating committee by Standardbred Canada for inclusion into the sports hall.

Known as the “Pacing Machine,” Cam Fella seized the harness racing spotlight in the 1980s.

It was nearly 35 years ago when trainer Doug Arthur purchased the bay son of Most Happy Fella for $19,000 at the Tattersalls Sales in Lexington, Kentucky.

Cam Fella didn’t possess the physical attributes of a star performer, an ordinary-looking horse who was anything but ordinary.

And his two-year-old campaign certainly didn’t suggest stardom was in store.

Cam Fella would win 3 of 11 starts in his first campaign. It was a triumph in the Valedictory Series at Greenwood Racetrack, however, that caught the eye of Norm Clements and Norm Faulkner.

Their offer? $140,000 (US).

It would be money well spent.

“He wasn’t the biggest or the flashiest horse, but from the first moment you were around him, you sensed he was special,” recalled Clements. “He had desire and he had heart.”

Over the next two years, Cam Fella hit his best stride and then some. He won 58 races in 69 starts and in 1982 and 1983 was named Horse of Year in Canada and the United States. As a three-year old, he won several high-profile events, including the Queen City Pace (now known as the Pepsi North America Cup). He didn’t lose a step at four, reaching the winner’s circle 30 times in 36 starts.

“He changed horse racing in Canada and the United States,” said his trainer/driver, Pat Crowe. “He drew big crowds wherever he raced. People just loved him.”

When his racing career ended in 1984, one that included a head-turning 28 consecutive wins and over $2-million in earnings, ‘Cam’ retired as the richest pacer in history.

To give some sporting perspective on those 28 straight scores: boxing legend Joe Louis defended his heavyweight title 25 times; tennis legend Roger Federer had 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinal appearances or better; Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders had 14 straight NFL games of 100 or more yards rushing.

Certainly, Cam Fella oozed talent whenever he raced. But, as award-winning sports writer Dave Perkins noted, he did what he had to do to win, usually never extending himself beyond what he needed to.

Wrote Perkins, in the Toronto Star: “He was from his own competitive planet, known for going only (but absolutely) as fast as necessary. He did his winning face-to-face, looking the competition in the eye and not letting it past.”

Beverley Smith, also an award-winning writer, covered Cam Fella for The Globe & Mail and other publications.

“He was rare,” said Smith. “The memorable race that sticks out in my mind was the 1983 Summer Championship when he faced Its Fritz. Very, very fast horse. That night at The Meadowlands, Its Fritz went by Cam Fella around the final turn, pulled away by three lengths and looked like a certain winner. But in the final 16th of a mile, Cam Fella came back on and wore him down to defeat him easily, actually. He looked beaten, but that was a horse that never quit. That was a race for the ages. It was as memorable to me as Northern Dancer winning the Kentucky Derby. Awesome animal.

“I loved the beast,” she continued. “When he came back (years later) for a tour, and went out on the track, he was in marvelous shape and his head picked up, as if he still wanted to race. He’s the kind of horse that gave you chills and a warm heart at the same time. I still have a wooden plaque at home (made from the Douglas Fir I think, that used to be inside Clements’ barn - he renovated it) and that plaque has one of Cam Fella’s horseshoes. It’s a prized possession. His is the only horseshoe I own and I wouldn’t part with it.”

Yet, Cam Fella’s influence and impact on the sport extended far beyond what he accomplished on the racetrack.

He became one of the greatest sires in the sport’s history. He sired champions and seven-figure earners, including harness heavyweights Eternal Camnation, Presidential Ball, Cams Card Shark, Precious Bunny, Cambest and Camluck.

After his stud duties ended, cancer having forced him to be gelded, Cam Fella, inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1986, (he’s also a member of the U.S. Harness Racing Hall of Fame in Goshen, New York) took to the road, accompanied by Crowe, on a tour of major raceways and small-town circuits across North America to raise money for charity.

There was no sulky, no call to post and no more rivals to take down. But it didn’t matter. He was still a rock star, drawing large, appreciative crowds at every stop.

“He truly was the people’s horse,” offered Clements, in reference to another of Cam Fella’s nicknames. “He affected so many people. Even people that weren’t racing fans knew who Cam Fella was. I remember times when we’d get at least 100 phone calls asking where he was going to be racing next. When he was on his tour, it was great to see the interaction between him and the fans. If there was an older person, or someone that happened to be in a wheelchair, he would quietly put his head down so they could touch him. He was great for the sport.”

So great and so popular, in fact, that Clements estimates having handed out at least 20,000 Cam Fella buttons over the years. He starred in his own movie, was the topic of a folk song and the one behind the Cam Fella Express, a bus that carried the owners’ friends and employees who ventured to wherever the horse competed.

“My fondest personal recollection of Cam Fella was riding the Express,” recalled Smith. “It was fun. Everybody jumped on the bus, employees, friends, you name it. Norm Faulkner played the guitar and everybody wandered around and sang with him. Norm Clements was this wonderfully outgoing sports equipment owner who knew how to market, sell things and have fun. The publicity departments at tracks didn’t have to do a thing. The two Norms did it all for them. Tracks clamored to have Cam Fella appear and race at them. He brought out crowds.”

Cam Fella passed away on May 9, 2001, at the age of 22, euthanized after his battle with cancer.

“He was just great in every way,” praised Crowe. “Whenever I walked into the barn, he knew it was me. We had that connection. But we also had a few set-to’s. When he was three, he used to love to boss his groom around. So, we had to iron that out. And we did. But, he had such a big, big heart. You think about him all the time.”

Crowe is far from the only one who hasn’t forgotten the horse who sired 1,002 foals and whose offspring accumulated $107.4 million, along with 16 winners of at least $1-million.

Standardbred Canada established ‘The Cam Fella Award’, “which celebrates extreme effort and dedication to Canadian harness racing by an individual or group.” The award is special in that it doesn’t have to be given out annually… only when deserved. And it’s first winner, fittingly, was Cam himself (in 1997).

Near where Greenwood Racetrack once stood in east Toronto, and within a short walk to Lake Ontario, you’ll find Cam Fella Lane, a street next to Ashbridges Bay. There is also a Cam Fella Boulevard in Whitchurch-Stouffville, about 40 minutes north of Toronto.

For those who know him best, the recognitions are cherished reminders of an iconic horse.

“Even today, people still know the name,” offered Clements.

A name, he believes, as many others do, that should be part of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.

“He did as much or more for equines in this country,” said Clements. “He deserves it.”

1 Comment

February 15, 2014 - 4:17 pmIt's not "About time" that

Lynne Magee SAID...

It's not "About time" that Cam Fella is bestowed with Canada's highest honour by being inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame but well past it. What he did on the track and in the breeding shed and the legacy that he left behind should have been recognized and honoured long ago just as was his equivalent in the Thoroughbred sector--and rightly so. Great article on Cam Fella--the "Pacing Machine".

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