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Common Sense Is The Common Denominator

Trot Feature - Ed James & McWicked

Retired from working at age 60, Ed James learned of his trainer’s need for a good pair of gloves - some 27 years later, and hardly retired, he’s still running his very successful SSG Gloves.

He’s also the owner of pacing superstar McWicked, another guy who isn’t quite ready to retire yet either. By Keith McCalmont

That McWicked just completed his most profitable campaign later in life is very fitting given that his owner, the blustery, yet brilliant, 87-year-old Ed James, has enjoyed a similar career path.

At age 7, the superstar horse was in every Horse of the Year conversation in both Canada and the U.S., having won 12 times in 2018 while banking $1,662,094 in purse earnings, including major scores in the Ben Franklin, Canadian Pacing Derby, William Haughton, Breeders Crown and the TVG Free For All.

And though McWicked had cracked the $1 million mark in season's earnings previously, as a three-year-old, in 2014, this was by far his best year. And things are only looking up.

By comparison, at age 60, James himself, had checked out of a successful career in sales and marketing for a variety of companies and, on a whim, and pretty much by happenstance, ended up becoming a self-made millionaire through the launch of his SSG Gloves.

Fortune has followed James from early days and he's enjoyed a number of careers.

"I sold newspapers and magazines door to door, that's how old I am," laughed James. "I set up pins in a bowling alley, managed a bowling alley and a pool hall. I got a job selling vacuum cleaners for Hoover and went from salesman to regional manager to national manager, and then quit.

"I took a job selling pencils for Dixon Ticonderoga out of Newmarket and worked as a marketing manager," continued James. "From there I became Executive Vice President overseeing Mexico, the United States, and opening England, and then quit and retired."

And in his fashion, he can't resist to crack, "Of course, Hoover is now bankrupt. In fact, the two companies I worked for, I got them both bankrupted."

James has a way of describing his many successes as happy accidents, preferring not to take credit. It's self-deprecating, but he's far from weak spirited.

By his own description, James put his sons into the motorcycle business and they've gone on to make their fortune - - and as an aside, that family connection would benefit James later on with SSG Gloves - - but he again refuses any of his due respect.

"It was no thanks to me, I just told them what to do and then left them alone," said James.

And in a way, he did let his kids grow into themselves. It's a philosophy that he's used time and again throughout his life whether it had to do with school, business or buying horses.

"I have a philosophy about people that work for me. I don't tell them what to do, they can prove themselves" explains James. "I'll give them three months to prove it, because otherwise they won't be any smarter than me, so I let them go."

By listening to others advice and sponging off that knowledge, James has managed to build a profitable business and an enviable racing stable. Of course, there was a little luck along the way as well.

He illustrates his point with a story about one of his failures.

After failing Grade 9 for the second time, his father advised him to get a trade. James signed up for a motor mechanics school in Hamilton, Ontario and on the first day of class a fire alarm went off and the whole school trickled outside.

The young James got to talking with a few friends and by the time he was done, the class had disappeared back into the school. James was late and when he went back inside, the instructor gave him two weeks detention.

James, as is his wont, objected.

"If you open your mouth again, you'll get a month," rattled off the annoyed instructor.

You guessed it, James doubled his time. And he kept doubling it until he rang up a full year. After which, he commented that he did not come to this school to be good at fire drills, he came to become a mechanic. However, the story, as it often does for James, has a happy ending.

By way of his detentions, James developed a friendship with the instructor and turned it into something of a personal tutoring session, as the teacher passed along a lifetime of knowledge regarding the motor mechanic business.

"By the end of the first month, he'd told me everything that I would need to know for the next four years, and I never wrote another exam because I knew all the answers," said James.

The business savvy passed along by the instructor proved invaluable to James over the years. Not a bad result for a foul-mouthed kid who struggled to pass Grade 9.

"What can I say, God's a good guy, he looks after drunks and dummies and I qualify twice," laughed James.

A man of many skills, James found himself transferred to Halifax for work in the 1950s and ended up spending a great deal of time at Sackville Downs.

It started a lifelong love affair with horse racing.

"After a few months, I decided to buy a horse for $600," said James. "His name was Ramseys Brown Gee and he won his first race and a $200 purse."

This was an 'aha' moment for James.

"I realized that I can gamble and get something back," recalled James.

But he also knew he had to work. You see, his dad was a veteran horseplayer and had proven to his son that a life on the grift isn't easy.

"My dad, following a heart attack, told my mom they were going to go on vacation to every thoroughbred track in North America before he died," recalled James. "He locked up the house and gave the keys to my brother and off they went to Finger Lakes, continued down the east coast to Florida and into Mexico and ended up coming back through Santa Anita and landed at Bay Meadows.

"Long story short," continued James. "He went broke."

While his dad landed on his feet, the lesson stuck with James who, while dabbling in horses throughout his regular working life, always maintained a good salary.

Eventually, he packed it in though and by 60, he was done with regular life. And he was about to have another 'aha' moment.

"I was out at Mohawk one morning watching Brent Davies train a couple two-year-olds I'd bought," recalled James. "I went back to the barn with him after and he was trying to smoke, but he kept dropping the cigarette."

James asked what the problem was, and Davies replied, "My hands are frozen."

Ever the sparkplug, James retorted, "You dumb SOB, why don't you go get yourself a pair of gloves."

Davies explained that the gloves available just didn't work. With rubber gloves, a driver's hands sweat and in the cold weather, they're not comfortable. Conversely, leather gloves at that time were all lined heavily with insulation and as Davies would put it, "After jogging a horse for half an hour your hands cramp up."

So, James offered to get gloves made and - - here's that luck again, or is it business savvy - - reached out to his sons' manufacturing connections in Korea.

"I had them make these gloves with a specially made exterior and thin cotton fibre on the palm, so the user's hands wouldn't cramp during driving. It worked like a charm. Everyone wanted a pair," said James.

Soon, Davies wanted more gloves, but a stubborn James was adamant, "I'm not in the glove business."

But word continued to spread.

"A call came in from Cleveland asking me for gloves," said James.

His reply, of course, "I'm not in the glove business."

Soon, the weather turned, and calls began to come in for summer gloves, and one outfit requested an order for 1,200 pairs with leather palms and colour material on the back to match the different uniforms.

"All of a sudden, I'm in the glove business," laughed James.

By the end of the next year, James had sold 26,000 pairs of gloves throughout the world, and the SSG Gloves empire was born.

Rather than provide an infomercial on what makes SSG Gloves so great, it would be more lucrative, for prospective business owners, to enjoy a little insight on both the marketing plan that brought SSG its success as well as a touch of James' frosty sense of humour.

To help sell his gloves, James sought to advertise with Western Horseman magazine which, at the time, boasted a circulation of 288,000.

James insisted on buying the back cover spot, and the negotiation process is a perfect illustration of James' common-sense approach to life and business.

"I called them up and demanded the first back page that was available. And the salesman asked me, 'Don't you want to know the price?'" recalled James.

"Why, is the price negotiable?" asked James.

"No," came the reply. "It's going to cost you $8,200."

"Well, I didn't expect it to be free," returned James.

"You could get four pages inside the magazine for that.," said the salesman.

"So, why do you charge so much for the back page then?" volleyed James.

"Because everyone sees it," explained the salesman

"Well, why the hell do you think I want it?" said James and then breaks into fits of laughter.

Once published, advertising on the back page of Western Horseman proved to be remarkably effective. The next day, more than 30 retailers reached out to order his gloves, at the request of their customers.

He never budged on his pricing either when asked for volume discount.

"Why should I give them a deal on my money," said James.

And millions of gloves sold later, James was running him a business that fit him like, well..

So, about McWicked.

If you can believe it, this is yet another tale of James falling into success when accidentally booking a vacation with pedigree expert Norman Hall.

"I first met him 15 years ago now," said Hall. "He came to PEI to visit a friend of his and stayed at our bed and breakfast. We got to talking and I found out he had horses. Of course, one thing led to another and he found that I was into pedigrees, so he asked me if I'd go over his horses to see if any of them are any good."

James had about 10 horses at the time between Ontario and Alberta and with Hall's assistance whittled them down to between four or five.

"One of them (Dudes Leaving Town) trained by Rod Hennessy, ended up the Horse of the Year in Alberta that next year. From there we started to build the stable up again," said Hall.

Opportunities will present themselves from time to time over the course of a life but having the sense to recognize that opportunity and make the most of it is a rare skill. But it's a skill that James has mastered.

"I don't know anything about training horses, but I know a lot of horses' asses. I talk to them and find out if they know what they're doing. If they don't, I don't buy horses from them or for them," said James. Well, Hall knows what he's doing. And James listened.

"Ed is quite opinionated, but he's also very smart. He was in his 60s when he started SSG gloves and made himself a millionaire. You have to like that," said Hall. "He doesn't come across as a boastful man, he's very much centred and I appreciate that about him. He asks for advice and I'm happy to give it to him. He doesn't second guess, and he's had a lot of success."

Hyperion Hanover, purchased by James for $5,500 in 2005 at Hall's recommendation, would go on to be a WEG Open class winner with 52 wins and $1,274,413 in earnings.

Another Hall highlight, Indiana Hall, was purchased for a modest fee and completed his career with 57 wins and $852,312 in purse earnings.

The key to his success is ignoring the yearling sales and instead buying horses following their two-year-old campaign, mainly with Jim McDonald.

"You always get something back," explains James. "It might be spending $20,000 on a two-year-old and getting $10,000 back, but it's something. And with yearlings, there's no guarantee. You might end up with nothing. Lots of them never make it to the races."

Hall, whose pedigree matching website is a portal of information about racing greats, has a very successful theory regarding the buying of racehorses.

"My past experience is that not all horses do their best racing at two, and if you look at the Free For All ranks and go back to their two-year-old year, you'll see very few raced at two or did anything particularly special. However, they all showed one thing - - they showed speed in the last quarter of the race," said Hall.

In 2013, a two-year-old McWicked won three of 10 starts and banked $179,617 in purse earnings. He definitely showed a lot of potential.

Still, despite all that success, there were some reservations, at least according to Hall.

"Ed wasn't sure about McWicked because it was going to cost him more than he normally paid. I thought he might go for about $100,000, but he went for a bit more than that," said Hall.

By James' assessment, there was little doubt he wanted McWicked for his stable.

"Norman said McWicked's speed would be 1:48.2," recalled James.

At the time, McWicked had yet to crack 1:51.

So, James headed to the Harrisburg Mixed Sale with his good friend,trainer, Jimmy McDonald to have a look at McWicked in the flesh.

"As Jimmy comes out of the stall from looking at McWicked, a guy steps in front of him and says, 'are you going to buy that horse'" recalls James.

McDonald told the man that he was looking at a horse for one of his owners and the man replied, "Well you better tell him if he's going to go into the auction ring and bid against me, he better bring a big bucket of money."

That comment pretty much cemented McWicked's fate.

"I said to Jimmy, 'If that SOB doesn't have a quarter of a million dollars in his pocket, he ain't getting this horse,'" said James.

The two bidders duked it out until the price hit $200,000 in favour of the enemy.

"At that point, I told Jimmy I'd just bought a horse," laughed James.

And when McDonald told James that the $200,000 wasn't his bid, James retorted, "I bet you he hasn't got a dollar more than $200,000."

And he was right. James made one more bid and the horse was hammered down for $210,000.

When McWicked was trained down and ready for his three-year-old year, Jim told Ed that he might just have something in the colt. Jim's habit was to train and race at Pompano in the winter, and then relax in the summer, possibly training a few, while visiting his many friends - then coming back to work at Pompano in the winter.

"My first choice was Casie Coleman, based on talent, and training and racing young horses," says James. "I knew who she was, and Casie probably knew who I was, although we had never spoken. As my wife Lynda and I were walking to our car after the races one night, we bumped into Anthony Beaton, Casie's second trainer at the time, and his wife Lisa - Casie was with them. I called Tony the next day and asked if Casie had any good three-year-olds, to which he replied that 'she had two good ones but not a great one.' I called Casie and asked her if she would consider taking McWicked for his three-year-old year. She told me to bring him up. She called later on and said that she would change a couple of things and take him - that was $4 million dollars ago. She is expensive but I compare my situation with Casie to my approach to advertising - if you want success you have to invest more to get what you want.

"That poor bugger [the under-bidder]," laments James. "McWicked has made $4 million now and I'll bet he's told people every two days he should have bought that horse for $10,000 more."

But in this life, you have to be lucky to be good.

And on that particular day, God was smiling down on a guy named Ed James.


McWicked, trained by Casie Coleman for owner Ed James, and almost certainly Horse of the Year in Canada, on the back of a season that included 12 wins from 19 starts, $1.6 million in purse earnings, and major scores in the Ben Franklin, William Haughton Memorial, Canadian Pacing Derby, Dan Rooney, Breeders Crown Open Pace and the TVG Open.

And the good news is that the now eight-year-old McWicked, currently turned out in Lexington, will be back to thrill the fans again in 2019.

"Six different stud farms called me wanting Ed's number and I don't think he spoke to any of them. None of them wanted to miss the boat on standing this horse and finally Ed called me and said we're going to race this horse next year," said Coleman.

It's a decision that's great for racing fans in a sport that often sees its biggest stars leave the racetrack in their prime for a more lucrative gig.

"Being a stallion owner, I know how much money is at stake there and you can make more money at stud, than if you won every race. It's not the money part of it, Ed's having fun racing him. He said to me, 'I won't be around no more when his babies are racing, so I might as well enjoy it now and keep this going,'" said Coleman.

McWicked will train over the winter at Pompano Beach in Florida with Jim McDonald before making his way north to Coleman's summer barn at Golden Horseshoe Lanes, near Flamboro Downs.

Before heading north though, the elder statesman-equine will have a family reunion of sorts in Florida.

"There's a yearling colt by McWicked where the horse winter trains at Pompano with Jimmy. I haven't seen him yet but, 'Wicked' will be training with one of his sons this winter," said Coleman.

Coleman is thrilled to have the horse back for another season of racing.

"I would never thought he would be as good as he was at seven, and it's crazy that at the end of the year he was as good as he was at the start," started Coleman. "He's eight now and I'm confident that if he comes back sound and healthy, and I see no reason why he won't, that he'll have a big year again."

An admittedly biased Coleman is hopeful that voters will recognize McWicked's incredible season as an aged pacer.

"I don't know many miles he went first over in fast miles and kept digging and digging. There's no end to him. He was so much fun to train," said Coleman. "I'm biased because he's my horse, but he should be Horse of the Year. Doing what 'Wicked' did, it should be very much in his favour."

While the stakes wins and money earned add up, an accomplishment that stands out for Coleman on the incredible season, was McWicked lowering his career mark when dusting Lazarus N in the Allerage at the Red Mile in Lexington.

The accomplishment came on the heels of a training session that provides a little insight into McWicked's unique personality - - calm once on the track, though often a handful on the way in.

"My husband, Mark Herlihy, takes him out to train sometimes," starts Coleman. "Going into the Red Mile, he was supposed to go a mile in 2:25 and Mark didn't take a training whip with him. Usually, I train in sets, but we only had 'Wicked' in Lexington so he was training by himself. You would think a seven-year-old could do that no problem but he ended up going the mile in 2:40," continued Coleman with a laugh. "Mark came back and said the horse just didn't want to go. That's just 'Wicked.' And then, of course, he goes out and wins in 1:46.2 and lowers his mark!"

James and Coleman have had their battles regarding McWicked through the years, including stints where others have conditioned the horse, with less success, but there remains a mutual respect between the two.

Certainly the two biggest earnings years of McWicked's career, the $1.4 million banked in 2014 and his most recent career year, came under Coleman's tutelage.

And while the practice of having another conditioner train the horse through the winter is not common practice for other Coleman pupils, she seems content knowing the horse will come back in time for racing.

"Ed and I have had a few disagreements, and one of them came when he wanted to breed and race him. I thought it was a bad idea with the horse racing so well at the time as a six-year-old," said Coleman. "But, the horse raced insane all season so I can't fault Ed on that, even though 'Wicked' is hard to handle on race night now. He's a man and pretty much needs two people to paddock him at all times."

Coleman was full of praise for her staff, in particular caretakers Ben Hollingsworth, who travels with the big horse, and his local groom, Tyler Schlatman.

"Both did a great job with him because he can be a handful - loud, rearing up and striking. He was never like that before, he was very quiet," continued Coleman. "Now that he's breeding you know when he's coming to the paddock because he's hollering and rearing and screaming. He's all man now."

'The Man' will be back, in full voice, in 2019. And racing is better for it.

~ Keith McCalmont

This feature originally appeared in the February issue of TROT Magazine.
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