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Second Chances

Phil Hudon

For most people, a turning point in one’s life is meant to be a positive ­experience. In the case of driver Phil Hudon, pilot of the O’Brien Award ­winning pacer Big Jim, his turning point was a drug test in the summer of 2008 that came back positive during the most negative period of the then 33-year-old driver’s life.

By Keith McCalmont

“I got hooked on painkillers and then I got a bad test,” says Hudon, from the comfort of the living room couch at his father’s farm in Erin, Ontario.

It is a frank admission from the earnestly honest Hudon, who shifts his weight and makes eye contact before adding, “I’ve overcome that now and my career is starting to snowball again. I was screwed up for so many years and then finally I got caught when they started swabbing and that probably saved everything.”

Hudon’s story is far from the typical troubled youth. In fact, Hudon enjoyed a great childhood in White Rock, British Columbia attending the harness races with his father Joe and older brothers Pat and John.

“The skiing was awesome in B.C.,” recalls Hudon with a laugh. “We used to go skiing quite a bit. My dad used to dominate out there racing wise and I grew up watching racing so it’s always been in my blood.”

It was certainly an active childhood.

“I have two older brothers. The middle one used to beat on me and the older one used to beat on him,” jokes Hudon. “I was into the horses and played baseball. We were always at the track running around bugging people and playing hide and seek. I had a good childhood.”

The Hudon’s had 20 acres and a third of a mile track on which they kept their horses in addition to a barn of horses in Cloverdale at what is now known as Fraser Downs. During the racing season, the family would quite literally ship their horses back and forth from track to farm.

“In the summer months we’d take a ferry over to Victoria to race horses,” says Hudon. “You load them on the trailer and ship them across on the ferry. It was pretty cool. The track was about 10 minutes off the ferry. It’s a nice little spot. It was fun growing up there.”

Although Hudon was more into baseball and skiing in his youth, the horses were always a part of his life.

“My dad used to let me jog them from his lap,” recalls Hudon. “I remember my first one jogging on my own, I was pretty young and she got away on me. She just took off. I think her name was Little Orphan Annie. She was a big thing and I don’t know how it happened but I ended up getting bailed so my first time driving wasn’t a real good learning experience.”

A quick learner, Hudon hastily honed his harness habits and by the age of 12 he knew he wanted to be a driver. At 16, the young man was an experienced horseman. When his father moved his tack to Ontario, Hudon was making a trek across Canada that would change his life.

“My dad bought a farm in Rockwood so we raced at Greenwood,” says Hudon. “When we first moved out here, I helped ship them in and helped him train from when I was 16 and at 18 I started driving.”

Although it wasn’t quite the hard knock life experience he endured as a youngster steering Little Orphan Annie on the family farm, Hudon’s first professional drive did come with some trepidation.

“My first race was one of my dad’s on Frisky Lobell at Flamboro [in 1993]. He was coming from Greenwood and we ended up fourth but I thought he could have won that first start. He probably was the best but I guess I got him beat, you could say,” admits Hudon sheepishly. “But I ended up finishing second and winning with him the next two starts.”

Hudon would steer many of dad’s good horses including Sanskrit Hanover. A hard worker, Hudon climbed into the sulky on a number of long shots on any given night learning the ropes on the fly and developing a reputation as a cheque earner.

“Once you’re training and jogging all the time, driving becomes natural,” says Hudon. “I mean, you’re always learning, right? But the better horses you drive I think the better you are really. You get more confident. I was aggressive when I first started but I think I’ve learned a lot of patience. You learn as you go and I’m still learning to tell you the truth.”

As a young driver on the rise, Hudon had the world by the tail but his life was moving even faster than the horses he drove daily and it all began to catch up with him.

“My daughter Madison was born when I was 25,” recalls Hudon. “I was just getting started and driving lots at Flamboro.”

The relationship with Madison’s mother wouldn’t last but another soon sprung up in its place and with it came marriage and another child, a son, Zach. But in the midst of the turmoil, Hudon’s marriage fell apart.

“The first time… it just wasn’t meant to be. Just too much partying but I love Madison to death,” says Hudon. “Then I was married and had Zach and, I don’t know, it took me until now to grow up. I had a lot of living and learning experiences.”

Hudon takes responsibility for his personal ordeal. His efforts to escape reality were causing his world to crumble.

“Percocets,” states Hudon matter-of-factly. “It was just numbing you to where you didn’t think about your past or your life. It was a crutch really. You think you need it but you don’t.”

As he recalls the moments, each statement, each heart-wrenching admission is a truth worn like a badge of honour.

“It’s almost like I had to start over twice. It’s just a weight,” says Hudon. “You have your son and daughter one day and a house almost paid for and then boom it’s gone and then you have to start over… and you just say, ‘Ah screw it.’ That’s what I did anyways. I just used to run from my problems. Once it was all in the open it probably saved me.”

It is a staggering story and it lasted longer than some careers.

“It was probably five or six years. A long time,” admits Hudon. “They never used to test until that swab test. It probably saved my life. Once you get caught, you get over it. Thankfully, the Commission and my dad and my good friends helped me clear my head.”

The story of the positive test is shared without hesitation or pause to reflect and pretty up the details.

“I believe it was Father’s Day and I stupidly took something the afternoon before I raced and I got tested,” starts Hudon. “A week later I got called and had to go through the programs and probation so now I always have to do a test. I still get called in from the ORC people to do random testing – and I have to pay for it – but that’s fine because it’s keeping me on the straight end.”

­The Phil Hudon that lived up the late nights partying and slept through the day has long vanished from this world. The man that has emerged from that shell is an entirely new person with focus and drive and the determination to win, not just at racing, but at life.

“I took a while to grow up,” says Hudon. “Now I get to see Madison quite a bit because she’s old enough that she can come and hang out for the weekend, which is fun. She’s a good girl and really smart.”

Hudon has no plans for Madison, 11, and Zach, 4, to follow him into the driving game.

“They’re staying in school, I hope,” laughs Hudon. “Madison just started riding horses in Dorchester and she likes it. Zach likes horses too. He likes coming and hanging out with the old man and riding in the tractor with his grandfather.”

Putting a life back together takes a village. Hudon’s circle is filled not only with friends and family but also the support of the Ontario Racing Commission.

“Pam Bray [ORC Investigator] can call me a couple times a month at anytime she wants,” says Hudon. “They were good to me and they probably saved my life. I don’t regret it happening.”

Under the direction of the ORC, Hudon is embracing a new life on the farm getting back to his roots by starting each day helping his father train horses.

“Rod Seiling told him that he had to come in and work every morning and work at the farm,” says Joe Hudon. “You know how drivers have too much idle time, right? This way he gets up and he’s here by 8 a.m. and he helps train the horses and he’s done by 1 p.m. It gets him out of bed in the morning and it makes him go to bed at night instead of partying.”

The structure provided by the program is working wonders for the family.

“Rod Seiling and the ORC helped set him straight,” states the elder Hudon. “Rod said, ‘If we suspend them indefinitely we lose them, but if they’re in the system you can save a life.’ I have to take my hat off to those guys. Out of the system, who knows where they end up.”

In fact, the routine might actually be helping Hudon’s already impressive driving skills.

“I think he’s better with young horses because of it,” says the proud father. “We train only two and three-year-olds and I think he’s got better with both trotters and younger horses.”

Ultimately, with a clear head and determination of the athlete within, Hudon is winning this battle by open lengths.

“I never used to appreciate what I had given to me for racing,” says Hudon. “I really learned a lot over the last three or four years about that. I can still race horses, which I love to do, and I could have lost my family. I don’t want them to look down on me anymore. Everything is going in the right direction now because everything is a lot cleaner in my life.”

A smile forms on his sun-reddened face as he stares out the window to a field of sharp horses bucking and whinnying in their paddock. Perhaps inspired by their antics, Hudon levies another startling admission.

“I do karate twice a week,” he shouts with a wide grin. “Karate is awesome. I love it. It helps me focus. I started three years ago. I always loved martial arts and I did it when I was younger but I didn’t stay in it. So now I got back into it and it keeps my mind set.”

Hudon is also quick to point out the support of his girlfriend, Amelia, and his good friends, drivers Jody Jamieson and Mark MacDonald, who are just two of the many colleagues in the room ready to support him – even if that support is sometimes unwanted.

“They like to torture me all the time, those F’ers, about my ears,” belts Hudon with a laugh. “They always try and grab at me and stuff because I don’t like people touching me so they try and torture me that way. It’s all good. I get along with everyone. I think they like to hear me tell them to go F themselves. I give them a few extra just because they like it.”

Jamieson and MacDonald be warned – Hudon is now a purple belt and taking private lessons several times a week.

The remarkable rejuvenation of Phil Hudon’s driving career revolves around two Big Jims and the sincerity of a man, who has re-discovered the gentleman within himself.

With one simple gesture, thanking an owner for the opportunity to drive an unraced horse, Hudon earned the respect of well-regarded horseman, Big Jim Carr.

“I’m almost in tears talking about this because I like him so much,” says Carr. “It meant a lot to me because that’s unheard of in this industry. I don’t think any other driver would do that and maybe even he doesn’t do that with every horse but he saw me around the paddock because I’m around there all the time. He came up and shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you.’ He hadn’t even driven him yet. He was just thankful for the opportunity.”

The horse, of course, is the powerful pacer Big Jim. Hudon’s eyes widen as he recalls the moment.

“He said, ‘I think it’s a pretty good horse,’” starts Hudon. “And I said, ‘Thanks I appreciate it.’”

Neither Carr nor Hudon could appreciate then just how good Big Jim would become. One by one the races began to fall for Carr, Hudon, trainer James ‘Friday’ Dean and Big Jim as the pacer captured the Dream Maker Pacing Series and Nassagaweya Stakes in identical times of 1:51.1 at Mohawk Racetrack.

“Oh, he’s a big beautiful animal,” gushes Hudon. “After I first drove him I said [to Carr], ‘You weren’t kidding, he is a good horse.’ Just the power in him and the raring to go, he impressed me his first start I drove him. What a treat that was picking him up.”

The campaign wasn’t without its hiccups though as Big Jim broke in the $1 million Metro Pace on a miserable September evening at Mohawk.

“I lost the biggest race of his career to date and it didn’t bother me,” recalls Carr. “Phil felt worse than I did about it. It’s just a horse race and these things happen. It was uncharacteristic of the horse but with the weather the way it was and the condition of the track, I just attributed it to that. It had nothing to do with what Phil did.”

Redemption for Big Jim would arrive in the Poconos at the Breeders Crown and any doubts about the bond between owner and driver can be put away with the following illustration.

“I had an owner at the Breeders Crown party ask me, ‘Why Phil Hudon when you could have anybody else to drive this horse?’ and I said to him, ‘What’s he done wrong?’” recalls Carr. “He’s had one second, one third and only one bad race. He’s won nearly everything with the horse, how much better can you get?”

Carr’s faith in Hudon was rewarded by a brilliant piece of driving in the Breeders Crown that could only have been fashioned with the self-belief of a talented driver who knew first hand the racing maturity of Big Jim. With Fashion Delight hitting all the early fractions, Hudon and Big Jim seemed hopelessly trapped with Foreclosure N first over and Shadyshark Hanover rolling wide at the top of the stretch.

“Fashion Delight was a couple lengths ahead of him,” says Carr, picking up the call. “Phil sat him in a hole the whole way around waiting for that passing lane and everybody thought he was boxed in. But there’s a passing lane and most young horses want to go to the outside rather than the inside. This horse was so remarkable you could do anything you want with him and he just shot through. I asked Phil what that driver said to him after the race and he told me, ‘I can’t believe you beat me after I had you by a couple lengths.’ He couldn’t believe the brush on this horse.”

For good measure, Carr sought out the man who questioned his choice of linesman.

“The guy that said that to me, ‘Why Phil Hudon?’” states Carr, “I went and found the guy after the race and introduced him to Phil and I said, ‘If you want to have somebody drive your horse that you can trust, this is your man.’”

Hudon’s unique abilities and overall horsemanship have not gone unnoticed by Carr.

“Phil has done a good job. He’s got him so he can sit in a hole and wait,” says Carr. “He just hasn’t raced the guts out of him by sitting on top all the time and that’s a tribute to Phil. He keeps the horse in position to win the race. When you’re in these great races, they’re all good horses so you can’t get too far behind and he’s won them out of the seven-hole and nine-hole. He doesn’t always have good post positions and it takes a driver to know what he’s doing to get them across.”

The campaign ended on a sweet note. Hudon had been saving a little bit extra in the tank all year long so that he’d have enough horse to win the next week. But with only the Governor’s Cup left on his card, Hudon was ready to show the world what Big Jim was all about.

“Speed wise the whole year I kind of saved him at the end of the mile,” concurs Hudon, flashing a wicked grin. “But then in that last start in the Governor’s Cup I let him pace coming down the lane because he deserved a record and when I looked at the time I didn’t realize how fast it was. He just paced right to the wire like a creature.”­

The World Record final time of 1:49.1 was electric and the bond between Carr and Hudon fused that much stronger.

Carr spent time over the Christmas holidays with Hudon and his family, even delivering a beautiful framed photo of Big Jim in the winner’s circle as a gift for his driver of choice. With a new year on tap and a lucrative date in the North America Cup waiting right around the corner, there is much for Hudon to look forward to as he continues on his recovery.

“He’s done a lot of good for me and the horse and I think the horse has done a lot of good for him too,” says Carr. “It would be nice to see him get up in the top three or four drivers and stay there. That all stems from people giving him a chance and without that chance you can’t prove yourself.”

Hudon, who knows he has had more than a few chances, isn’t going to let his opportunity with Big Jim pass him by.

“Everything is going in the right direction and I’ve just got to keep my head on. I know I can now,” says Hudon. “Over the years I’m getting a lot smarter. You live and learn and I know I’ve still got a lot of learning to do but I’m going in the right direction and I have a lot of people helping me.”

More importantly, Hudon is willing to give himself a chance to ­succeed and that could be the most important second chance of all.

3 Comments

June 4, 2011 - 12:47 pmMost people try to bury

Most people try to bury their misdeeds once their star starts to rise. Congrats to Phil for being so candid!

Looks like another award-winning piece by Keith McCalmont. A gem of a story well-told!

June 3, 2011 - 4:37 pmAn absolutely tremendous

Greg Gangle SAID...

An absolutely tremendous article! Only positive things can come from something like this as Phil admitted his past issues and learned his lessons.

Keith McCalmont did a fantastic job writing this piece and brought out the true story behind Phil and exposed the relationship between Hudon and Carr to the maximum.

Sincerely,
Greg Gangle

June 2, 2011 - 4:01 pmI am a firm believer in

Joe Riga SAID...

I am a firm believer in second chances. We have all made mistakes in our lives or decisions we are not proud of. But everyone deserves a chance at rebuilding their life and I am happy for Phil that he has rebuilt his.

I have been involved in racing as a fan for over 35 years. Typically I don't really care about who is driving a horse or who is having success at any given time. I am usually more concerned with who is driving the horse I wagered on and what kind of drive they are getting or have gotten. Now I realize that may sound selfish but I don't know any horsepeople personally to really take an interest in their lives. Admittedly I love to see the Campbells and Sears and Tetricks of the world get on these champions and put on a show (pardon the pun.

Having said that it's always nice though to see a guy like Phil Hudon who usually only drives claimers and some conditioned horses get on a champion and do well. Sad but true it's almost human nature to want them to do bad so one can say "see, should've put Campbell on the horse". However I find myself cheering for Phil for that very reason. Because I am sure so many people out there are thinking why doesn't this owner put a big name driver on his horse? It was that way when Stewart Elliot was on the Triple Crown path. I am sure many people were wondering then why Bailey or McCarron or a jockey of that stature wasn't on the horse.

I am happy for Phil to see that he is having lots of success with this horse and I hope he continues to have a lot of success. I applaud Mr. Carr for not kowtowing to those who suggest Phil should've been replaced by a big name driver. This is good for Phil and I hope it puts him in the minds of other owners who have champion horses as a possible driver.

Good luck to you Phil. Not only on the track but in life. Hang in there and keep going. Things will work out just fine.


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