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This MacDonald Brother Drives a Drone - And He's Damn Good At It!

Customer/Ownership Experience

His three, more well-known brothers, Mark, James & Anthony, are drivers, but Curtis MacDonald followed his older brother Lloyd into the field of the video production of horse races, and he never looked back.

Now, his own Cujo Entertainment is leading the way in that field, using drones and cable cams to spice up the way we watch our horses both race and train. By Debbie Little

Most people would admit to having FOMO -- Fear Of Missing Out -- but according to some, most people in harness racing have FOCA, Fear Of Changing Anything.

Curtis MacDonald fits neither category, because he wouldn’t be defined by an acronym that operates on fear.

MacDonald owns Cujo Entertainment, an Aerial Photography and Videography company based in Guelph, Ontario, and when you run a company that lives on the cutting edge of technology, there’s no room for timidity.

“He has an immense capacity for calm in the face of adversity, which is incredibly important, and he genuinely can fix anything. He is just like the most incredible MacGyver, and is really creative, too. Not just the best solutions, but really creative solutions,” said Kelly Spencer of True Nature Communications.

Spencer worked with MacDonald for many years at Grand River Raceway. They were both there when the facility opened in 2003 and then started racing in 2004.

“He really shaped the video department. He was very sharp and innovative, even at that young age. His greatest asset is that he is just an incredible problem solver. I think he’s probably the most resourceful person I’ve ever met. He can just take a problem and find a solution that is smart and efficient every time,” said Spencer.

MacDonald was just 19 when he started working in Elora, but he had already built quite a resume prior to then.

His dad Fred and mom Gail owned Standardbreds in their home province of Prince Edward Island, and raced at their hometown track, Charlottetown Driving Park.

MacDonald grew up with four brothers: Lloyd, Anthony and Mark are older, while James is the youngest.

“Even at a young age [Curtis] was always one of my top technicians,” said Lloyd, the oldest brother, who was the producer of the Maritime Harness Racing Network when Curtis was a teenager.

Lloyd says he would best describe Curtis in two words: “absolutely brilliant.”

Even though all the brothers worked with horses at one time or another, Curtis preferred to be behind the video camera like Lloyd.

“I only gave him an opportunity. I could have given you the opportunity, but it wouldn’t have meant you were going to excel at it. He still had to do it,” said Lloyd.

In 1999, Lloyd took the job of Audio Visual Director at Hippodrome de Montreal and the following year Curtis started working for him.

“I was living the life of a rock star then because Lloyd was flying me to Montreal every other weekend to run camera, and when I couldn’t do it he was filling in himself and running the camera because he was saving that position for me for when I finished high school. So in the summer, when I was done with grade 11, I moved up and lived with Lloyd in Montreal and pretty much did every [production] position at the racetrack,” said Curtis.

During his time in Montreal, Curtis worked with top-of-the-line equipment, and learned a great deal, including the graphics package that would play a part in his future.

At the time the MacDonald brothers were in Montreal, there were only a few graphics programs in the industry. Lloyd came up with a program for Hippodrome de Montreal that was geared to harness racing. Curtis learned all the ins-and-outs of the graphics package and according to Lloyd, made it 100 times better.

“[If there was] one person that impressed me every step of the way at every single stage, no matter what I put him on in the entire time I produced horse racing, Curtis was that guy,” said Lloyd.

Lloyd left Montreal in 2001 as did Curtis, who spent some time in London with his brother Mark, and then in Ottawa working with his brother Anthony.

“When he was working with the horses with me, I had to go away for a day. I come back and he had very little actual work done but he had a stereo system hooked up in the barn, all the water buckets were in the same place and all the horses had nametags on their stalls, but not a lot of them jogged that day. He was just an extremely meticulous person and his mind said it was more important to get the barn proper than to get the horses jogged that day. It’s a different way of thinking, but that’s how Curtis is wired,” Anthony said.

While Curtis was in London, he got a job at Western Fair Raceway. Although he was only there for about a year-and-a-half, it helped him get his next gig.

“I was working at Western Fair and Gary Guy, the track announcer at Flamboro, came and filled in and we talked, but I had no idea he had any involvement [with the soon to be opened] Grand River,” said Curtis.

Unbeknownst to Curtis at the time, Guy was tasked with finding the right equipment and people to give Grand River a production that would be to the caliber they were looking for. Apparently, Guy had heard through people that he had to go meet this guy at Western Fair.

“Two weeks later, I saw a press release on Standardbred Canada that Gary Guy was going to head up the Grand River Raceway installation. So naturally, me being the outgoing person I am, I emailed Gary and said ‘I see you’re setting up the production, I’d like to apply for the job if it’s still available.’ He replied, ‘you don’t have to apply, the job’s already yours, that’s why I went [to Western Fair] last week.’”

Curtis was at Grand River for three years when he was hired by TelePhoto Technologies, who are now ONTrack Media and Entertainment. They hired him because they had just purchased the rights to the graphic system that Lloyd had developed on his behalf in Montreal.

And for 12 years, his sole job was to design and manage all of the graphics for that system. In Ontario, every track but Western Fair and Woodbine were using this graphics package.

In 2014, Curtis started Cujo Entertainment when Anthony was running for public office.

“I started the business because [Anthony] had a need for a lot of video work. And I said to myself I’m capable of doing all the video work. Why don’t I start an actual business and then my first client will be the PC Party of Guelph? So I started a business to do video-related jobs here-and-there, that were not related to horse racing,” said Curtis.

Three very important things happened for Curtis in 2015. In July he married Jaimi, the daughter of trainer Rob Fellows, his brother Anthony and his wife Amy formed TheStable.ca and Curtis bought his first drone.

“So we were talking about videoing the horses training and Curtis shows up with a drone. I didn’t even know what a drone was. Here I am thinking it would be cool to bring these types of videos of the horses training to our clients, especially when we’re trying to attract them from all over the world, and Curtis shows up with a miniature spaceship to video them with,” said Anthony.

Curtis also did the website for TheStable.ca, including the editing, and also developed their app.

“TheStable.ca is doing something special and different that nobody else is doing. It was the perfect marriage of technology and his vision for TheStable.ca. Now I’m charging him money to drone his babies and he’s getting more clients, because he has drone technology and they can watch their horses train all the time,” said Curtis.

Over the last year-and-a-half, without advertising and marketing in traditional mainstream media for the most part, TheStable.ca went from 300 to 420 to 645 clients, from 11 different countries (as of April 5th).

“The concept of the drone is really integral to the experience for the clients at TheStable.ca,” said Spencer. She is the Director of Business Development at TheStable, and they are a client of her company, True Nature Communications.

Trainer Blake MacIntosh is friends with the MacDonalds, and after seeing the drone footage that Curtis did for Anthony, he hired Curtis to shoot for him as well.

MacIntosh started droning his babies in 2017 every six weeks. Last year, he did it every four weeks, and in 2019, he’s down to every three weeks.

“My owners would like to see it every week but it’s a lot of work for us to do it every three weeks. I can’t say enough good things about the product. I know I’ve picked owners up because of it, because they feel like they can watch their horse. It’s like watching a race every three weeks for them during the winter,” said MacIntosh. “It’s great for me, too, because I’m in every set, so I can watch all the drone-footage, and I can see the ones doing something that I didn’t know it was doing. Then I can shorten its hobbles or have the vet go over it.”

In addition to keeping his owners well informed of the progress that their babies are making, MacIntosh says the drone videos have helped his owners make staking decisions.

Trainer Andrew Harris flew Curtis down to New Jersey twice this year to have him drone his babies.

“My biggest clients, are ones from Boston and ones from Ontario, and they don’t get out here to watch the babies. I think only three percent of my owners live in Jersey, and if you can get your owners watching their horses and following them along, they build up a relationship watching them. It’s like watching a child grow. It’s great for them because it keeps them entertained, it keeps them watching and keeps them engaged in horse racing,” said Harris.

Two big fans of the drone videos are owners Daniel Plouffe, who has babies with MacIntosh, and Adriano Sorella, who has babies with Harris.

If Plouffe had to choose one word to describe the videos and what Curtis does, it would be “Exceptional!”

“Every owner puts their love and money into horses but we are far from them pretty much all year long. What a great idea from Blake and Curtis to inform us and keep the interest very much alive. We can now follow our horses evolution during the six to seven months of training before the races begin,” Plouffe said.

In a day and age when everybody wants information immediately, Sorella is not surprised that owners are embracing this technology.

“We all know this is expensive, especially babies. There’s a lot of staking involved and bills, and if you can see them when you’re not there at least once or twice during their development, it kind of helps you along the way, too. You know more or less what to expect and it’s not a big surprise when you see it later,” Sorella said.

“I think some of the top trainers understand if the owners want it, they’ve got to kind of do it. If you don’t want to do that, then we’re kind of in the wrong business... because we’re not talking about hundreds of dollars. We’re talking tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars invested, so you want to see what’s going on,” he added.

Following the birth of his daughter, Lennon, in 2017, Curtis left OnTrack in 2018 to focus totally on Cujo Entertainment.

“I’m still on very good terms with OnTrack. They’re flying me out to BC to help train their operators on their switcher, and stuff like that, at the end of April. And I’m going down to Finger Lakes [NY] next week to help American Teletimer – who own OnTrack Media and Entertainment – with the installation of their equipment at that racetrack,” Curtis said.

Since all tracks in Ontario are now required to be HD, Curtis is also working with Woodbine Entertainment, who are helping to install new equipment and train the operators at the Alliance tracks.

“[Woodbine Entertainment] knew me for years working under OnTrack, so when I went out on my own, the first thing they did, actually, was see if I was interested in a job. I said I didn’t want a job because I wanted to start my own company. Their next question was would I be interested in subcontracting work for them,” Curtis said.

In addition to his work with drones, Curtis debuted his latest technology, a cable-cam, in 2018 at the Gold Cup and Saucer at Red Shores Charlottetown.

He was hired, also in 2018, to provide both the drone and the cable-cam for PEI’s Cavendish Beach Music Festival. The drone only flew one day because of high winds but the cable cam didn’t have an issue. Even though it was swaying in the wind, the shot wasn’t affected. It was a stabilized shot so it looked very good all the time.

Curtis uses a linear two-point cable-cam system that, at a racetrack, would either go down the backstretch or down the stretch. He’s seen cable cams used in the Kentucky Derby and the Elitlopp in Sweden, as well as in NFL Football.

“Kudos to Charlottetown, because the first year I brought up the idea of having a live drone, they didn’t even hesitate, they said ‘yes, no problem,’” Curtis said.

“The last two years I had to contact the Charlottetown Airport tower, because the track is right under an approach path to the airport. So you have to make the airport aware that there is a drone flying. Not because I’m flying it at any height that would affect a plane, but if something were to happen and the drone took off you could be injuring people that are landing. Most of the time I barely fly above the light poles, so if a plane ever comes that low to the ground they’ve got a bigger problem than a drone,” he added.

Greg Blanchard, the Director of Racing at Western Fair, saw the work that Curtis did with the cable cam at the Cavendish Beach Music Festival and decided to use the cable-cam this year for the Camluck Classic.

“We think racing is a tremendous spectator sport, and collectively as an industry we maybe haven’t done as good a job as we can in showcasing that on our broadcasts, so we’re always excited to incorporate something like this. For tracks like us that don’t have a huge budget to work with, we have to kind of pick and choose what we want to do, and this is something that we thought we would introduce this year,” Blanchard said.

Curtis can understand the resistance of some tracks or trainers to a drone because most people who go out and buy a drone do not have his level of expertise, either at flying it or getting the correct shots. But he does believe that the industry needs to change and advance.

“If you watch a baseball game from the early 80s, they just delivered the simple game with the play-by-play over top and maybe a few graphics. Now, there are splashy graphics and stats, and when a batter comes up to bat, you have his season stats and his in-game stats. Whereas if you look at a race card, even from a few years ago, and you look at a race card from the 80s, they’re not that different,” Curtis said.

“We show the race, we show the post parade, there are people that come on and handicap the race. There isn’t that much that’s changed since simulcasting started. Cameras are newer and technology is getting better but the fundamentals of it hasn’t really changed. The race is shown in the same manner it was shown 20 years ago, 30 years ago,” he added.

Spencer agrees with Curtis’ assessment and thinks many people in the business are content sitting back and waiting for things to change and get better, but simply thinking like that, in the hopes that it will happen, is not realistic.

“People like Curtis, Blake, Anthony, and Andrew, they get that and are doing something about it - and they’ll prosper. I don’t know when the rest of the industry will figure that out. I think what Curtis has demonstrated is that you may not be able to own a drone, or use one regularly, but you have tools at your disposal to better engage with your owners and to draw new business,” Spencer said.

“Curtis is ahead of his time. He’s providing a service for which people are just starting to realize they need. I think the world is his oyster right now and he can pick and choose exactly what direction he wants to go,” she added.

This feature originally appeared in the May issue of TROT Magazine.
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1 Comment

June 9, 2019 - 9:28 amWhat a great family promoting

ron males SAID...

What a great family promoting Harness Racing


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