view counter
 
view counter
 
 

'The Captain' And His Crew

Trot Feature - Doug Brown

For most of the 80’s and 90’s, and through the turn of the century, Doug Brown sat at, or near the top of the heap, of all Canadian drivers.

When you talk to him though, it’s the relationships he’s created over the years that seem to mean the most to him. Times would get a bit tougher for the man they called ‘The Captain’, after the loss of a few of those close friends, and his descent through the driving ranks. Then, last spring, while working in Florida, things almost got MUCH worse. By Dan Fisher.

He won 200 races or more for 21 consecutive years (1979-99) and purses in excess of $1 million for 25 straight seasons (1980-2004). He was the kingpin of the old Ontario Jockey Club Circuit for a good chunk of that time, and won an astonishing SEVEN O’Brien Awards as Canada’s leading driver over the eight year period from 1989-1996. People often referred to him only as ‘The Captain’ and he certainly sits on Canada’s Mount Rushmore of harness drivers, but when sitting down with him recently, following a serious health scare that he was lucky to survive a few months prior, Doug Brown didn’t talk a lot about the money or the fame or the big-named horses that he drove for years, but more about the great relationships he’s made along the way - those same relationships that he cherishes now more than ever, after staring mortality in the eye.

“Did I really?” laughed Doug Brown, when confronted with the fact that he won seven O’Brien Awards in eight years, when nobody else has ever won more than four in a career (Chris Christoforou and Sylvain Filion). It was as if he truly didn’t know. In fact, he didn’t know. He didn’t seem to realize either, that he’s won almost 8,500 races and over $90 million in purse money. And if he did know those stats, he didn’t seem interested in talking much about it. In fact, when asked about the things that stand out to him most about his Hall of Fame ca-reer, the 64-year-old reinsman, who was at Flamboro Downs this night to drive just one trotter in a mid-level claiming race, mainly spoke about the people he’d met along the way.

“My dad [Stan] was great friends with Ernie Brown [no relation] ever since I was little, and he kept some horses over at Ernie’s farm in Oshawa. We lived in a house near the townline between Whitby and Oshawa, but I spent a lot of time over at Ernie’s place with the horses. I was in the jogger at a young age. In fact, I was doing paddocks for Charlie Reid’s dad [Jack] when I was about 12 years-old, and then many years later I drove all of Charlie’s horses… all those Meadowview horses like Meadowview Sunny [$814,178]. They had a lot of good hors-es… Paul Shakes trained a bunch of them. In the early days they had a great trotter I loved, named Thelgiers. He used to race at Morrow Park. What great people… I still know them, and I started with Jack Reid when I was just a kid. I love that.”

“I owe almost everything I have to horse racing... I met [my wife] Nancy through the business. I used to train horses for her dad… that’s how we met.”

After hanging around and learning at places like Peterborough’s Morrow Park, Doug would really cut his teeth in the early seventies, af-ter Kawartha Downs opened. “I won my first race at Kawartha with a two-year-old of my dad’s… I think it was October of 1972. I was 17. His name was Out Ahead. It was my first drive and his first win. He was by Mighty Storm… I don’t even know who that is but I remember his name,” laughs Doug.

“When I was 18 we took eight or nine horses and stabled at the old Barrie track. Then we took 6 or 7 to the Jockey Club for the winter and did ok, but when summer came they weren’t good enough, so we went back to Kawartha for a bit. The next fall we went back to stable at Mohawk and that time we stayed there for good. Might have been 1975?

“One of the best horses I had early on was a horse named Brets Counsel. We bought him for $20,000 off of Frank Conlin and he won a bunch of Free For Alls for us. We had as many as 30 in training at one point… the best one I had was probably Sunday Driver. He was such a nice old horse.”

So what was it like, moving to the big circuit for the young trainer/driver who had mainly been at Kawartha Downs and some other smaller tracks? Was his goal to become Canada’s leading driver? Did he know he was a future Hall of Famer at that point?

“I just loved Ronnie Feagan. He was the king. Just the way that he was such a great driver, and watching the way he managed his stable. I thought that if I could be anything like him I’d do ok. But I was scared to death of him,” laughs Brown. “Just the way he carried himself. But I got to know him, and he was a great guy. He’d talk to me and help me. It was awful when he died, and nobody really knows what happened, but he was a good person and a great horseman, and I just wanted to be like him.”

Eventually, as catch-driving became more of a full-time gig for those who were best at it, Brown let his stable dwindle down. “I had about 25 in training still, and it took about a year to get them all moved. It had gotten to the point where it wasn’t fair for my stable because I was on the road a lot, especially on the weekends, driving for other people. It [having my own stable] cost me some good drives too… I had to book off some good stakes horses for Stew [Firlotte] to drive some of my own. And that didn’t go over well with me,” Brown laughed.

When asked about how the relationship with Stew Firlotte began, Brown didn’t pause at all in his recollection. “I had been driving for Burnsie [John Burns] a bit I guess, but Stew would be the first big one. We were at Kawartha actually, in the late seventies, and the two-year-old pacing fillies were there for the OSS. Stew had a filly in, and Brent Davies was supposed to drive her, but he didn’t show up. Stew came over and asked me if I would drive her… of course I said ‘yes’, I wasn’t driving for anyone else,” he laughs. “And that was the start of it. I think Stew only had two horses then, but every year he grew a little bit, and I grew with him. It was a great relationship for a long time, both on and off the track.

“The best one we ever had together was Town Pro. Stew trained her dam, Programmed, and I drove her, and one day a few years later Tony Delmonte and I were in Lexington and I said to him, ‘One day that mare is going to have a filly and we’re going to buy her.’ The filly she eventually had was Town Pro, and six of us got together and bought her for $60,000 as a yearling. She won the Breeders Crown for us at two and three, both times at Pompano [1989-90]. Those were great times, and it was even better because all of us in the ownership group got along great. That made it even better because we were all good friends.”

In the late eighties and early nineties, Canada’s top driver found himself driving for Canada’s top trainer, Bill Robinson. “I drove for him for quite a few years and then we had a bit of a falling out,” Brown chuckles. When asked if he recalled the details, he shares, “I remember exactly what it was. He asked me to drive Survivor Gold in the Jug because I had won the Confederation Cup with him here. So I agreed, and I booked off my drives here and made travel arrangements, and when the sheet came out Moiseyev was listed. I called him and friggin’ ripped right in to him. Afterwards, someone said that I was the only driver that ever quit driving for Bill Robinson. I drove a couple for him years later… we still talk a bit. He’s a good guy, he just likes to rub people the wrong way a bit,” Brown laughs. “But it all worked out good at the time because about two weeks after the Jug I picked up [Joe] Stutzman… and we had a lot of great years together.”

The Albatross stud, Ball And Chain was one hi-light out of many from the Brown/Stutzman years. When they teamed up to win their elimination of the 1995 Canadian Pacing Derby in 1:49.4, it was Canada’s first sub-1:50 performance. “That was a memorable time for a few reasons,” recalls Brown. “Not only was that Canada’s first sub-1:50 mile, but I also won the other elimination that night for Stew, with Historic. Making that decision [of who to drive in the final] was probably the hardest driving decision I’ve ever made. Ball And Chain was the better horse, and I took him, but it caused a bit of a riff with Stew. We had a few of those over the years too, but our relationship was stronger than the business decisions we had to make. Stew told me that it was hard when I took another horse because I was like a son to him… and he was like a dad to me. Ball And Chain got beat anyway [by a nose, to Pacific Rocket], and Stew and I made up. We were a great team, and great friends for more than 30 years, and that’s something you just don’t see. We were both very proud of that.

“It was very tough [when Stew got ill and passed] but first it was Teddy Huntbach. We did really well together, and he was such a great guy and a good friend of mine. I bugged him for years to come down and try it [on the Jockey Club]. He was up there in Kingston, wasting his time and racing for no money, and he was a great horseman. One time when I was suspended, I convinced him to come down and drive 4 or 5 at Mohawk - and it took a lot to convince him just to do that. And then he won with two of them. He finally came down [to stable there], and now I feel bad about it [because he died while stabled at Mohawk]. But he was a great guy. I remember driving one for him one night called Let Them Eat Cake. I said, ‘Any directions?’ and he said ‘Just race him how you want.’ So I got away third and moved him to the front, and he was about ⅖ on the board and we got beat by about a nose. I came back and Teddy said, ‘If I wanted him driven like an asshole I would have driven him myself,’ Doug recalls the tale with a fond smile for his dearly-missed friend. “And then we sat in the barn and drank beer until about seven in the morning. He was brutal that way, but you could never find a nicer guy.”

When he looks back and shares some of his fondest memories from his Hall of Fame career, it’s easy to see what brings the twinkle to Doug Brown’s eye - it’s when he talks about all of the people that he’s met along the way, and all of the people that helped make it possible.

“I’ve become lifelong friends with a lot of my old owners. Guys like Paul Pryne, David Abbott, Tony Delmonte, Gerry Coleman & Jackson Wittup.

“All of those guys that I drove with and against for years were a great bunch. We all got along really well for the most part. Guys like Wally [Dave Wall]... Steve Condren and I were rivals, yes, but we always got along great. We’d play golf together and stuff, away from the track. Randy Waples still calls me The Captain when he sees me (laughing). Bill Gale was a great guy, but man was he tough to drive against. That man wouldn’t give you an inch on the racetrack,” Brown recalls with a grin.

But the grin isn’t quite as evident when talking about the two aforementioned friends in particular, the late Stew Firlotte and the late Ted Huntbach. One can easily see that the memories are fond ones, but it’s also obvious that both men are sorely missed.

Then Doug agrees to share a story from this past spring in Florida, when he himself faced a life-and-death situation of his own.

“I had a heart attack,” he admits in a somber voice. “Once I eventually got into the hospital and they gave me a book to read, in hindsight the signs were all there… you know, shortness of breath and things like that… but I guess I had ignored it. It’s typical… you’re a horseman and you work a lot.

“But one day in Florida I was working there at Dustin’s [Jones] and I had one left to jog and I said, ‘I have to take a break here.’ I sat down on the trunk and was feeling light-headed… so I just sat there for five minutes. Dustin’s wife is a nurse, and she came by and saw me and said, ‘It’s your heart, I’m going to tell you right now. You need to get to the hospital.’ I told her that I’d be alright, so I went out and jogged the last one of his, and then I went over, and I was training this mare I have in tonight, that morning, so I went over to get the race bike. It wasn’t that far, maybe three alley ways over, and I had to stop and rest on the way back, just pushing the bike. I thought to myself, ‘Holy shit.’

“I didn’t tell Nancy, but Johnny Thomson was working there at the time and he had already told her,” Brown laughs. “I said, ‘Well I’ve got to train this mare,’ and I actually went out and trained her in two minutes. So after that we went to the walk-in, and they did nothing, so that night we went to the hospital and we saw two doctors. One said, ‘You had a heart attack,’ and the other said, ‘You’re having a heart attack right now,’ but both said that I needed surgery right away. Nancy went right home to check the insurance, but it friggin’ ran out the month before. I guess the coverage we had with OHHA and COSA only lasts 90 days when you’re out of the country, and we didn’t know that. So I checked out right away, and they were pretty ticked off at me at the hospital. They said, ‘You’re not even going to make it home,’ and I said, ‘Well when you hand me the bill for a couple hundred grand I’m going to fu%#in’ die anyway so I’m going home.”

Brown laughed heartily as he recounted this part of the story, but there’s no doubt that it was a pretty scary moment. Doug and Nancy Brown went home, packed their car, and headed north - hoping to make it to Canada so Doug could have the life-saving procedure he needed, but that not many could ever afford if caught in the United States without health insurance.

“I got feeling a little funny in Virginia, so we stopped for a little bit to get a room for a couple of hours so I could rest. Of course Nancy talks to everybody, and when she went to chat with the girl at the front desk about where she could order some food, she finds out that the girl was a paramedic. Nancy tells her what was going on and the girl calls in a favour to some of her friends. Next thing you know an ambulance shows up. Again, they told me that I had to get to a hospital… they told me I’d never make it to Canada alive. I told them that Nancy would drive me to the hospital because the ambulance ride would cost too much, and as soon as they left we got into the car and drove home. We went straight to the hospital in St. Catharines right after we crossed the border. We got there at six in the morning and they had me in Hamilton by ten. They did the surgery there, and so far it’s all worked out.”

On a bit of a new diet, that he admittedly doesn’t always follow exactly, but is trying his best to, Brown was told to slow down this summer while he builds back up. He and Nancy have been living back in Bowmanville, where they raised their family, and the man whose driving career started at Kawartha Downs all those years ago, found himself driving there again, almost every Saturday night this past racing season.

“They do such a great job there, bringing in the fans and creating a fun atmosphere. It’s packed every Saturday. And they bet as much there, on-track, as almost anywhere does. When most of the tracks closed the backstretches things just died. In the old days everyone would go back for a beer and order some pizzas or something, but now everyone just races and goes their own way. Kawartha is a lot of fun though. I actually got to the point again where I really looked forward to Saturday nights there. I never thought I’d feel that way again about that place.

There’s no doubt that times have changed in the life of Doug Brown. The man was a fixture at the top of the Canadian driving ranks for many years, but when things started to tail off a bit around the turn of the century, they didn’t necessarily tail off slowly, but instead, his stats dropped swiftly.

“When Teddy died, and then Stew took ill… then when Joe [Stutzman] scaled things back and eventually retired… well you lose three big clients and it makes it tough. And you’re committed to those guys so you’re not driving for many others. Then Greek and Randy were coming along, and things change. Rob Fellows was still giving me drives, but then his stable went cold for a bit, and I’m living in Bowmanville and driving an hour-and-a-half to come and drive a few longshots... It was my own fault too, because I stopped coming across for qualifiers. You know, if you want to get the good drives at night you have to be there in the mornings.”

But the man who made the green-and-white colours famous on Canadian racetracks has no regrets. “My fondest memories are probably with Town Pro. It was so much fun to do that with Stew, and with a bunch of other great friends. As for regrets… I don’t really have any. I’ve had a great career and have been surrounded by great people. My only regret might be that I wasn’t around a lot for the kids. Nancy was always just amazing. [Our son] Kyle would have hockey three or four nights a week, and our daughter [Kristal] would have dance almost as much… Nancy did almost everything. When you’re racing all of the time you’re just not around home much unfortunately. But it all worked out… Nancy was always awesome and the kids are both great.”

As for his own health and his own future. “We’re going back down to Florida with Dustin this winter. It’s so beautiful there in Vero Beach. I wouldn’t mind training three or four babies of my own again one day, but I guess I have to get my feet back under me and stay healthy.

“You know, we’ve got the animal rights people watching us and watching us, but if we treated the horses the way we treated ourselves… there’s nothing around that gets treated as good as we treat these animals. Most of us aren’t in for the money, we just love the animals.”

And in the case of people like ‘The Captain’, we also seem to love a lot of the other people, that love these animals too.

This feature originally appeared in the November issue of TROT Magazine. Subscribe to TROT today by clicking the banner below.

4 Comments

December 5, 2019 - 3:41 pmThat was an exciting end to

Jack Wilton SAID...

That was an exciting end to the article Doug; I'm sure glad you're OK. Many people don't remember that not only were you the best driver of your time but that you were also the toughest, most relentless, most powerful and highest scoring hockey player in the harness horsemen's annual championships. (That's my opinion anyway)

November 20, 2019 - 10:54 amArticles like this sure are

Articles like this sure are good to read, and do bring back good memories. I was surprised Doug didn't mention Greenwood. He drove there for us, although we couldn't get him all the time when he drove for Robinson. Didn't know about Doug's medical problems. Hope all continues well with him and hope he has now stopped smoking!

November 20, 2019 - 5:22 amOf all the many top drivers

John Carter SAID...

Of all the many top drivers there has been over the years on the WEG circuit, who were WEG regulars, Doug Brown was the very best. In my opinion the greatest driver to ever drive on a regular basis on a Canadian track.

November 17, 2019 - 6:28 pmDoug you were among one of my

John Horchik SAID...

Doug you were among one of my favourites at the track. You were always so kind, humble and had a great smile and humour. I remember after moving out west Len Feigman and I would talk about your success and how well you were doing at the time, fond memories. We were both so happy to see one of the great guys do so well. It was like seeing Chris Christoforou's career take off. I remember his dad very well and when Chris first got his drivers license.

I love the articles like this as it brings back so many fond memories and lets me know where everyone is now. As a kid my heroes were the two Ronnies (Ronnie Feagan and Ronnie Waples) and Herve Filion. Back in the 70's/80's Dave Green was a trainer of ours. He was like a best friend to me. He gave me all my breaks; first horse I jogged alone and first horse I trained on my own. In later years Gary Feagan became a trainer of ours and a dear friend. I don't know where Dave is anymore and hope one day to reconnect. Harold Stead's wife kept her pleasure horse (Socks/Sox spp?) on our farm and it was the first horse I ever rode on the back of.

Please keep these great articles coming and Doug I hope you recover fully. All the best to you.


view counter
 
 
 

© 2019 Standardbred Canada. All rights reserved. Use of this site signifies your agreement and compliance with the legal disclaimer and privacy policy.

Firefox 3 Best with IE 7 Built with Drupal