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Too Stubborn To Quit

Trot Feature: Mark MacDonald

Many years ago when a young Mark MacDonald moved a few cheap horses from PEI to Windsor Raceway in Ontario, many that knew him probably thought he was nuts.

Two O’Brien Awards, many major stakes titles, and $103 million in driving purses later, they’ve probably changed their minds. The journey however, hasn’t been easy. At least three major racing accidents along the way led Mark to multiple surgeries and years of both mental and physical pain - not to mention many of the other issues that arise from each. Now, a pain-free and resurgent MacDonald is happy in life, and is also the driver of a top contender for the 2022 Hambletonian. By Keith McCalmont.

The good ones can overcome adversity.

Consider two-year-old trotting colt King Of The North, who was sitting vulnerable in seventh position at the three-quarter pole as the parimutuel favorite in the Peter Haughton Memorial on August 7 at the Meadowlands.

Robertsin, the second-choice piloted by George Brennan, let Global Pandemic rock through an opening quarter-mile in :26.3 before taking command through a slow half-mile in :56, with Fast As The Wind and Dexter Dunn sitting outside in fifth, going nowhere and waiting for cover.

Brennan cut out an easy three-quarters in 1:25.2 but two-time O’Brien Award-winning driver Mark MacDonald remained patient with King Of The North, fanning wide into the lane from a traffic-troubled third-over trip before asking the colt for his best.

“I was a little concerned when George Brennan got a cheap middle half,” MacDonald said. “Coming into the backstretch, I was far enough away from a stupid first quarter. I just hoped they’d keep moving along but they didn’t and they started to jam up, and now I’m third-up instead of second-up.

“From the half to the three-quarter pole I was worried, but I know he has a tremendous move,” MacDonald continued. “He’s got a really big late kick and he’s a fighter.”

Schnittker Ward, Arden Homestead Stable, Nolamaura Racing, and Steve Arnold’s King Of The North, who was bred by Steve Jones and trainer Ray Schnittker, moved with intent down the lane, picking off rivals one-by-one with Scott Zeron and Classic Hill weaving their way into contention.

“He put a little speed wobble in there coming out of the turn. He was trying to trot like 26 seconds,” MacDonald said.

But MacDonald called on his experience and straightened the colt out to secure a half-length win over Classic Hill.

“He wants to win. He sticks his neck out,” MacDonald said. “You can’t teach ‘em that. He had an excuse to lose that race and he still won. He’s the total package and a pleasure to drive. A horse like that gives you a reason to get out of bed.”

And for MacDonald, a man who has overcome two potentially career-ending injuries, getting out of bed hasn’t always been easy.

Mark MacDonald, a 42-year-old native of Charlottetown, P.E.I, has repeatedly demonstrated the persistence required to be successful in the upper echelon of harness racing.

He won his first race as a trainer at the age of 16 in 1995, with Dusty Lane Time in 2:08.4 at Charlottetown, and then bucked the odds by making the trek to Ontario to launch a modest stable at Windsor Raceway. MacDonald then transitioned into a career as a catch driver, winning titles at Windsor in 2000 and 2002 and at Western Fair in 2003.

In 2005, MacDonald won a Canadian record 695 races and added $8.6 million in purses en route to O’Brien Award honours as the nation’s top driver. A year later he upped his totals to 745 wins and $11.4 million in purses and added a second O’Brien Award to his mantle.

And with success, the horses he drove grew in stature. In 2006 he captured the Little Brown Jug with Jimmy Takter’s Mr Feelgood, then in 2009, MacDonald hooked up with the Casie Coleman-trained Sportswriter and established a world record 1:49.2s in the $1 million Metro final at Mohawk in a season that would see the pacing colt take Dan Patch and O’Brien-award honours.

MacDonald again reached the pinnacle of success in Canada in 2010 by driving Sportswriter to victory in the $1.5 million North America Cup.

He had been on top for a number of years at this point but it all came crashing down on May 26, 2011 at Mohawk when the aptly named If I Didn’t Care, in rein to Jody Jamieson, stumbled and fell to the track.

MacDonald and Dancers Cam were bearing down on Jamieson with a split-second decision about to determine their fate.

“Me and Jody are good friends but it wouldn’t matter who it was on the track, it’s hard to run another human being over,” MacDonald said. “His horse was down and I was either going over the downed horse or…”

MacDonald steered away from Jamieson and into the fallen horse, catapulting himself from the bike at top speed.

“You can’t step on the guy, I could have killed him. I took a chance and hoped for the best and it did not work out for the best. I got hurt really bad,” MacDonald said. “I almost died. I broke every bone in my face. I knocked a bunch of teeth out. I’ve got plates and screws in my jaw. I think now I have four plates and 30 screws in my jaw.”

It was the second such incident for MacDonald, who had broken bones in his face as well as his left shoulder in a spill at Western Fair years before.

“Unfortunately, I’ve been a lightning rod for those bad scenarios,” MacDonald says.

After the 2011 mishap MacDonald returned just four weeks later, guiding Western Silk to a third-place finish in the Ellamony Stakes at Flamboro Downs, but all was not right with the veteran reinsman.

“Coming back from that accident, I was missing a lot of time. I was also going through a lot personally,” MacDonald said. “I had such a bad concussion. I didn’t think it was ever going to go away.”

MacDonald powered through the pain and distraction, including a memorable drive with the Coleman-trained Betterthancheddar to win the Breeders Crown Three-Year-Old Colt Pace at Woodbine.

“That year I came back and won a Breeders’ Crown but after that I still just wasn’t myself. I never felt good. I’d get fatigued real easy and couldn’t sleep. I felt like I was in a fog,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald’s persistence got him back in the bike, but it also steered him clear of the important facets of recovery, both mentally and physically. The pain in his left shoulder lingered and he had struggled through a divorce.

“I was in so many accidents and they had me on a lot of different painkillers. I was drinking on those. That’s how people die and I was doing it all the time,” MacDonald said. “I was getting divorced and in pain, and with the concussion... not knowing what’s going on. You can’t live like that.”

In 2012, MacDonald moved to New York. It was a brave decision to separate himself from the distractions of a lifestyle that threatened to end more than his career.

“I had to change my friends, where I lived and how I’m living... or I’m going to die,” MacDonald said. “I just wasn’t living right. You can only put your body and your mind through so much. Everything works together. So, you just wipe the slate clean and start over. You’re not hanging out with the same people you were hanging out with. You’re living in a different place. Heck, I was living in a different country. I just tried to change everything.”

For the second time in his professional life, MacDonald was starting over.

When things were low, he relied on a strong family bond with his wife, Alea, and his brothers Anthony, Curtis, James and Boyd, as well as his parents Fred and Gail.

“My brothers are my best friends. I have a running joke with my little brother, James. When you’re doing bad, my Dad will send me these motivational texts,” said MacDonald with a laugh.

Mark to James: “Man, I thought I was doing good but I just got a text from dad telling me how good I am…”

James to Mark: “You must have had a really bad night.”

“My dad watches every race,” MacDonald said. “If you win, it’s, ‘Congrats, great job, that’s why you’re one of the best in the world.’ If you lose, he’ll write, ‘Drove perfect, great money day. The owner will be happy, you drove great.’ He’ll have it figured out to the dime what I made.”

During his early period of resurgence in New York, MacDonald surpassed the 5,000 win mark and in 2016 he steered home 224 winners for $5.8 million in purses from only 1,947 starts.

On his second time heading to the top, MacDonald was afforded the chance to appreciate the difficulty of his ascendance and those that had helped along the way, including the late Mike MacDonald, a legend of Atlantic Canada and King of the Gold Cup & Saucer.

“Early in my career, Mike MacDonald taught me a lot about horsemanship,” MacDonald said. “When I started driving, I couldn’t afford a suit. I won my first race in Mike’s colours. He helped me a lot and gave me a helmet and had it all painted up. I still wear his colours today.”

He also paid homage to owner-trainer-breeder Neil Moase and trainer Bob McIntosh.

“When I originally went to Windsor I was working on a salary for Neil Moase. He gave me my first start there,” MacDonald said. “In Windsor, I got to drive for Bob McIntosh. That changed everything. I started getting catch drives and got to sit behind some nice horses... get the feel of what it was like to drive good, young horses. Up to that point, I’d only driven cheap horses. That’s all I had. My best horse was a ten claimer.”

That success allowed MacDonald to travel his talent to Western Fair and eventually Flamboro, where he hooked up with rising star, trainer Casie Coleman.

“I was driving her stable at Flamboro,” added MacDonald. “We were taking horses over to Woodbine and I wasn’t driving them all, I just had the ones people picked off of, but we just started doing really good. We took off at the same time and I had a real live barn to drive for.

“The timing was right and I started getting drives at Woodbine... I took off at Woodbine and Mohawk and won a couple of O’Brien Awards for Driver of the Year in Canada. It happened real quick.”

And in New York, while he wasn’t top of the driver charts in the States, life was good again for Mark and Alea. He was driving regularly for Mark Ford, Ray Schnittker and John McDermott, and he traveled frequently to find young horses on the rise. But the pain in his shoulder still lingered.

Tragedy would strike again however, and his world came crashing down in a freak accident at Saratoga in July 2019 when two-year-old Splash Brother hooked wheels with a rival behind the gate, unseating MacDonald, who fractured a left-shoulder joint and once again found himself bedridden.

When times are tough, you find out who your real friends are.

“I just had rotator cuff surgery three hours ago, but I’m returning this call because Mark is that important to me,” said veteran trainer John McDermott from his hospital bed recently. “There’s about 15 drivers that have magic in their hands and he’s one of them.”

McDermott had just been operated on by Dr. Daniel Tomlinson, the same surgeon who operated on MacDonald’s fractured left shoulder joint a few years earlier.

“I don’t know how he gets in the bike. The injuries he’s had are unbelievable,” McDermott said. “At this stage, I’d thought he’d have become a trainer. I don’t know how the man is brave enough to get in the bike with all the wrecks he’s had.

“They were major injuries too. I’m here in a bed for a few days with this shoulder, but he was in a hospital bed for months. He’s a special kind of cat, he really is. Maybe his brain is frozen from all the years in P.E.I.,” he added with a laugh.

MacDonald credits Dr. Tomlinson with properly reassembling the fragments of his battle-hardened shoulders.

“I had to have my shoulder semi-replaced. They took a lot of bone out of my left shoulder and reconstructed it. I had tendon damage in my arm,” MacDonald said. “They put a bone graft and a plate and a couple screws in my shoulder. Dr. Tomlinson is one of the best surgeons in New York.”

Having surgery necessitated the use of painkillers, which MacDonald said brought back bad memories and a lot of understandable concerns. Fortunately, he was surrounded by a strong family and his good friends Ray [Schnittker] and John [McDermott].

“I haven’t touched painkillers in years except for that accident,” MacDonald said. “It would have been so easy to fall back into that bad routine, but I was lucky to have good people around me. My wife, and Ray and John would come over to check on me all the time.

“I can talk openly around them,” he added. “The minute I could tolerate the pain without the painkillers I stopped and just took Ibuprofen after that. That was an accomplishment. It was the perfect storm to relapse and be a train wreck. I’m stronger now than I ever was.”

MacDonald was stronger – mentally and physically – and when he returned to the bike in March 2020, he was driving pain free for the first time in more than a decade.

“At the time of the accident [in 2019] it was horrible, but it was a blessing in disguise,” MacDonald said. “Now I could train my body and work out. I could feel good on the track and not be in pain. I slept better. I used to sleep in a recliner sometimes. That shoulder was half destroyed before I broke it again.”

This time around, MacDonald focused his incredible will to succeed on a complete recovery, which included both his mental and physical health.

“I work out a lot. I lift weights and do cardio. I just bought a new elliptical and I try to do that every day,” said MacDonald. “I try and show up to the races with a smile on my face. Sometimes, I get angry, as we all do. It’s a competitive sport but I try and do the right things.”

And it’s an approach he applies off the track as well.

“I feel if you’re doing the right things in your personal life that it pays off in a work-related way sometimes, too,” MacDonald said.

One of the ways this approach paid off was by gaining the drive on McDermott’s star pacer Hurrikane Emperor, beginning with a qualifier in May 2020 at Goshen.

“They could have used anybody on that horse. That was the best horse John has ever had and to sell me to his owners – a guy that hasn’t driven in a year and is all beat up – and put him on your best horse…,” said an emotional MacDonald, before taking a moment to gather himself.

One of the hardest parts about recovery – particularly as it relates to mental health – is believing that you deserve a second and third chance.

“You deserve a chance but you need the opportunity. When I was younger, I’d get those kinds of opportunities but I wasn’t as grateful as I am today,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald seized his opportunity with Hurrikane Emperor, winning an opening-round Graduate leg at Tioga [in 1:48.1]. After finishing third in another leg at the Meadowlands, MacDonald executed a perfect trip to circle past rivals and win the $250,000 Graduate final at odds of nearly 8/1… in 1:47.

“That win in the Graduate final really put me back where I needed to be. ``Confidence wise it made me feel good and it put me on the map again,” MacDonald said.

McDermott spoke of MacDonald’s character and a friendship that started in the early 2000s and strengthened when he moved much of his stock to Goshen in a barn shared with Schnittker.

“The last few years, anything I ever asked of Mark he never said no... and that was before Emperor was ever on his radar screen for driving,” McDermott said. “I’d call and ask him if he could come over to help me train a few and he would say, ‘No problem, what time?’ Me, him and Ray have a really great relationship. We’re all a bit insane and enjoy hanging out.”

That hard work and commitment to doing the right thing, along with his abundant talent, is what earned MacDonald the drive on Hurrikane Emperor.

“In my mind, Mark was going to drive the horse, and all my partners were 100 percent all for it. Since then, that was Mark’s drive,” McDermott said. “The only way he would’ve lost it was if he told me he didn’t want to drive the horse.”

Considering so many barns had struggled through the pandemic and many horsemen were leaking money at an alarming rate, it’s commendable that McDermott stood by his friend when other “name” drivers were available.

“I’ve been losing purse money for years,” said McDermott, with a laugh. “My relationships with people are more important than anything, and Mark has been a really great friend. Plus, people don’t understand how great the kid is. People see the Yannicks and the Dexters of the world, and the only reason Mark’s not in that category is that he doesn’t have their horses... because Mark can flat-out drive.”

And at long odds in that 2020 Graduate final, MacDonald was definitely going to have to earn it.

McDermott has two versions of how that winning trip played out.

“As we’re going to the track, I said to Mark that these horses are pretty close together and whoever gives the best drive is going to win this race. And when he came back to the winner’s circle I looked at him and said, ‘I guess I was wrong. You drove like shit, but we won anyway,’” said McDermott, as the laughter rolled.

But the truth of the matter is MacDonald engineered a quality second-over trip, racing three-wide off the turn to chase down Workin Ona Mystery.

“That was the most beautiful drive in the world,” said McDermott, who also campaigned the horse’s sire, Hurrikane Kingcole. “When Mark wouldn’t go to the rail at the quarter pole, he won the race. It was a perfect drive. My partners and I were always waiting for that one time we got a perfect trip and that race we were all in consensus. We got the one-in-a-million trip.”

It was a special win for McDermott, and the moment was made that much more memorable when driver Yannick Gingras, who had piloted 73/1 shot Captain Victorious, steered over to offer his congratulations to MacDonald.

“The coolest thing is if you watch after the wire, Yannick and Mark fist bumped each other,” McDermott said. “My daughter texted Yannick about how awesome that was and Yannick wrote back, ‘They both deserve it. Nobody works harder than your dad and I’m so happy to see that happen for both of them.’”

MacDonald is happily settled now in Goshen, N.Y. with Alea and their 2-year-old daughter Kiara Grace, and he is also close with his two sons from his previous marriage, Marshall (16) and Connor (14). Recently, MacDonald and Alea became American citizens.

Mark MacDonald with daughter Kiara Grace, 2, and wife Alea

The Graduate score put MacDonald back on the map, and eight months into the 2021 season, he has climbed his way back near the top of the mountain with 118 wins from 1068 drives, and $2.5 million in purses.

A memorable 2021 so far includes a first score in the Meadowlands Pace, guiding 5/1 shot Lawless Shadow to victory for Dr. Ian Moore, a friend of more than 35 years, with a heady drive to defeat the favoured Perfect Sting.

With Schnittker, he has the promising duo of Brickhouse Babe, recent runner-up in the Jim Doherty Memorial at the Meadowlands, on the same day he was victorious with the 2022 Hambletonian hopeful King Of The North, by Walner and out of Schnittker’s $1.9 million earner Check Me Out.

And Hurrikane Emperor is working his way back to the races as well.

“Right now, I’m just over-the-moon happy with the way things are going and to have these opportunities. I just want to stay focused mentally and physically,” MacDonald said. “I don’t think I enjoyed it as much when I was younger and took it for granted that there would always be that good horse to drive, and that I’d always be a top guy at the track.

“To be pushed back down to the bottom and be injured, and now having a chance with horses like King Of The North, Brickhouse Babe and Lawless Shadow, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of these opportunities,” he continued. “I’m very grateful for them and I’m going to make the most of every chance I get.”

It’s the sentiment of a man who has lost and regained hope on numerous occasions, including the early days at Windsor when he would put his name down at the stable gate to catch-paddock because he had no money to eat.”

“I’m too stubborn to quit. It’s part of what’s inside me,” MacDonald said. “Coming up from P.E.I with a little barn of cheap horses - just trying to stay afloat was tough. It was hard to do and I’m sure a lot of people were sure I wasn’t going to do it, but I was too stubborn to not make it happen. It just had to work.”

And it has. Again and again and again.

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

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