COSA TV kicked off its 2021 broadcasts with a look back at the 2020 harness racing season.
The talk down memory lane began with trainer Ron Burke, who spoke of his current operation along with praise for the team of Ed and Ashleigh Hensley with their care over Scarlett Hanover.
“We’re probably pushing close to 350 now, maybe 400 [horses] including the broodmares,” Burke said. “That’s been the bigger thing this year, the last couple years; branching out to being a breeding operation. I think we have 27 mares in foal this year, which probably three years ago we had like three or four. But with the advent of [Sweet] Lou being a good sire, and [Southwind] Frank looks like he’s going to do good and we have a couple new sires—All Bets [Off] is in Canada. We’ve tried to support our own horses and that’s made it a little bit different.
“In Canada—thank God for Eddy Hensley. He bailed us out,” Burke also said. “Without him, we would’ve had a disaster. You can’t get them in there, we can’t come with them, then we were going to try taking them back and forth, but in the end most of them we just ended up leaving with Eddy—and he did a wonderful job. The one unlucky thing of getting eliminated, Scarlett Hanover would’ve been easily the O’Brien winner. And that’s something we haven’t done—turning over charge of a horse—but we had to and Eddy did a wonderful job.”
First Burke and COSA hosts Greg Blanchard and Mark McKelvie spoke on the 2020 Maple Leaf Trot, where Burke’s star mare Atlanta rebounded following a break in the Armbro Flight to win in a stake-record-equaling 1:50.4.
“Watching it live I thought we were a winner probably from the half,” Burke said. “But even now, watching the tape, I’m like ‘how did we win?’ Like, Manchego had seven [lengths] on us. But maybe she wasn’t as sharp and our mare was really good that night. It was neat for her—I love racing the girls against the boys. It gives an added touch to the win when you can do it.”
That same night, team Burke scored a 43-1 upset in the Canadian Pacing Derby when driver James MacDonald uncorked longshot Dorsoduro Hanover down the centre of the track off a fast pace, giving the reinsman back-to-back titles in the free-for-all pacing event.
“The race went nowhere near how we thought it was going to go,” Burke said. “We really thought that, somehow, Backstreet Shadow was either going to land on the lead or in the two-hole, and it was not going to be to the half in :52 and being first up going into it. Then at that point I thought our only shot was This Is The Plan because he was close enough. He really couldn’t get shoved through until late, and by the time he did I was like ‘who’s this coming?’ and I was like ‘holy hell, that’s ours too.’ That was probably the most exciting win for us in the year… for me it was. I remember because I was sitting in here in this office and you start screaming because you’re pumped. You don’t swoop fields in those kinds of races very often.”
In a segment recorded earlier in the day, Greg Blanchard spoke with driver Andrew McCarthy on his season, which—despite the racing shutdown—was his second-best year in purse earnings and another season where the Australian native bagged over 200 wins.
“The year really started off gangbusters,” McCarthy said. “I had a lot of really good horses in the right classes, and obviously having Ramona Hill definitely boosted the year as well. I definitely finished off a little slower than I started but I couldn’t be happier with the year I had.”
When his peer Yannick Gingras made the journey across the border in September to camp at Woodbine Mohawk Park for the Grand Circuit meeting, McCarthy later followed. Going north mainly to drive Ramona Hill in her stakes engagements, McCarthy caught two other live drives in the month of stakes. The first was Chestnut Hill, who weaved through traffic in the stretch and snuck by to a 60-1 victory in the Canadian Trotting Classic.
“It’s hard to start and stop any kind of horse, but I really had to stop him there midstretch,” said McCarthy, who had to alter course in the stretch when 1-5 favourite Ready For Moni began to gallop. “It might’ve looked like it cost more of my momentum than he did on the replay, but I had to jerk him around a little bit. And for him to stay on gait after doing all of that, he’s definitely a nice horse.
“It was a matter of just a couple of inches there between getting our wheels hooked or not,” McCarthy also said. “I definitely got very lucky, and had it been the other way we’re both professionals; we would’ve got out of it no problem. Everybody was telling me how great of a drive it was—I can’t really take too much credit for it being a great drive. It was more of a lucky drive.”
McCarthy then landed the seat behind Venerate, the colt by Love You for the team of Andy and Julie Miller, in the inaugural Mohawk Million. A patient drive by McCarthy paid off in the stretch as the colt edged by the filly Donna Soprano to win by a measured half length.
“I think I got more excited watching that replay than in that race,” McCarthy said. “I pretty much drove that race like it was a qualifier, just want to put a nice line on this horse. With the 10-hole, that was the way I had to go into it. And it worked out—I kept talking to him around the last turn and through the stretch, telling him ‘we’re good, we’re good, we’re good.’ He’s definitely a top-class horse, and I think he’ll be a force to be reckoned with this summer. Once Andy [Miller] gets his gait figured out a little bit, I think he’s got a hell of a lot of improvement in him.”
The Hensleys enjoyed a breakout season on the Ontario stakes scene with thanks to their Burke connections, who sent north some yearlings for the two to train including Scarlett Hanover.
“It was really exciting for us,” Ashleigh Hensley said. “We started out the year with only six horses—usually we have 10 or 11 of our own ones. So we were down on horses, and then when we got these three babies that was really exciting for us. Then the way Scarlett turned out, it was like a dream because she was like taking care of an older horse. She just did everything right and everything we asked.”
Scarlett Hanover scored wins in the Battle Of The Belles, an Ontario Sires Stakes (OSS) Gold prelim, a division of the Champlain and her elimination of the Shes A Great Lady before the incident which placed her from first in the Shes A Great Lady final to ninth.
“Whenever she won, we were kind of excited so we went to the winner’s circle,” Ed Hensley said. “We didn’t know there was an inquiry or anything. McCarthy came up to me and said ‘oh well I hope they don’t put the inquiry up.’ Then they showed it on the replay, and it looked kind of bad, but there was no inquiry. So we took our picture and everything was going good, then when I got ready to get interviewed the inquiry came up. So we had to sweat out the inquiry and it didn’t work out; they ended up taking us down. The one good thing was I wasn’t driving her so I didn’t have to take the heat, but it was very disappointing.”
However Scarlett Hanover rebounded from the disqualification to win the OSS Super Final in a dominant-though-narrow fashion of a head decision over Voelz Delight.
“[That race] didn’t go nothing like I was hoping,” Ed Hensley said. “I used her way harder than I wanted to. I kind of wanted to float out of there, and we went a little faster than I wanted to. She just outgritted [Voelz Delight].
“It was very emotional for me,” Ashleigh Hensley said. “I was just so happy for Scarlett and for Ed and everybody, Mark Weaver and Ron Burke—all of the owners. We felt really bad about the last performance, so it was really exciting just to bounce back and have everything go good. It was just really emotional. She put her whole heart out there.”
The year also proved fruitful for Ontario native Doug McNair, who expanded his driving obligations following the racing shutdown and in doing so eked the top spot in the national dash title with 289 wins on the year—10 more than runner-up Brett MacDonald—as well as earning a spot as a finalist for the O’Brien Driver of the Year.
“It’s been a crazy year for everybody I think. To have a successful year again and to be nominated for an O’Brien Award again is a great thrill. I got off to a pretty good start to the year at Woodbine, that was the only track I was going to. Once COVID hit and we sat around for two or three months, it was kind of painful. So when we got back racing, they said they were starting afternoon racing at Hanover and I hadn’t been up there in five or six years. I figured I’d go up there for the first week or two and I ended up going for the whole year. It’s a lot of fun going up there—I’m from up there. To be driving horses up there was different but it was a lot of fun.”
And on the dash title, McNair said “Maybe by November, October, I saw I was still ahead, and Brett was racing seven days a week [while] I was only going four days a week at Mohawk. So I decided to go to London one day a week to see if I could hold him off and it worked out.”
Among the highlights of McNair’s year was driving Exploit for trainer Tony Alagna to a 34-1 win in the Metro Pace, giving McNair his first win in the event. The drive also came after McNair failed to make the final with Pirate Hanover, who went on a violent break in his elimination at the top of the stretch when a piece of equipment broke.
“When I moved [Exploit] over, [I] just felt him accelerating for me,” McNair said. “I figured he’d get a little tired late on me, but just the trip we worked out… we couldn’t have asked for a better trip. Halfway down the lane I thought I had a really good shot.”
Last year also became a breakout year for driver Scott Young. The 28-year-old reinsman, who won his 1,000th race back in January, emerged from the shutdown with opportunities which culminated into the biggest win of his career on Sept. 12, when Luc Blais trainee On A Streak held on by a nose in the William Wellwood Memorial.
“I was really worried after the two months we missed,” Young said. “[They] were two months of, what I guess you’d call cement, whether I was going to stay at Mohawk or whether I’d have to go back to Georgian and Grand River. I didn’t know what to do, because I had no work at the B tracks but I didn’t have any stakes horses qualifying in the spring. I kind of wrote the year off, [but] the work continued and it couldn’t have been any better.
“I was fortunate enough [that] two years before or the year before I was driving all of Luc’s horses on the smaller tracks,” Young also said. “And I was doing obviously very, very good—Luc’s horses are ready to race when they come. I have a pretty strong relationship with Bobby [McClure], so he was helping me with Luc a little bit, making me the other guy I guess. It was one of those scenarios where if they needed me I was going to be wherever they wanted. It just worked out that the two-year-olds were qualifying that year, and I think they actually landed together. I was there and Luc asked if I wanted to go with the other colt.”
Young, who has well immersed himself among the Ontario driving colony, had glowing support and congratulations upon nabbing the biggest victory of his life.
“When I came back to the driver’s room afterwards, like eight or nine [guys] maybe more were sitting all outside. When I walked through, none of them said anything—they all pretended like they were looking down at their phones and not paying attention,” Young said. “So when I walked by them, I said ‘oh you guys are so funny’ then they all started freaking out and high fiving me and stuff, so it was pretty good.”
The replay of COSA’s 2020 Year In Review can be found in its entirety below: