Rob Fellows has simply loved being around horses since before he was even 10-years-old. His parents didn’t necessarily approve of that, but Rob has always had a way of making things he wants to happen, happen.
He’s a man that gets things done, and if he doesn’t know how to do them he learns. It’s served him well in life, and he has a wonderful family and a successful stable to show for it. But he’s also a very good-hearted person, and that trait has benefitted him, and those around him, as much as anything. By Dan Fisher.
Thanks to a great team behind him as well as to the recent exploits of O’Brien Award nominees Warrawee Vital (p,3,1:47.1; $447,506) and Logan Park (3,1:52.2s; $489,372), 2021 has been one of the best years in the career of trainer Rob Fellows – but this sure isn’t something that happened overnight. No, this actually all started before Rob’s 10th birthday when his parents told him to stay away from the Port Perry Fairgrounds because “there were a lot of horses over there.”
One afternoon when Rob Fellows was 10 or 11-years-old he went over to his favourite place – the Port Perry Fairgrounds – with plans of accompanying his friend, trainer John Young, to the races at Garden City Racetrack in St. Catharines. “John had one of my favourite horses, Alto Brigade, in to go that night and my parents had said I could go,” recalls Fellows, with a mischievous grin and a sparkle in his eye as if he was explaining something that had happened just last week. “John was Bob Young’s uncle, and I used to hang around in his barn and go to the races with him all the time. But this time he said I couldn’t go… he said he was spending the night there after the race and I’d have to sit this one out. I didn’t care if he was staying over… I told him that my parents wouldn’t care either and that I really wanted to go. The answer was still ‘no’ though, so when he pulled out with the truck and trailer I followed him on my bike, and when he pulled into the gas station down the road to fill up I stashed my bike by the air pump and I snuck into the trailer and sat down on the floor in front of the horse.”
Approximately 50 years later, while spending a morning with Rob at his beautiful farm just north of Woodbine Mohawk Park, a few things become quickly apparent: the man loves his family and speaks of them often, he has a lot of good ideas and opinions on how to improve harness racing that he doesn’t mind sharing, he loves what he does for a living, and he is still just as passionate about our sport, all these years later, as he was back then, and he would do anything to help it thrive.
“John pulled off of the highway after about 30 minutes that day so I knew we weren’t at the track yet,” Rob remembers. “I figured that we were only around Oshawa, and my dad was a cop in that area, so I knew I had to stay hidden or he [John] could just drop me off at my dad’s office or something. The next time we slowed down I could tell that it was to pay the toll they used to charge to cross the Burlington Skyway, so I knew that I was good,” he still beams. “When we got to the track and he dropped that ramp and saw me though, he was pissed. He yelled something like ‘What in the hell are you doing here?’ and I told him that I had wanted to come and race the horse with him. I really didn’t think anything of it,” he shares, “I just knew that I wanted to be around the horses and at the races every chance that I got.
“The worst part of the whole experience was that my grandparents didn’t live far from Garden City and John called them… they came and picked me up and my grandpa called my dad, told him what happened, and he drove me back to Port Perry the next morning. My dad was furious but I was mad too, because I didn’t get to see the horse race… that was all I really cared about.
“I hung around all of the barns at the fairgrounds, and I helped everyone out and learned a lot. Ted Wilson was the first person that I ever met there and he’s been a lifelong friend ever since. I met him when I was about 10, he ended up being my homeroom teacher in high school a few years later, I worked for him for a couple of years after finishing high school, and I still have horses for him today… it’s kind of crazy to think about it but it’s been a 50 year friendship,” Fellows fondly reminisces.
Rob Fellows is a go-getter. He was that way when he was 10-years-old and he’s still that way today. If there’s something he wants to do he does it. If he doesn’t know how to do it he learns. It’s a great way for a person to be and it’s served him well in this life.
“When I was about 16 my parents decided that we were moving to Kingston… I wasn’t moving to Kingston though. I had one year of high school left and I wasn’t leaving Port Perry. I had a job at a gas station and I rented an old house on Scugog Island for $225/month. My dad laughed at me and said, ‘You’ll be living in Kingston with us by Christmas,’ but I was certain that wasn’t going to happen,” he says, with that same mischievous grin reappearing on his face.
“There were a few extra parking spots that belonged to that house so I’d rent them out to people to make a few extra bucks. All of my friends were at that age too, where they were fighting with their parents a lot. Back then your parents would just throw you out of the house,” he laughs, “so my friends would just come and live with me for a while. Some of them would chip in a bit for the rent… if they had any money. We had a lot of fun in that old place.”
Working at a gas station however, was not what Rob had in mind for himself over the long haul. Eventually, after he fin-ished school, he started working full time, training horses, at the farm of his mentor, Ted Wilson. “I worked for Ted for two or three years, breaking babies and training horses down and racing them off of the farm he had bought. He taught high school so he was mainly around to help on the weekends and in the summer. Ted was a great influence in my life but after a few years I decided that it was time for me to go, so I went on my way.
“I wanted to go to Florida and look for work but it’s kind of hard to get there without a car or much money, so I found one of those places they had back then where they’d pay you to drive someone’s car down south for them. They gave me the car and half the money or so in advance… you had a week to get the car down there and when you delivered it you got the rest of the money. I didn’t want to waste any of the money on hotels and I knew that I’d have no way to get around once I got down there either, so I just drove straight through… it took me 24 hours or something, but then I had the use of the car for five or six days after I got there.
“I went straight to Pompano and I had to ask around a bit but eventually Keith Waples gave me a job. I found a place to live and was riding my bike to work and back every day. I’d be sitting on my bike at a red light or whatever and I’d just talk to or say hi to all of the characters hanging around in my neighbourhood. Eventually one day, when I told someone down there where I was living, they said, ‘That’s a really bad neighbourhood!’ They told me to make sure I locked my car doors when I was sit-ting at a red light,” he laughs. “I didn’t know it was a bad neighbourhood. Looking back I really didn’t know much… it wasn’t like I had any money they could steal from me anyway.”
After a season at Pompano the young man decided that it was time to head back to Canada to see what came next for him. Even that trip home however came with another amusing tale.
“I looked up that same company and found a car that needed to come north,” he shares, “and I guess I was talking to this guy in the backstretch and told him that I was driving back to Canada. I didn’t really know him… he was Harold Stead’s brother Blaine. Anyway, I said that he could catch a ride with me for sure. We get driving up the Interstate and I eventually asked him why he was leaving Pompano for Canada. He tells me that he got thrown off the backstretch because he pulled a knife on some guy! I was like, what in the hell did I get myself into? I was terrified… I was just a kid and this guy was a man [laughing]. I just wanted to get him out of the car so I just drove straight to Windsor Raceway, where he was going, as fast as I could. Then we get to Windsor and the guys he was looking to work for had moved their stable to Flamboro, so I was stuck with him for a while longer driving him there,” Fellows shares, now laughing at the memory that he didn’t find too funny at the time.
Back on Canadian soil, Rob headed to Kingston next to see his parents, and for a while he even tried an occupation that didn’t involve horses. “For five or six months I had a job as a car salesman. I was pretty good at it… I remember making $1,800 one month and that was pretty good money. But I was spending all of my time at the track anyway [Kingston Park Raceway] and when Teddy Huntbach offered me a job with the horses I took it. I was always meant to be with the horses,” he boasts.
“That’s where I met Yolanda, she was working there for Larry Staley while she was going to Queen’s University,” Rob smiles, as he brings up the name of the woman, his wife, that he says does absolutely everything for him.
“Ya, you sure won the lottery there,” chirps longtime horseman and friend John Holmes, who has wandered up and joined the conversation. “I can’t imagine what she ever saw in you in the first place,” Holmes winks.
As Rob’s friend teases him, Yolanda happens to pop into the office at the farm to grab something, and when she leaves again Holmes quips, “You know, you should really get down and kiss the ground where she walks my friend.” Fellows doesn’t even laugh at the ribbing.
“I’d be lost without her,” Rob says in all seriousness. “She does everything for me. I’ve only been inside the bank once in the last 21 years,” he laughs. “I know that because I had to go there and sign something recently and the women at the bank all made a big deal about me being there. They looked up the old paperwork and told me that the last time I was there was in the year 2000. Hell, I don’t even know how to use an ATM card… I’m not joking when I say that Yolanda does everything.”
Yolanda, Rob, Lovemyrockinbird, Stacy Durand and Jennie Robinson
Since the pair met at Kingston Park Raceway, they’ve been just that – a pair. “We’ve been together ever since,” Rob smiles. “We’ve done it all together.
“After I worked for Teddy for a year or so, Yolanda and I started our own stable, and we got up to about a dozen horses pretty quickly, but they were all cheap horses… $1,500 claimers. We knew that we couldn’t make any real money with them. She still had a few years of school left at Queen’s, so she kept doing that, and I headed to southern Ontario and got a job with Norm McKnight Jr., who was stabled at Flamboro then. Norm was one of the best horsemen I’ve ever known… he could do everything himself. When I arrived there I had brought one horse of ours with me, a Senor Skipper horse named Ontariario. I sold him to Norm’s owner, War Dare [Ross Warriner], but he never made any money. I worked for Norm for a few years and we even did pretty good with some horses we owned together.
“When I left there I went to work for Tony Kerwood. It’s funny but Tony and David Smith were good friends… during those years I hung out with those guys a bit and Smitty lived right here at the farm where Yolanda and I live now. Who knew, 35 years ago, when I was hanging around here with those guys, that we’d own this place one day?”
It’s not really all that surprising though, because as mentioned, Rob Fellows is a go-getter. He does own that same farm now, as well as another Standardbred farm in Rockwood where he and his family also operate a storage facility on the same property. He recalls his grandfather telling him, many years ago, that with the rising costs of home ownership he’d probably just have to be a renter his entire life – something he chuckles at now.
“Yolanda and I have done it all as a team, and done ok along the way. We own a bit of real estate here and there and we have a pretty successful storage facility in Rockwood. When we started into that a little over 10 years ago we knew nothing, so we hired a guy that comes in and gives you a full breakdown on it, including an economic study on why or why not the business may work in the area where you’re looking to put it. After getting his report we decided it was worth a shot and we showed the business plan to the bank. We basically said ‘We need a million dollars’ and they said ‘ok.’ A year later, after we had started it up and invested a bunch of our savings into it, when we asked the bank for the money they basically said that the economy had crashed and they wouldn’t give us the financing… we didn’t know what to do.
“I was literally in the township building one day and just got talking to this other guy that was in there paying a bill or something. He lived up the road from us and we had seen each other around, but we had never met. I got telling him about our situation and we kind of hit it off and exchanged numbers… he called me later that day because he wanted to meet with us, and to make a long story short, let’s just say we made a deal for the financing – that night.
“It was the craziest thing, that we just both happened to be in there at that very moment and met. Who knows why things like that happen, the people that you meet when you do… like it was just meant to be I guess,” he shrugs.
Are things like that just ‘meant to be’ though? It seems like in most cases people actually make their own luck – it doesn’t just happen to keep finding them, does it?
“We’ve also been lucky to raise three great kids that have helped us along the way… now we have two grandkids too,” he says proudly.
‘Lucky’ that they raised three great kids eh? Hmmmm? It was all luck was it?
“Our son Kyle trains his own horses and works with us everyday as well. He’s a really good horseman in his own right. Our daughter Jaimi used to do all of the interviews for WEG and now she’s married to Curtis MacDonald. They have their business, Cujo Entertainment, and do well with that, and have given us our grandkids Lennon and Lincoln. Our youngest daughter Tiana is just finishing university and is going to be a teacher… I think,” he chuckles.
The truth is that most people who have spent much time around Rob Fellows in the past 30-40 years know this: not only is he a very good horseman, but he’s a very good man. Period. And thanks in-part to the racetrack backstretch, a longtime staple of horse racing that basically no longer exists in Ontario, there are a lot of people who know Rob, and know exactly the kind of person he is.
“I’d give anything to have the backstretches at the tracks open again,” Rob sighs. “That’s the one thing I wish we still had more than anything. Everybody knew everybody because you’d move barns every few months or so, and while you were stabled beside somebody you’d get doing things with them. You’d go to lunch or go to the Leaf game… they became your good friends. Then you’d move barns and become good friends with your new neighbours. It was a really unique thing that we had and I think that our sport misses it more than most people realize.”
So how about we ask someone that knows Rob Fellows, their opinion on him? Maybe someone that met him in the backstretch years ago. John Holmes was quick to poke fun at Fellows that morning at Rob’s farm, but on the phone a few days later, without Rob present, he was able to speak a bit more seriously.
“Rob is just pure class.” Holmes shares in all sincerity. Most people out there don’t have any idea of how kind of a heart the guy has… because he doesn’t want the notoriety. I mean, things like forgetting about a bill to an owner whose horse had broken down, or a variety of other kind gestures he’s made over the years… because there have been a lot of them. He’s never forgotten where he came from or how he started either, and he’s always looked out for the younger generation because of that. When I was a young driver around the OJC, if his top guy picked off his horse he’d put a guy like me down quite often… he’d give a young guy a chance. And if you finished anywhere even remotely close he’d list you again the next week.
“I’d never say this lightly, and I know that the days of Bill Wellwood are gone, but to me Rob Fellows is the closest thing to that that we have left,” says John matter-of-factly.
Mighty high praise indeed, but by all accounts the man has been a success in terms of his family life, his professional accomplishments, and how he’s viewed by many of his peers. What more is there?
“I look back,” says Fellows, “and I really just can’t believe how fast it all goes by. It’s a busy life, racing horses, and then a few kids come along, next thing you know 30 years vanish and you’re a grandfather,” he smiles. What’s really crazy also is that house,” pointing to the Fellows’ family home across the barnyard, “where we had some crazy times with our friends like Kerwood and Smitty. That’s the same house where now we’re bouncing our grandkids on our knees.
“I think back about an owner like Ed James, and what he did for us. One day he just pulls up in his car and says he wants to give us a few horses to train, and the next thing you know you’re training a horse like Hyperion Hanover. Ed James did so much for us because with his help people saw that I could train a good horse. Then someone like Synerco Ventures gets horses with you and people like Blair Corbeil come along eventually as well. It makes such a difference to have good owners.
“As far as memorable horses go, we’ve been lucky to have a number of them, but we had a little horse named Hussy Chaser that will always be a favourite of ours. He was just a small horse, but he was a stud too, and he was a bit wild,” smiles the one-time wild child that stowed away in a horse trailer for over two hours just so he could go to the races at Garden City that night.
“Hussy Chaser was just a claimer but we had him for seven or eight years and he made over half-a-million dollars. It seemed like every time we didn’t know where our next mortgage payment was coming from or something like that, he’d step up and race big, right when we needed it most. We’ll never forget him for that.
Rob’s career stat line as a trainer now boasts 1,483 wins, more than $23.2 million in purses, and includes a WEG trainer’s title that he shared with Ben Baillargeon in 2008.
“It’s funny but you get to a certain age and you look back at all of the people and horses that have come into your life in this business for one reason or another… the ones that helped you the most. It really makes me wonder how and why some of those things happened. Was it just fate?”
Maybe it was fate. The lifelong friend, mentor and owner that’s still with him today, Ted Wilson. The amazing woman he met in Kingston and married, that has been everything to him ever since. The wonderful family that he and her raised together. The business partner that just appeared one day. The many good owners that have supported him over the years. All of the peers that speak so highly of him. And so on, and so on, and so on.
Maybe it is fate, but there’s a pattern that’s developed here, and it’s called ‘good things happening to good, driven, hard working people’. Maybe, in fact, that’s what it is.
Regardless, at the end of the day, there is one thing that Rob Fellows knows for sure. “I just love our sport. I always have, I always will, and I would do absolutely anything for it.”
Don’t look now Rob, but you already have.
(Dan Fisher – TROT Magazine)