© GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MARY MACKAY
Kent Oakes, chairman of the host committee for the 2014 O’Brien Awards, left, and Mike O’Brien, nephew of the legendary Joe O’Brien, discuss some of their memories of the harness racing hero.
The O’Brien Awards are coming home to Prince Edward Island for the first time since their creation a quarter century ago.
Named after the late Joe O’Brien of Alberton, who is touted to be the greatest driver and trainer of harness horses in the world, the Standardbred Canada-hosted annual awards celebrate the absolute best in harness racing over a given year and are the highest honour the sport bestows upon its heroes in Canada.
For its 25th event, organizers are gearing up for an action-packed O’Brien Award weekend in Charlottetown from Friday, Feb. 7 through Sunday, Feb. 9, that will feature a special card of harness racing at Red Shores Racetrack and Casino at the CDP, an Island kitchen party, a harness racing forum and tour of P.E.I. and a black tie gala at the Delta Prince Edward and P.E.I. Convention Centre in Charlottetown.
“He was an exceptional driver. What I can remember was his sense of timing; he could sense where a hole was going to be — kind of like Gretzky — where a hole was going to come in a race before it happened and get himself in a position where he could shoot through,” says Kent Oakes, chair of the host committee for the 2014 O’Brien Awards, which is being hosted with the support of the P.E.I. 2014 Fund as part of the 150th anniversary celebration of the historic 1864 Charlottetown Conference that led to the creation of the nation.
Born in Alberton in June 26, 1917, Joe grew up at the family racetrack that was operated by his father, Harry O’Brien, for many years.
His first race win was at 16 years of age with a horse called Mickey Mouse at the Summerside Racetrack in 1933. He raced horses in the Maritimes and did extremely well
“He won 11 races one day in Truro, that was a record and probably still is a Canadian record,” Oakes says.
Joe went on to win the British Consols trophy, which was awarded to the leading driver at Old Home Week in Charlottetown, on numerous occasions in the 1940s until he and his wife, Betty Flood, headed south to Del Mar, Calif., in 1947.
He started working at Castleton Farms with a bay stallion called Indian Land, which he raced to an upset victory in the Golden West Pace in 1948.
“When I attended the movies as a kid, the theatre would typically play a news reel of significant events prior to the movie. (That race) was included in that news reel,” remembers Joe’s nephew, Mike O’Brien, of Charlottetown.
“When he won that race, that gave him instant fame.”
As a driver, Joe won 4,285 races and had earnings of more than $20 million.
“Back in the 1960s and 1970s, going the two-minute mile was the gold standard and he held (the record) for the most two-minute wins for a long time,” Oakes says.
“The biggest races — The Little Brown Jug, the Hambletonian, (the Kentucky Futurity) — those races he won multiple times, with different horses and different owners. He had success in a long, long career.”
Throughout his career, Joe was known for his incredible sense of timing on the track.
His fellow horsemen said he drove like he had a stopwatch in his head.
Even in his senior years, he was the most sought-after driver for time trails at Lexington, Ky., where at one point in his career he was time trialing about 90 per cent of the horses there.
“In earlier days, drivers would try and rate the time trial mile by going the same speed throughout. Joe pioneered the current practice of rating the horse by going a
slow first quarter and accelerating with the horse throughout the mile and finishing strong,” Mike says.
Joe died on Sept. 29, 1984. A few years later, the use of his name for a new series of annual awards for harness racing excellence arose as the topic of conversation on the Green Gables golf course one day.
Bruce Johnston, who was the editor of the Canadian Sportsman harness racing magazine and who owned a cottage in Cavendish, and Norman Hall, who is a local horse owner and industry volunteer, were playing together.
“(Standardbred Canada) had announced they were going to have Canadian harness racing awards and they were having an open call for names. Both fellows liked to golf and liked harness racing and liked to tell stories and liked scotch.
“So after a round of golf and a bottle of scotch, they came up with the idea to submit the name, Joe O’Brien Awards, (which was later) condensed to the O’Brien Awards,” Oakes says
The awards began in 1989 and until this year were held annually in Toronto, Ont.
This year, 19 O’Brien awards will be presented.
Four Islanders are up for a 2014 award: Dr. Ian Moore’s horse Arthur Blue Chip is in the two-year-old pacer category; Patrick Sheppard from Stratford is up for the rising star of the year; Charlottetown native Paul MacKenzie is up for the horsemanship of the year category and Charlottetown photographer Ann MacNeill is up for one of the O’Brien media awards.
This event is attracting the who’s who in the harness racing industry to Charlottetown.
“The leading trainers and drivers from across North America are going to be here,” Oakes says.
AT A GLANCE
Events for the O’Brien Awards
Friday, Feb. 7
The Horses Live Red Shores Racetrack and Casino at CDP: Red Shores Racetrack & Casino at CDP hosts a special live harness racing presentation with the first race post time at 6 p.m.
Island Kitchen Party (9 p.m. to midnight) at EastLink Centre: It will feature food stations showcasing some of the Island's best products from P.E.I., live entertainment, O'Brien memorabilia and more. Tickets are $15. To purchase tickets, visit the Rewards Club at Red Shores Summerside or Charlottetown or call 620-4222 and press 5. Tickets can also be pre-ordered from SC's Industry Marketing Department.
Saturday, Feb. 8
Harness Racing Industry Forum (10 a.m. to noon) at Red Shores Racetrack and Casino at CDP grandstand: Join PEIHRIA's harness racing panel for an information session on today's harness racing industry. Guests will include breeders, owners, trainers, drivers and racing executives. Pre-registration is required. There is no cost. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to register.
O'Brien Awards Gala (6 p.m. to 1 a.m.) at the Delta Prince Edward and Prince Edward Island Convention Centre: cocktail reception,
6-7 p.m., Harbourview Room; dinner and awards presentation, 7-10:30 p.m., Palmer Pope Ballroom; dance, 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., Palmer Pope Ballroom. Tickets are available through SC’s Industry Marketing Department at (905) 858-3060. It is necessary to have a credit card to purchase tickets.