© Guardian photo by Mitch MacDonald
Co-owner of Bee A Magician Herb Liverman, left, accepts the Horse of the Year Award from Standardbred Canada board chair Kent Oakes during the O'Brien Awards Gala in Charlottetown Saturday night.
Holding a prestigious awards gala honouring the best of harness racing in Charlottetown this past weekend has re-invigorated members of the industry on P.E.I., says the chair of the Standardbred Canada board of directors.
North Wiltshire resident Kent Oakes, who was elected as chair on Friday, said response from the 25th annual O'Brien Awards Gala has been overwhelmingly positive.
The awards, named after Alberton native Joe O'Brien, were held outside of Toronto for the first time ever this past weekend.
The gala, which saw more than 500 attendees, exceeded expectations, said Oakes.
"It's great to bring the O'Brien Awards, the signature event for Canadian racing to a place that has just the most tremendous passion for harness racing that you can find anywhere," said Oakes. "I think it really re-invigorated everybody that was here and certainly provided just an exceptional venue."
Having the event in O'Brien's home province drew praise Islanders involved in the industry, as well as outsiders.
Johnny MacKenzie, a Stratford native who worked for Winsloe driver Marc Campbell before joining Summerside native Dr. Ian Moore in Sorrento FL. last year, said having the awards P.E.I. made for a great night.
"It's amazing really. It's good for tourism on P.E.I. and it's also good for the awards, to move them around," said MacKenzie, who represented Moore while accepting the division award for Two-Year-Old Colt Pacers. "Joe O'Brien was from Prince Edward Island so what better place to have this than here."
Herb Liverman, who co-owns horse of the year Bee A Magician, also credited P.E.I.'s enthusiasm for harness racing and noted the high attendance for the gala.
The attendance had nearly doubled over last year's approximate 300 in Toronto.
"I hope they (Prince Edward Island) get it (the O'Brien Awards) every year. They deserve it," said Liverman, a native of Quebec. "This is the heart of harness racing, it's a tiny province of 144,000 people or so and they deserve everything."
While the weekend was big for the industry, it also signaled a personal achievement for Oakes.
He had chaired the host committee here before being elected to head the Standardbred Canada board of directors.
He said being elected was a humbling experience.
"I didn't go looking for the job. I was asked to let my name stand by some other fellow directors and I did. I was very honoured to be elected as chair," he said.
While honoured, Oakes also knows taking on the role means addressing challenges in the industry.
He pointed to Ontario as one area where the business is facing challenges.
"That's the spirit in which I took this job," he said. "We have lot of challenges in Canadian racing at the moment, we have some areas of particular strength that are coming back in Calgary, Quebec and certainly what's been happening in Prince Edward Island. But we have some other areas that we're going to need to work together on to solve some problems."
While those problems will be addressed during Oakes' term over the next two years, the weekend was about celebrating the industry's triumphs in 2013.
Oakes also thanked sponsors for the gala, as well as the volunteer committee that made the event happen.
"We exceeded every projection we set," said Oakes. "(The host committee) put in an exceptional amount of time and we were very pleased and humbled by the response that came from Islanders, Maritimers, Canadians and North Americans as a whole for this event."