Drivers take their horses around the last turn and head for home during harness racing action at the Charlottetown Driving Park Entertainment Centre Saturday. Guardian photo by Brian McInnis
What is better than having a horse in Canada’s richest harness race?
That would be two horses, of course.
Ron McLellan and his wife, Gail, who have already scaled the highest heights of the sport, will enjoy another thrill of a lifetime Saturday night.
The Bathurst couple are co-owners of Eighteen and Rockabillie, two entries in tonight’s $1.5-million Pepsi North America Cup for three-year-old pacers at Mohawk Raceway in Campbellville, Ont.
McLellan and his wife, owners of over 300 horses during a 41-year career, are partners in the two colts with former Charlottetown veterinarian Dr. Ian Moore, who trains both horses out of Rockwood, Ont., and Montreal Canadiens legend and Hockey Hall of Famer Serge Savard.
The same group was behind 2008 Little Brown Jug winner Shadow Play, a ride that McLellan said was the highlight of his racing career.
Tonight’s race — the world’s richest pacing event — will be right up there.
“To have two horses in the premier race in Canada, the premier race in North America for three-year-olds is something you dream about. Actually it’s not something you dream about because you just don’t think it will happen,” McLellan said.
“I don’t think I can explain what it will be like to be at that race. I’ll tell you one thing, nothing gives you more of a rush than having a horse in these type of situations. It’s hard on the nerves, but the joy it brings is unbelievable. This is a once in a lifetime experience.”
Both colts have matured late and have surprised their owners to reach such a grand stage. The stablemates had just nine starts each as two-year-olds last season, with just one win coming from Rockabillie.
“I’ll put it this way. If you had asked me a month ago if I thought they would both qualify, I would have said, ‘No way in hell.’ But they’ve been getting better all the time,” said McLellan, who, with Gail, race under the stable name R G McGroup Ltd. (they operate two McDonald’s franchises in Bathurst).
“To see where they were last year to where they are today, it’s a phenomenal achievement. Eighteen has grown within his body and Rockabillie had a chip issue in an ankle. We didn’t race them hard last year and instead let them grow into themselves.”
The strategy has paid off. Both trained well in Florida during the winter and have begun strong seasons as three-year-olds.
Eighteen has a pair of wins, a second-place finish and a third-place showing in six starts in 2011. The son of Cams Card Shark-Dream of Mimi, a $27,000 purchase from the 2009 Harrisburg Yearling Sale, finished a very close second to Up The Credit, one of tonight’s favourites, last month and is coming off a third-place finish in 1:51.1 in an elimination a week ago. The colt has banked $73,040 in winnings.
Rockabillie, who has posted one win, was second twice and third once in six starts this season, was runner-up to Powerful Mist in an elimination in 1:50.3 last Saturday. The son of Rocknroll Hanover-Be My Guest, a $42,000 purchase from the 2009 Lexington Select Yearling Sale, has banked $75,045.
Rockabillie will leave from Post 6 tonight for driver Brian Sears. Paul MacDonell will be in the bike for Eighteen, who drew Post 8.
The race also include elimination winners Powerful Mist, Up The Credit and Big Bad John, as well as Big Jim, last year’s champion two-year-old in both Canada and the U.S. who has lost his last two starts.
“With such a big race, you just hope both horses do the best they can. We’re in with some pretty elite company,” said McLellan, 63, who also campaigned former Canadian freshman trotter of the year Turmeric, Gold Cup and Saucer champions Kaweco and The Papermaker and scored victories with star pacers Astronomical, Malicious and Impeccable, who raced the 2006 North America Cup.
“There are probably five horses who are really, really at the top of their game and it’s going to be a challenge. We will need the racing Gods on our side.”
“I hope both of our horses race really well,” said Moore. “Our post positions certainly could have been worse, so we’re not bad there. I’m just looking for a good showing, hopefully they get a little bit of money and I think they might surprise a few people because they’ve certainly surprised me for sure.”
Moore, who has known the McLellans for over three decades, said the two horses are very different.
“Eighteen is a big rugged colt. He’s a really solid horse, one you don’t mess with. He bites a lot, not to be mean, just a ‘leave me alone’ sort of thing. Rockabillie acts tough, but he’s not as tough. He’s a little milder and not as good a eater as the other guy,” he said.
“So I have to train them totally differently. I have to be a little easy on the one and a little tougher on the other. The tougher I am on Eighteen, the tougher he seems to be. He can take it. The other guy is the total opposite and you have to go a little easy on him.”
The ownership group is a tad superstitious.
Eighteen is named after the number Savard wore as a player with the Montreal Canadiens. When Shadow Play won the Little Brown Jug in 2008, the victory came in the 18th race of the day on Sept. 18.
Today is June 18.
(CanadaEast News Service)