"The Magic Man" Bill O'Donnell | Dave Landry

The Curmudgeon’s Baker’s Dozen

March 4, 2016

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My list for the greatest drivers in history when they were at the pinnacle of their talents.

by the Curmudgeon

In the more than half a century that I’ve been in this business I’ve been privileged to have seen thousands of drivers and most certainly a lot more horses.

I’ve chosen a baker’s dozen of those drivers who I believe at their best were the greatest that I’ve ever seen.
Obviously this is a purely subjective topic with which I am sure there will be a significant degree of disagreement.
Before I get to the main topic, I think I should address two other categories.

Those who may not necessarily have been the very best in the driver categories, but were nonetheless very good and had an undue influence on the sport and those who followed them:

Keith Waples – The teacher of several of those who are on the main list. Waples did not teach as a teacher might to his students, but many of them studied him and learned from watching.

Stanley Dancer – Maybe the first driver to realize the shortest way to get around a racetrack was to go to the front and have others come and get you. This was especially effective on the New York half-mile tracks.

Hughie Bell – The first catch driver that I am aware of. He could make speed like no one else in his era and invariably improved a horse he was driving for a trainer driver.

The next category consists of those who are missing from the main list but may have the credentials to be on it. If anybody put up a strong argument saying that they deserve to be ranked among the very best, I couldn’t say that they were wrong.

In alphabetical order they are: George Brennan, Doug Brown, John Chapman, Steve Condren, Eddie Davis, Bob Farrington, Ronnie Feagan, Sylvain Filion, Lucien Fontaine, Gilles Gendron, Shelly Goudreau, W R Haughton, Del Insko, Cat Manzi, Jack Moiseyev, Jim Morrill, Joe O’Brien, Luc Ouellette, Dave Palone, Ron Waples, Lew Williams, Ted Wing, Peter Wrenn.
I’m sure I’ve left off some who deserve inclusion and 
I apologize for their omission.

Here are my top 13 and one also eligible.

1. Bill O’Donnell — At his best, albeit in a relatively short time frame of maybe four or five years, O’Donnell was the very best these eyes have ever seen. In his prime, he was truly “The Magic Man”. The amazing thing about Billy as opposed to all of the others on this list is that he did not become what I feel was a truly professional driver until he turned 30 or thereabouts. Prior to that, when he had his own stable at Foxboro, he used Teddy Wing as his catch driver. When Wing went to the Meadowlands, Billy O moved his stable to Saratoga where he first seriously began to drive. One night when he won seven of eight starts, he decided it was to move to The Meadowlands and try his luck in the big time.

2. John Campbell — What else can be said about J. C. Superstar? He is the all time leading money winner. He has won more classic events than any man in the history of the sport. He is great beyond great. Now in his sixties, he is still one of the fiercest competitors to ever sit behind a horse. If I had my choice between O’Donnell and Campbell at their best, I’d be more than happy to get second pick.

3. Herve Filion — I could be accused of being a tiny bit prejudiced here. Growing up, he was my idol. I thought he was a harness racing God. I believed he was half horse. He could speak horse before he learned English. Great soft hands and one always had a horse after he handed the lines back to you. A pupil who learned from Keith Waples. As my late friend Andy Grant would say of him, “He was likely born in a feed bucket.”

4. Michel Lachance — Iron Mike. Maybe the toughest competitor I’ve ever known, both in and out of harness racing. He was always prepared, a true professional. If he told you something about a horse, he would be invariably right. I think that if I wanted a driver’s opinion about a young horse’s potential, he would be the person I’d go to. Another graduate of the Keith Waples school.

5. Brian Sears — One of the greatest that these eyes have ever seen. Even in the days when he raced at The Meadows, invariably finishing second to Dave Palone, I thought he was fantastic. As great as his accomplishments have been, I’ve always felt he could have been better, if he had the fire and ambition of a John Campbell or Mike Lachance.

6. Tim Tetrick — The future is now. Although still quite young, he is already one of our sport’s greatest drivers ever. Timmy has it all. Great hands, a great head, excellent judge of pace and everything else that a great driver requires. As one of the sport’s most accomplished gamblers recently said on Facebook “one of the best bets in harness racing today is first time Tetrick.” Who am I to disagree?

7. Carmine Abbatiello — In my opinion, it’s a push between Abbatiello and Walter Case as the greatest half-mile track driver ever. First time Carmine was always a great bet. In his time, he could make more speed than any driver I had previously seen. It seemed to these unknowing eyes that for the most part, he was quite content to more or less restrict his driving to the New York metropolitan area. Thus, the largest number of his wins came aboard overnight and fast class horses.

8. Ron Pierce — The greatest instinctive driver ever. He could and often would do things on the track that one might question only to see his actions confirmed with another trip to the winner’s circle. More than any other driver that I can think of, as he got older, he got better, much better. He was in my opinion the only driver who could possibly have defeated Somebeachsomewhere in The Meadowlands Pace as he did with Art Official.

9. Buddy Gilmour — Great, soft hands. A great mind. He was half-horse in the bike. Not only a great driver but a great horseman as well. Another Keith Waples school graduate.

10. David Miller — Although it seems somewhat inane to refer to a Hall of Famer as being under rated, I believe that term very much applies to Dave Miller. Perhaps it’s his quiet demeanor, but, in my opinion, he rarely gets the respect he deserves. Instead of being the forth or fifth choice in many of the top events, I believe he is every bit as competent as the first or second picks.

11. George Sholty — In his prime he could make a horse go as fast as anybody I’ve ever seen. It was pure poetry seeing his movements in the bike in perfect sync with those of the horse he was steering. His racing of Sonsam and Bengazi Hanover really stand out in my mind. A great driver, but quite possibly a better all around horseman.

12. Benny Webster — Speed should have been his nickname instead of “The Whip”. He could make it as well as anybody that ever lived. Another great driver who’s horsemanship is sometimes forgotten. He played a great part in the success of No Nukes and Flak Bait.

13. Yannick Gingras — The most aggressive driver of today’s youth core. If you are a gambler and want to get the most for your money when making a bet, Yannick is probably your best shot. He keeps getting better. In my opinion, he isn’t near as good as he will one day be.

Also Eligible — Walter Case Jr. — Likely the most purely-talented driver to ever sit behind a horse. 
His worst enemy was himself and he has only himself to blame for all his misfortunes and those he caused 
to others. What a terrible loss to himself and the sport.

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