Wire To Wire: O’Briens adopt Jimmy Takter rule

How an unnecessary rule restricting foreigners from Canada’s Trainer of the Year Award weakens the O’Brien brand.

By Dave Briggs

Winning an O’Brien Award is one of the greatest honors in the sport. Too bad most Americans won’t get the chance to know the feeling as the awards have become increasingly insular with each passing year.

New rules put in place this year by Standardbred Canada restrict the Trainer of the Year award to a person who has made at least 30 per cent of his or her starts in Canada. Let’s call it the Jimmy Takter Rule.

Takter has been a finalist for Canada’s top trainer award the last two years and lost both times to three-time winner Richard Moreau. Despite Takter’s overwhelming success racing in Canada, his nomination has sparked a debate about whether an American should even be eligible for the award.

On the surface, that makes sense, right? After all, this is Canada’s Trainer of the Year Award. Shouldn’t it automatically go to a Canadian?

Not exactly.

The O’Brien winners do skew heavily toward Canadians, as they should.

But they are not, by rule, restricted to Canadians, just as the Dan Patch Awards are not restricted to Americans.

What few people know is the clear mandate of O’Brien Award voters is to select the people and horses that “made the greatest contribution to Canadian racing.” That’s left up to voters, as it should be, to decide what that means to them. By rule, people and horses do not have to be Canadian. There also is no rule that they have to operate in the country (other than the new trainer restrictions and a requirement that horses have to race at least three times that year in Canada — a rule that also was adopted long after the O’Briens began in 1989).

Second, voters have repeatedly shown a gross inconsistency between how they pick the horse and people awards. Plenty of U.S. horses have won O’Brien Awards by winning major races in Canada. Yet, a non-Canadian has never won the Trainer of the Year award despite a long list of them winning major events in Canada and, clearly, making a great contribution to Canadian racing.

I’m not sure, exactly, why an American horse that races just three times in Canada and has success in the country is okay by voters when an American trainer — let’s use Takter’s 2016 stats as an example — did not make a great contribution when he raced 70 times in Canada (about 10 per cent of his total starts), earned $2.26 million north of the border and won five of the country’s major stakes races.

Tony Alagna is another great example. Sure, he’s an American, but he operated a stable in Canada, had 170 starts in the country — about 28 per cent of his total starts, meaning he will be ineligible for the Trainer of the Year Award — earned more than $1.7 million in Canada and competed in the Ontario Sires Stakes program. Why should he be ineligible for consideration?

Restricting the trainer award to those that race mostly in Canada is an extremely narrow view of what constitutes a great contribution. It also smacks of xenophobia and is particularly odd considering the O’Briens are named for Joe O’Brien, a proud Canadian whose greatest career accomplishments came in the United States, not Canada.

All that aside, mostly I’m left scratching my head about why this rule is even necessary in the first place since non-Canadians have never won the top trainer award. On their own, voters clearly selected the Canadian (Moreau) over the American (Takter), despite the latter having arguably the flashier stats and scoring higher than Moreau in the categories that usually determine the horse winners — namely, earnings and major stakes victories that occur at the upper echelons of the sport.

The new rule also threatens to weaken the award by placing it in restricted, not open, company in a borderless industry in which Ontario, in particular, is as important a jurisdiction as Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Indiana and Ohio.

Bill O’Donnell, who is on Standardbred Canada’s O’Brien/Cam Fella Awards committee said Thursday that he was the one who suggested the rule change in the hope of providing further clarity to voters. He said Takter’s repeated nomination was confusing to those that did not understand the O’Brien Awards’ unique, unwritten, mandate to be awards mostly about and for Canadians. On the surface, considering Takter’s higher profile, it became difficult to explain to people why he didn’t win the award. So, O’Donnell led the charge to take future confusion on the issue out of the equation and, in the process, make it difficult for non-Canadians to be eligible. With all due respect to the Hall of Famer, that may be over-thinking the issue.

I have a great passion for the O’Brien Awards. I believe they are the best annual awards in the business and Standardbred Canada puts on a terrific show.

Yes, they should mostly be about Canadians, but voters have done just fine arriving at that conclusion on their own.

Honestly, for me, this isn’t about Takter. There won’t be a single tear shed by anyone if he never wins Canada’s Trainer of the Year award.

But that’s not the point. Why should he, and other non-Canadians, be excluded from consideration when, by doing so, it weakens the O’Brien’s terrific brand?