It’s been an emotional year of lows and highs for owner Brad Grant, who started the year losing four horses in the Classy Lane fire and ended 2016 as the top owner on the Woodbine circuit.
by Dave Briggs
Considering how the year started, you could forgive Brad Grant of Milton, ON for never once thinking he would end 2016 as the top owner on the Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) circuit. After the Classy Lane fire on Jan. 4 killed all 43 horses in Barn 1 — including millionaire Apprentice Hanover and three more of Grant’s own — it was at least four months before the owner could stomach visiting Classy Lane. Going to a racetrack was out of the question.
“I hurt by myself. I couldn’t get myself to go to the races for a long time. I don’t know if it was more that I didn’t want to hear, ‘I’m sorry’ because Apprentice was a pretty good horse and everybody knew him, but I just stayed away,” Grant said last week.
The one thing he could bring himself to do was get on a plane to New Jersey just a few weeks after the fire to help out a friend. He attended the January Mixed Sale at the Meadowlands to buy some horses to give to Apprentice Hanover’s trainer Ben Wallace, who lost all 17 horses he had at Classy Lane.
“We went to the sale and Ben wanted to pick himself up and go and I think as a friend and an owner, it was just the thing to do,” Grant said.
Despite a low Canadian dollar, Grant spent $275,000 (U.S.) at the sale to buy three horses — $125,000 for the sale topper Lindy’s Tru Grit, a six-year-old trotting horse; $80,000 for four-year-old pacing mare A Plus and $70,000 for three-year-old pacing colt Easy Lover Hanover, who would lead the Grant parade right to WEG’s top owner award with a major stop in the winner’s circle at Dover Downs on Nov. 28 after capturing the $314,600 Hap Hansen Progress Pace.
“(Easy Love Hanover) was a great horse to buy,” Wallace said in the Dover Downs winner’s circle that night after regular Ontario pilot Doug McNair orchestrated a career best 1:49 victory that upset favored Check Six. “He won the first five races we had him. While giving the horse some time off, we gelded him, which we had planned when we got him. After wins at Mohawk and Woodbine, we decided to put up $25,000 to supplement him to (the Progress Pace).”
Grant, 62, said it was an emotional scene after Easy Lover Hanover won the Progress.
“It was obviously a roller coaster start to the year and the end, actually,” Grant said. “The Classy Lane loss for everybody, put a damper on a lot of things. Then to finish the year with a big win with Easy Lover Hanover in the Progress, it topped things off.”
Buying Easy Lover Hanover to replace some of the horses lost in the fire gave them all good karma, Grant said.
“There’s no doubt about it. We bought him because we thought he was coming from a good barn and looked good,” Grant said. “We thought that it would be a start up for us and it got (Wallace) going. And (driver) Dougie (McNair) seemed to get along with him, so it’s a feel-good story to end the year for Ben and for myself.”
The three Mixed Sale horses, and others, helped 67-year-old Wallace post better results in 2016 than he did in 2015, despite having to start over from scratch after the fire. Wallace’s stable has earned $590,779 this year and his 45 victories is the most he’s had since 2013. Even more remarkable, his UTRS of .344 is the highest of his career since trainer records were first kept in 1992.
In April, Wallace told HRU he didn’t want the fire to end a career in which his horses have earned well north of the $35 million to which he’s credited.
“(The Progress Pace) was the culmination of a lot of hard work for Ben to get back on his feet and finish the year. We really thought that Apprentice would have a big year. He finished off 2015 really strong. We were really looking forward to racing him this year,” Grant said. “There is a lot of good horses and good four-year-olds coming back, but maybe Easy Lover Hanover will replace Apprentice, with our plan set back a year because of the tragedy.”
Grant led the WEG circuit in 2016 with 49 wins and was second in earnings with $927,713 (Cdn) to Quebec’s Determination Stable ($1,355,200). Grant’s horses made the most starts on the circuit in 2016. He had 223 starts and a record of 49-29-22.
“It’s great to be recognized. I’m committed to racing in Ontario and to the WEG program and (Ontario) Sires Stakes program. I’ll always be a part of it, whether I’m the leading owner or just one of the owners. I just want to be part of it, it’s a great game and I hope we can get more people into it,” said Grant, a third-generation horseman whose grandfather Bernard started the family in the game. Brad’s late father, John Grant, owned Bettor’s Delight and was one of the founders of Flamboro Downs. In 1998, John Grant was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
This is the first in a number of years that WEG has honored its leading owner and Brad was quick to credit the horsepeople that trainer, groom and drive his horses.
“It’s gratifying, but all the credit goes to the trainers,” Brad said. “Scott (McEneny) looks after all of my young horses, he’s had a good year. We had a great year with the two-year-old filly he had with us, Bettor’s Up. Richard (Moreau) and Ben (Wallace) do a great job with my aged horses.
“I had a little filly called Awash that Tony Alagna has for me. She’s come along real well and ended up having a great year. Then Sandbetweenurtoes has been an honest mare for me. She seems to step up and nip one or two big ones every year for us. She’s a repeat winner in the Ellamony this year. She is a favorite of mine and my wife. We seem to cheer a little bit harder for her than anyone else. Streakavana turned out really well for me. I own her with my sister Teresa (Davidson) and it’s great to have fun. Teresa is an avid horse fan, like myself, and we got lucky there too. We bought him and he won his first Gold for us right away. He’s just been a real surprise and I think he’ll be a heck of a lot better next year. We were a little disappointed in the (OSS Super) Final, but you couldn’t blame the horse. Someone stepped on his wheel and wrapped a tire around the rim, so for the last eighth of a mile he was pulling Sylvain (Filion) home. Still got a check so we can’t be disappointed and we’re looking forward to seeing what he can do next year.”
Brad said it’s really all those horsepeople that deserve the credit for his successful year.
“I’m just the owner. They look after them. Their people look after them. It’s great for me to stand there and take the credit, but it’s the people in the background, the grooms, the trainers… they are the ones that got me to the winner’s circle,” he said.
As for the Classy Lane tragedy, it’s still fresh in Brad’s mind. On the morning before the fire, Apprentice Hanover qualified well at Woodbine. Around 9 pm, Wallace was on his way home from racing at Woodbine when he called Brad to tell him how good Apprentice Hanover had been that morning. The year was looking like it was unfolding with incredible promise for the older pacer. A few hours later, Wallace called again to say he had lost everything — including his horses, equipment and a career’s worth of mementoes — in the fire.
“I was disappointed and devastated by what we lost… it’s like losing a part of your family. I think everybody would say, you never replace them, but I guess you just honor their memory by keeping going and finding the next one,” Brad said emphasizing the tragedy is, in no way, about him.
“I lost four horses. Some people lost everything they’ve ever owned or every memory. In a case like Ben (Wallace), he lost every memory he had. I’m sure a lot of other people did, too,” Brad said, adding that he was touched by the incredible outpouring of support and generosity from the industry.
“I remember getting a call at 6:00 the next morning from Ron Burke and him saying, ‘Brad, what can we do? What do they need?’ Probably by 8:00 I had four or five of those calls. Those guys in the States probably didn’t know a lot of the people up here, but they just wanted to help,” That’s the part that amazes me, day in and day out. You know, every driver wants to win every race, every trainer wants to win every race, every owner wants to win every race, but when something bad happens, you can’t find a group that’s quicker to rally around each other and help each other. It never ceases to amaze me,” Brad said, adding that he was astounded that the Central Ontario Standardbred Association (COSA) raised nearly $700,000 from its GoFundMe account to help fire victims.
“It’s just stunning what was done and how it was done and how many people stepped forward. It’s so great to see,” said Brad, who couldn’t bring himself to go to Classy Lane until the spring of 2016. “I didn’t go to Classy Lane for probably four months. I just couldn’t see myself going there.”
When Grant could finally bring himself to visit the Puslinch, ON training centre, he was struck by the handmade signs with the names of all the horses that died in the fire that had been posted on trees along the fence line.
“It was very moving,” Grant said. “I’ve got to give the horsepeople so much credit and strength. The people that lost everything in that barn picked themselves up and got back at it. They wiped their hands and said, ‘Okay, let’s move on’ and they have… You go there today and the new barn is up. It’s business as usual and life has gone on.”
For Brad Grant, the future appears to be bright.
“I’ve got some horses with partners, different trainers. I’m looking forward to next year with a nice mix of two-year-olds and three-year-olds coming back. I’m pretty optimistic that next year could be a good year.”