The Hall of Fame driver reflects on his stellar career, his epic 30-year battle with John Campbell and says retirement has given him the chance to spend lots of time with family.
by Dave Briggs
Driver Mike Lachance is making up for 40 years of lost time — and loving every second of it.
The U.S. and Canadian Hall of Famer said he’s blessed to have had the career he had and the opportunities it has afforded him in retirement — especially when it comes to spending time with his family.
“The good news is that I’m 66 years old and still healthy, so I knock on wood and thank God every day. I can’t complain,” Lachance said Wednesday. “I’m still doing whatever I like to do. I’m with my kids and my grandkids. Right now, it’s a wonderful life for me.
“Now that I’m retired, I go out with my wife and we go out two or three times a week and we never, never miss going out on Saturday nights – all the things I could never do for 40 years, now I do it. Right now, it’s working out great. I’m a pretty lucky guy.”
Over a 50-year career, Lachance won 10,421 races and earned $190 million in purses, currently ranking him fourth all-time on a list led by John Campbell with just over $300 million.
“When I became a catch driver in my 30s, I got the best of everything. I was spoiled for 20-some years,” Lachance said. “I drove the best horses in the country for the best people. I was very, very lucky. I stayed in one piece after all of those years, driving in all those races. I could have been broken down in pieces, but I got lucky.”
Lachance may not drive anymore — except for special events — but he’s still active in the business. He travels to Toronto from New Jersey every six weeks or so to visit his grandchildren and help his son, Martin, train horses. But, mostly, the elder Lachance works with his son, Patrick.
“Basically, I’m with Patrick almost every day,” Mike said. “Patrick is the one-man band or musician. He plays everything himself. He trains, owns, drives… he spends a lot of time in the barn. He’s got young horses there, but it’s working out well for him. He does well.
“He learned some from me and I’m learning some from him. I’m still learning all the time. Things have changed in the last 30 and 40 years, but if you don’t change with the times you get lost.”
Mike said working with horses every day has been good for his soul.
“Horses are my life,” he said. “I don’t spend too much time watching sports. Basically, I’ve said before, I’m a boring guy to be around. I like the horses. I like to get up in the morning and be with the horses.”
As for the glory days when he battled Campbell on a nightly basis at the Meadowlands, Mike said he figures he’s raced against Campbell more times than anyone in the sport’s history. It’s fitting Mike will be in Clinton, ON on July 30 to drive in Campbell’s final race — the $15,000 Legends Day Trot on Legends Day.
Campbell and Lachance hail from two of racing’s great families — Campbell from Ontario and Mike from Quebec — and, along the way, they had some epic on-track battles, but remained professionals and mutual admirers off the track.
“The last 25 years, (Campbell’s) locker was next to me at the Meadowlands, so we dressed next to each other every night for 25 years. If you count everything up, I don’t think there anyone who drove more races against John than me. I’ve been on Grand Circuit with John for 30 years. He’s a guy that was very, very disciplined and I admired that from him,” Mike said.
“We campaigned great horses against each other – Western Ideal and Dragon Again. Self Possessed and Angus Hall, Bettors Delight and Real Desire. I could name 10 more and we were first and second every night, beating each other. It was frustrating at times, but not something that we carried for a long time.”
Sometimes, that mutual competitiveness carried over off the track, but not often, Mike said.
“A couple of times through the years we had some words because we were tough competitors, but I think he always had a lot of respect for me and I did for him,” Mike said. “We never went weeks with arguing or something like that. If there was something, we said it after the race and the next day it was over. He was good for that, didn’t want to carry grudges for years. Sometimes there were arguments between the guys and they would take it to the track. Me and him? Nah. A couple of times we had different options, but he said his piece and I said my piece and we went on. That’s a thing that I like about him.”
As for drivers Mike admired growing up, other than family members, he puts Keith Waples at the top of the list.
“I was at Richelieu Park in the middle of the ‘60s and Ronnie (Waples) was working for Keith (Waples). I was working for (my brother) Gilles (Lachance), at 13 or 14 years old. I’ve known those people all my life. I have idolized Keith my whole life and I still do.
“We say ‘this guy is special or that guy is special or he’s one-in-a-million’. For me, I say there will never be one like Keith Waples — ever…Keith is in a class of his own. That guy could do everything – great businessman, great, great driver, great horseman, great trainer and a great guy to get along with… man of his word, just so many things going for him.
“I saw him in his prime. I drove against him and he taught me a lesson without even saying anything to me by the way he was doing things in the race. The first time I was in a photo with him at the wire, I’ll remember that for the rest of my life. It’s the little things like that. You know, when you idolize somebody you should never get to know him, but with Keith Waples even if you want to know more about him, you’re going to like him more. He’s a very special person.”
Lachance was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1993 and the U.S. Hall of Fame in 1996.
The second youngest of eight children born to Gédéon and Francoise Lachance, Mike’s earliest memories are of an unselfish father who shared everything with his children — most of all, his profound love of horses.
“I remember my father coming to the house and picking me up in the wintertime and we were going in the sleigh with the horses and he would stop on the side of the road and he would give me his pocket knife and say, ‘Just cut a little branch there.’ When we were coming back home with the horses he used to teach me to touch them (with the branch) to make them go faster,” Mike said in 2003 for a feature in The Canadian Sportsman magazine. “I was five, six years old and I was getting all the snow in my face. I’ll never forget those things. Wherever he went he would always bring me along with him.”
A few years later, Gédéon, who first adopted the family’s red, white and black colours, encouraged Mike to drive the family’s horses on the fair circuit.
“I was 13 years old,” Mike said. “Every Sunday he was supposed to drive, but just before the race, when it came time, he’d say, ‘You’re going to drive. Why don’t you try it.’”
Before long, Mike left home to work with the horses for his older brother, Gilles, a Canadian Hall of Famer in his own right.
In 1967, when Mike was 17, he made his first pari-mutuel start driving a horse for Gilles in Quebec City. Mike remembers getting parked in that first start when he left hard from an outside post, but soon figured out how to consistently find the winner’s circle.
A move to the smaller ovals in New York State followed, and Mike piled up the wins, but he truly made his mark in the sport in the late 1980s after moving to the Meadowlands Racetrack in New Jersey.
From 1996 through 2003, Iron Mike drove the winners of more than $8 million each year. In that same span, he won the Hambletonian four times (Victory Dream, Continentalvictory, Self Possessed and Amigo Hall).
He has won virtually every major stakes race in the sport, including the Little Brown Jug five times (B J Scoot, Goalie Jeff, Magical Mike, Western Dreamer and Bettors Delight), the North America Cup three times (Safely Kept, Straight Path and Bettors Delight), the Meadowlands Pace twice (Matts Scooter and Allamerican Theory) and the Breeders Crown 27 times.
“The thing that I’m the most proud of is to be around for so long. I started in the late 60s in Quebec City and was always on top of the drivers’ list for years after. I was around for a long time, but I was lucky too — no big accidents or other things to keep me off the track and I’m really thankful for that,” Mike said.