The O’Brien Awards celebrating the best in Canadian harness racing are on tap for Saturday night in Toronto. To get you ready for the black tie event, former O’Brien co-host Greg Blanchard tells us who he thinks will take home the awards.
by Greg Blanchard
(Editor’s note: Standardbred Canada’s O’Brien Awards — set for Saturday night in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga — is one of harness racing’s great events. It is a swanky, black tie gala that is part Academy Awards and part prom celebrating the best in the sport in Canada from the previous year.
One of the things that makes the O’Briens great is the suspense. Every category has pre-announced finalists, but the winners aren’t announced until that night. It makes the entire event suitable for some fun table wagering and handicapping, which is why HRU asked handicapper, broadcaster, former O’Brien Award co-host and The Raceway at The Western Fair District’s director of racing Greg Blanchard to give us his picks for who he thinks will win this year’s O’Briens.
Please remember a few things that make the O’Brien Awards unique. Voters are asked to decide which person or horse made the “greatest contribution to Canadian racing” and to qualify for an O’Brien, horses need to make at least three starts in Canada in a year.
Thanks to Omega Alpha Pharmaceuticals and Standardbred Canada, you can stream the entire event live beginning at 9 p.m. (EST) at http://www.standardbredcanada.ca
Here’s Blanchard’s picks:
Two-year-old filly pacer – Kendall Seelster vs. Percy Blue Chip
Winner: Kendall Seelster
In what I consider perhaps the closest division of the night, I give this filly the slight edge in a tight photo finish. While Percy had the better head-to-head record, Kendall Seelster came into her own in mid season and, for a stint, might have been the best filly pacer in North America.
Two-year-old colt pacer – Pedro Hanover vs. Stay Hungry
Winner: Stay Hungry
This should be another tight horse race for the O’Brien trophy between two ultra-talented sons of Somebeachsomewhere. Both compiled similar records but Stay Hungry’s larger bankroll and his major win in the Breeders Crown will likely tip the scales in his favor.
Three-year-old filly pacer – Bettors Up vs. The Joy Luck Club
Winner: Bettors Up
I believe there is potential for a mild upset in this division as The Joy Luck Club won plenty of supporters with several head-turning victories during the season. But, I will give the slight nod in this category to Bettors Up who took on many of the continent’s best while notching a couple of Grand Circuit wins along the way.
Three-year-old colt pacer – Classic Pro vs. Mateo
Winner: Classic Pro
The Shadow Play colt looks like the solid top choice here based on the level of competition he faced during a gruelling sophomore campaign. His effort in the high-profile Pepsi NA Cup will help his case but I certainly can’t diminish the dominant season that Mateo put together in Western Canada.
Older Pacing Mare – Pure Country vs. Sandbetweenurtoes
Winner: Pure Country
Another tough division to handicap that pits the well-travelled Pure Country against the local stalwart Sandbetweenurtoes. The latter was a winning machine with 12 trips to the winner’s circle including a pair of sub 1:50 efforts. Voters must weigh that against the fact Pure Country got better as the season wore on and notched quartet of major stakes victories along the way. Could go either way!
Older Pacing Horse – McWicked vs. Sintra
You could make a strong argument for either finalist in this division. McWicked was one of the great comeback stories of the season and certainly had his moments in the spotlight, however Sintra put together some electrifying performances during his brilliant season. I think his win in the Canadian Pacing Derby on home soil is what garners him an O’Brien Award.
Two-year-old filly trotters – Kadabra Queen vs. Smoke and Mirrors
Winner: Kadabra Queen
For me, this match up of two talented daughters of Kadabra came down to Kadabra Queen’s better overall record. She compiled more wins, more money and a major victory in the OSS Super Final. I give her a big chance to take home the hardware.
Two-year-old colt trotter – Alarm Detector vs. You Know You Do
Winner: Alarm Detector
Though both colts had excellent rookie seasons, Alarm Detector will likely get the edge on the strength of his head-to-head record and the fact that he is Canadian based.
Three-year-old filly trotter – Ariana G vs. Magic Presto
Winner: Ariana G
While Magic Presto enjoyed a tremendous campaign, her counterpart put together one of the greatest seasons ever by a three-year-old filly trotter and was undefeated in Canada. Ariana G is the overwhelming favourite in this category.
Three-year-old colt trotter – International Moni vs. R First Class
Winner: International Moni
International Moni enjoyed a higher profile than his fellow finalist while competing in the sport’s biggest races such as the Hambletonian, Canadian Trotting Classic and Breeders Crown. That, combined with his successful record north of the border, should give him the edge.
Older Trotting Horse – Musical Rhythm vs. Odds On Amethyst
Winner: Odds On Amethyst
No one trotter emerged dominant in this division, which makes this a wide-open race. Both finalists are locally stabled and enjoyed the bulk of their success on the WEG circuit. I’ll give Odds On Amethyst the call based on a heavier overall workload and his impressive six-race win streak at the preferred level last spring.
Older Trotting Mare – Emoticon Hanover vs. Hannelore Hanover
Winner: Hannelore Hanover
Hannelore Hanover was dominant once again, including resounding wins in all five of her Canadian appearances in 2017. She has stamped herself as one of the all time great trotting mares and, in my opinion, is the slam dunk of the night!
Award Of Horsemanship – Marc Campbell vs. Guy Gagnon
Winner: Marc Campbell
Two excellent horsemen slug it out in this category – both putting up gaudy numbers in 2017. In fact, Campbell put up career-best totals for wins, average and earnings on both the driving and training side, which is what should put him over the top.
Breeder Of The Year – Marvin Katz/Al Libfeld vs. Stan Klemencic
Winner: Marvin Katz/Al Libfeld
The duo of Katz and Libfeld has become synonymous with excellence in harness racing and they continued to add to that reputation in 2017. They have developed a breeding dynasty and will be tough to knock off in this category.
Driver Of The Year – Doug McNair vs. Louis Philippe Roy
Winner: Doug McNair
While Roy enjoyed a meteoric rise in 2017 and should certainly win his share of O’Brien Awards, this was the year that McNair put it all together and enjoyed a great deal of success at the sport’s top level. It’s a close race, but I think McNair is a solid choice to take home his first Driver Of The Year trophy.
Trainer Of The Year – Gregg McNair vs. Richard Moreau
Winner: Richard Moreau
Slow and steady wins the race! That certainly applies to Richard Moreau who continued his amazing record of consistent production, recording his second consecutive $2 million season. In fact, his stable banked $3.7 million – the second best total of his career. While Gregg McNair’s stable enjoyed another outstanding year, I don’t think it was enough to knock Canada’s reigning training king off his perch.
Future Star Award – Brett MacDonald vs. Maxime Velaye
Winner: Brett MacDonald
Both of these young gentlemen have bright futures indeed and it would be hard to go wrong picking either in this category. I believe MacDonald, who has competed in a National Driving Championship, has garnered more mainstream attention, which could be the deciding factor.
Horse Of The Year
Winner: Hannelore Hanover
She is a special animal who put together a special season and was absolutely flawless on Canadian soil.