Bill O’Donnell said he owes his career to the late Jim Doherty, a stellar horseman who will be inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in August.
by Dave Briggs
What did the late Jim Doherty mean to driver Bill O’Donnell’s Hall of Fame career? Simple, said O’Donnell, “Without (Doherty), I wouldn’t have had one.”
Naturally, O’Donnell is thrilled Doherty will be among the standardbred class of 2018 inductees to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
“The only thing that I regret is that it didn’t happen when he was alive, you know, because he would have really, really appreciated that,” O’Donnell said of Doherty, a fellow Maritimer that raced predominantly in the United States and was inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in Goshen, NY in 2003.
“(Doherty) never raced much (in Canada) and a lot of people (in Canada) didn’t know him,” O’Donnell said. “He went from the Maritimes and raced a bit in Montreal, back in the late ‘60s, then he went to Rockingham Park and he stayed in the States the rest of his life.”
Doherty started his career in the horse racing industry in 1956 at the age of 16 working for Milton Downey in St. John, New Brunswick. Doherty moved to New England in 1969 and soon became one of the leading trainers and drivers at Rockingham Park & Foxboro Raceway until his move to New Jersey in 1976 when the Meadowlands opened.
At the Big M, Doherty trained and drove a large stable for the better part of 40 years, developing numerous champions along the way, including $3 million earner and 2002 United States Trotter of the Year, Fools Goal, as well as 1997 Three-Year-Old Trotting Filly of the Year No Nonsense Woman, and Starchip Enterprise, winner of the Valley Victory and Canadian Trotting Classic in the late 1990s.
Doherty also drove Green With Envy, two-time Older Pacing Mare of the Year in 1984 and 1985. During his career, Doherty drove or trained winners of 4,700 races and $45 million in purses. Apart from being enshrined in the Harness Racing Hall of Fame, Doherty is also a member of the New England Harness Writers Hall of Fame, New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, and the Saint John Sports Hall of Fame.
O’Donnell said Doherty came by his “Gentleman Jim” nickname honestly.
“He was a great guy, a caring guy. He just helped everybody,” O’Donnell said. “I’d like to have the $20, $50, $100 bills that he gave to people around the racetrack over the years.
“He knew guys would be down on their luck and he’d give them horses to train or train them back for them, or stuff like that. He was always, always doing that.”
O’Donnell said Doherty not only gave a lot of young people their first shot in the business — particularly fellow Canadians — many of his employees stayed with Doherty for decades.
O’Donnell said Doherty did much more than give him a job in Foxboro, MA, and some driving opportunities.
“I didn’t even want (to drive),” said O’Donnell, laughing, “but he pushed me into it… He gave me my first drive.
“We went to Rosecroft and Travelin Boy was in to go and (Doherty) was supposed to drive him, but he had one in there, so he said ‘Ah, you should put yourself down to drive him. I’ve got a bunch of sick ones and I might scratch them.’ And he did, he scratched his horse. So, I’m warming the horse up and he’s leaving the paddock. I said, ‘Hey, where are you going? You’re supposed to drive this horse.’ He said, ‘You’ll be okay.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ This was a free-for-all horse, this wasn’t like a cheap horse. He just said, ‘You’ll be fine. You know what to do.’ He won and that’s how my career started.”
Travelin Boy was the first of more than 5,700 lifetime wins O’Donnell recorded in a career that landed him in the U.S. Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 1990, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1996.
Doherty even pushed O’Donnell to move to the Meadowlands where the latter truly made his name in the game.
O’Donnell earned nearly $100 million, won virtually all of the sport’s biggest stakes many times over and became the first driver to post a $10 million year.
He owes it all to Doherty, who he calls a stellar horseman.
“No Nonsense Woman, he bought her as a yearling and she was really tough to deal with. He spent a lot of time with her, took her over to Foxboro once a week to school her and qualify and she ended up winning a Breeders Crown,” O’Donnell said. “He was really good with a horse like that, that needed time and patience. He worked with her every day and made a world champion out of her.”
O’Donnell said Doherty always had an incredible work ethic and when he landed Fools Goal he devoted even more time into making the horse a champion.
“Jimmy was waiting at the gate for the racetrack to open in the morning. (Fools Goal) was a big, rough horse to be around and he was out there first thing in the morning. If the track opened at 6:30, he was waiting there at the gate for them to open it so he could jog him by himself. Every morning, the weather didn’t matter.”
O’Donnell said early in his career Doherty, “gave me a lot of chances and a lot of constructive criticism… It was always, ‘Bill, can I see you in the office?’ Oh God.”
Years ago at Legends Day at Clinton Raceway, Doherty told the story of when he gave a young O’Donnell a drive at Rockingham Park. Doherty had been injured in a racing accident and he asked O’Donnell to drive a three-year-old pacer named Gaza Lobell.
Doherty gave O’Donnell clear instructions not to touch the starting gate or Gaza Lobell would make a break.
“That horse was blind in one eye and he was a little funny. He was spooky at the gate if he touched it,” Doherty said.
“What do I do?” O’Donnell said. “I put him right on the gate and, sure enough, he jumped. I had to go see Jim after and he said, ‘How’d you do?’ I said, ‘You were right.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘He’ll jump if you put him on the gate.’
“He wasn’t just a trainer/driver,” O’Donnell said of Doherty. “He was a good catch driver as well. Very good, but he always liked to stable his horses himself. He liked to work and he was at the track every morning at 6 or 6:30. It wouldn’t matter if he was in the last race the night before. That was his forte. He had such a great work ethic.”
Jim Doherty, who died in 2015 at age 74, will be posthumously inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, in the trainer/driver category, on Aug. 8 at a gala at the Mississauga Convention Centre.