by Dave Briggs
Ask Paul MacDonell how he helped Somebeachsomewhere become one of the greatest standardbreds in history and the soft spoken, good guy driver is stumped at first — or is way too classy to take much credit.
“That’s a tough one. I don’t know. That horse was so great, let’s face it, there are a lot of drivers that can step up and drive a horse like that. He didn’t need much from me,” said MacDonell, who was announced this week as the driver inductee into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame’s class of 2020.
Push MacDonell a little and the modest man will admit to something about his handling of Beach that is at the heart of why he is being elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot.
“I kept him out of trouble the best I could. We made our way through his 2-year-old year and he was unhurt and I think that was a big thing. He won six races and we never really got to the bottom of him. That helped him more as a stepping stone into his 3-year-old year. He was put away right and did all the right things.”
Somebeachsomewhere’s trainer and part-owner Brent MacGrath agreed MacDonell’s handling is a key reason the late Hall of Fame pacer became a superstar.
“Every time (MacDonell) brought Beach back to us after the race, (the horse) was so happy and sharp and feeling good,” said MacGrath, who nominated MacDonell for the Hall of Fame. “There’s lots of drivers out there, lots of good drivers, and probably he could have had a faster record with some of those guys. Paul brought him to the wire with the bit in his mouth many nights with Paul on cruise control and there’s lots of drivers that wouldn’t have done that. I’m not saying that they are bad, I’m just saying that I prefer the way Paul does it and I think Beach preferred the way Paul did it.
“When I nominated him, I listed the great horses that he not only drove, but he was also instrumental in the management of them. Whether Beach is the greatest horse of all time or not, that’s not for me to say, but he’s up there, and I do know that when I cut Paul loose with him every time I was confident that the horse was coming back unhurt. No matter how much money we were going for, he was going to protect him and look after him and bring him back as the horse that I sent him out there with. That’s hard to do, especially when you’re going for big money like he was. There was a lot of pressure on him every week and he put the horse first. I can name 10 horses that he’s done that with, not only drove them, but he was big in the management side of it, too, and looking out for them.”
MacDonell, who lives in Guelph, ON, said he’s proud to have the reputation as a driver instrumental in developing young horses for the long-term.
“I think that’s why a lot of people put a lot of trust in me over the years with their young horses because they were thinking long-term. I’ve always kind of been that way, basically from watching people that were successful, just watching how they do it. I always thought that if you could save a horse as long as you can and not hurt them that you’re going to be better off down the road and make a better horse out of them,” MacDonell said.
His driving career is highlighted by both consistency and superstars, with earnings surpassing $1 million for 33 consecutive years. Apart from Somebeachsomewhere, he also was the regular pilot for Hall of Fame horses Admirals Express and Invitro, as well as millionaires Village Jiffy, Village Connection, Elusive Desire, Bigtime Ball and Laddie. He even drove Ontario-sired Elitlopp winner Billyjojimbob a few times on Canadian soil.
His major stakes victories include a North America Cup, three Metro Paces, five Confederation Cups and eight Breeders Crowns. He also has a record 16 Ontario Sires Stakes Super Finals to his credit. He was voted the winner of the O’Brien Award as the 2008 Canadian Driver of the Year and to date has chalked up more than 15,000 top three finishes, 5,623 wins and has driven horses to purse earnings in excess of $122 million by Standardbred Canada accounting.
MacDonell once was a second trainer for Hall of Famer Doug Brown and has also been the regular driver for a number of top Canadian trainers, most notably John Bax and the late Hall of Famer Bill Wellwood.
One of MacDonell’s favorite memories of Wellwood is one about the trainer’s habit of scuffing up rental cars when travelling on the stakes circuit. Wellwood’s wife, Jean, would regularly get a bill in the mail for some scratch or dent, which led her to call MacDonell and insist that he drive the rental car when the two horsemen traveled together.
“I can remember Jean calling and telling me, ‘You drive. Don’t let him drive the car. You get in that driver’s seat!’ So, you can imagine me having to talk my way into the driver’s seat once we got to the counter and telling him that I’m going to be doing the driving,” MacDonell said, laughing. “That wasn’t an easy conversation…He’d give me that look, you know, like, ‘What are you talking about?You’re driving the car?’”
As much as MacDonell is forever associated with Brown, Wellwood, Bax, Somebeachsomewhere, Admirals Express and many other horses and people, he said the horse that he owes the most to is Bays Fella, who won the 1990 Breeders Crown for open pacers at Pompano Park at record Crown odds of 69-1. MacDonell was just 27 at the time.
“Bays Fella was definitely a stepping stone for me. He vaulted me right up into the North American scene, for sure. It was really quite a thing to go down (to Pompano). We were longshots, obviously, and for him to pull it off, it’s surreal even today when you think of it,” MacDonell said.
“There was a lot of shock in people’s faces going back to the winner’s circle. I was basically just going to Florida because they were going to pay my way and I was just excited to go down there and be a part of the Breeders Crown. I knew he was coming into the race in good form and I knew we’d have a shot to get a good check, but to pull it off was something else.”
MacDonell has deep Maritime roots, but was born in Oshawa, ON in 1963. After graduating high school, he got his start at Kawartha Downs near Peterborough, ON working with his father, Blaise. A local trainer named Gary Gassien also helped MacDonell get started.
“He started using me as a catch driver very early on. He’s passed on now. He’s Reg Gassien’s brother. He was his older brother and he was one of the very first guys and we became friends and he used me quite a bit at Kawartha Downs and got me going… along with my father, obviously, but outside of my family, he was very instrumental.
“When I got up to the Greenwood, Mohawk, OJC circuit, I started out with Doug Brown and was his second trainer for a while and I was able to use that stable as a stepping stone. I got to drive some of his horses when he went to the Meadowlands that winter and that really helped me. That vaulted me. I guess my next phase would have been the Wellwood era, for most of the ‘90s and the 2000s and continued on after Bill passed away with Paula and Jean.”
The Bax era followed and, “then Beach came along. Brent MacGrath, I’ve known him since the Greenwood days. He wasn’t a guy that operated a big stable, but we had a relationship that was beyond work. We were friends more than colleagues. He always had just a few horses and we kept in touch even when he moved back to the east coast. So, he’s a guy that’s been very instrumental in my career as well.”
All along, MacDonell’s parents have remained his biggest fans.
“I don’t think they miss a race even today. They’ll call me up when I’m not there at Mohawk and they’ll say, ‘Did you see so-and-so race in the ninth race last night?’ and I’ll say ‘No, mom, I was sleeping,’” MacDonell said, laughing.
Beyond great talent and impeccable integrity, MacDonell is an all-around good guy that is extremely popular with his peers.
“He’s one guy I’ve never heard anybody say anything negative about,” MacGrath said of McDonnell.
It explains the deluge of congratulatory messages MacDonell received this week when the Hall of Fame announcement was made.’
“It’s been kind of nostalgic, really, with people talking about horses I drove for them or ones I started out with…. Sending me pictures of horses from years ago. It’s kind of cool, really. With social media it allows people to do that,” MacDonell said.
“The texts and calls and messages on social media were just over the top, it’s hard to believe people actually take time out to send you a note. It’s rather humbling, to tell you the truth.”