by Murray Brown
Blair Burgess, dissimilar to the majority of top horseman, was not born into harness racing. Neither was his father, Bob. But to both of them the sport evolved into a life-long obsession.
Bob first was introduced to harness racing when his dad, Bert, was transferred by his company, General Electric, to run their plant in Quebec City.
He attended the races at the local Hippodrome and was infatuated by gambling on the horses. Like some of us (myself included), his gambling interest evolved into a love of the sport, its horses and its participants.
Young Blair was first introduced to the sport in the Toronto area. He, together with Bob were regular patrons at Woodbine, Greenwood, Mohawk and Garden City, even occasionally going to the thoroughbred races..
Bob’s love of the sport grew into a mini obsession, as it did with Blair.
Bob, together with his partner Glen Anderson, founded Haw Lea Farms, then Cantario Farms, which became Glengate Farms, a standardbred farm fairly close to Mohawk Raceway.
Blair still in the midst of his schooling, spent virtually all of his spare time working at the farm.
He did graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Guelph.
Ironically, that school is perhaps best known as the home of Canada’s foremost veterinary school.
When asked why instead of arts, he didn’t choose veterinary medicine, Blair said, “I would have liked to, but I just didn’t have the aptitude in science.”
All of Blair’s spare time was spent either on the farm or at the racetrack.
He got his first grooms license at 11, fudging his age which then had an age requirement of 12.
He got his trainer’s license at 14.
Blair Burgess was ready to rumble.
He and his brother, Tim, put together some money and went to the first Meadowlands Mixed sale. They bought a semi-crippled Romeo Hanover gelding named Legal Holiday for the grand price of $2,000.
Thus began Blair’s foremost attribute in his lifetime in the sport — patience.
His first job was to get his pacer reasonably sound. His second was to get his charge to the races.
He succeeded at both. Legal Holiday ended up more than paying his way.
Like most young people, Blair, inspired by his initial success, thought the game was easy. All you had to do was buy the horses and he would take care of the rest.
In our conversation last week he told me that even now at the age of 58,there is never a year, sometimes days, that he doesn’t learn something new.
In the meantime, Haw Lea Farms was functioning with a cast of mediocre-to-poor stallions. The best of the bunch at that time was High Level, who became somewhat of a force on the Ontario Sires Stakes circuit.
He was the result of a typical “willing to take a chance” Norman Woolworth breeding.
He was by Worthy Boy (a trotter) out of a mare by Good Time (a pacer) and ended up racing on both gaits against Bret Hanover and Nevele Pride.
Blair recalled meeting the stallion’s trainer, Earle Avery, then a very old man, when he came to visit his old charge at the Farm.
It wasn’t until Balanced Image came along that the farm had its first outstanding stallion.
As Blair tells the story, Bob was at Harrisburg and was kind of bored. Ron Kohr who owned and operated Lauxmont Farms was conducting a shuttle to and from the farms to woo prospective clients.
Bob decided to go. When there, he first saw Balanced Image.
Balanced Image was a good, but far from great, trotter. He was a big, strong, good looking horse with decent bloodlines.
Bob thought he would be a good fit for the Ontario market.
He asked Kohr, if he was for sale. Kohr said yes, but the price was a million dollars.
Bob thought he was crazy and that the price was way out of his range. Eventually, an agreement was entered into where the horse was to be syndicated for that million dollars.
Big surprise though, very few shares were sold.
But as with all great “meant to be” stallions, Balanced Image, overcame the odds, beginning with mom and pop mares and dominating the Ontario Sires Stakes.
After some time, his progeny showed that they could compete anywhere.
Eventually most of the top breeders in North America flocked to him, with many of them buying shares, some of them based on the more than a million dollar initial syndication value.
In the meantime, Blair had become a most successful horse trainer.
We talked about some of his better horses and his methodology in choosing them.
What do you look for in a yearling?
“When I first started buying yearlings, I looked at price. What could we afford to buy, combined with all the pluses that were available in that price range? I also felt that I needed an edge, the knowledge, that I knew something, but likely others didn’t or didn’t even care about.”
“I believe he was from French Chef’s first crop. French Chef was a horse who was a remarkable 2-year-old but didn’t come back successfully at three. I remember seeing a film, where his trainer Stanley Dancer and owner Norman Woolworth were discussing him. They were expecting great things from him at 3, because they said he had been lightly raced at 2. Lightly raced? I checked and found that he had raced 26 times at 2 including three races in eight days. In my mind, I blamed his lack of success at 3 to this. I also knew that Stew Firlotte had a half-brother to Amity Chef named Beijing who trained with Ralph Hanover and for a long time was thought to be as good. Those were my edges. Amity Chef turned out to be a great horse at 2 and 3, but never made any impact as a sire.”
“Two of my major faults throughout my career have been my inability to be on time and to be lax in responding to messages. As was my norm, I got to the sale late and hadn’t even looked at the colt. But my dad and his farm manager Doug Nash had and had turned him down. Nevertheless, because of my affinity to sons of French Chef, I decided to take a look. I liked him. Aside from his front feet being a little dishy, there was nothing about him I didn’t like. He was every bit as nice a colt as Amity Chef and came from a stronger family. I was able to convince my bankers and we bought him for $15,000. He turned out to be almost as good as Amity Chef. He won The Meadowlands Pace beating Jate Lobell, Run The Table and Laag and was voted as Canada’s Horse of the Year. Those dishy feet did bother him though. I feel they were the reason that he couldn’t handle a half mile track. I think his feet really pinched him on the turns.”
“He was definitely the best pacer the I’ve ever developed. I loved his sire Life Sign. He had everything one would look for in a sire. He came right after Artsplace and I thought that he was almost, or even as good as him. Plus, he had a better pedigree. One couldn’t absolutely say that Life Sign failed as a sire, but he didn’t live up to expectations. Real Desire was a natural. I remember training him an easy mile in February and looking at my watch and thinking there must have been something wrong with it. He did everything so well and so easy. I remember the first time he was in to go as a 2-year-old. He drew the 10 hole and I just scratched him. There was no way I was going to start this colt’s career from out there. He then won his first seven races. He was an amazing 2- and 3-year-old and a great 4-year-old. He had many epic battles with his number one rival Bettors Delight. As a sire, I believe him to be somewhat underrated. He hasn’t been great. But he has been okay.”
“Definitely the best trotter I ever had. He was a big strong colt that I really liked at a glance. For some unknown reason I hadn’t looked at him before the sale. My “edge” was that I remembered a good free-for-all trotter named Crystal Lens that Bill Stirton had that came from his family. He was a very good horse who raced week after week and year after year as a top trotter on the Ontario Jockey Club circuit. After the sale I went to Art Zubrod and asked him about the colt. ‘Is he okay?’ I asked him. ‘He’s fine,’ Art said. On leaving, I met Art’s righthand man Dale, who told me that he was a nice colt who really trotted well, but to be careful because he was very tough. I bought him for only one bid of $10,000. I’m not even sure there was an underbidder. He was, as Dale said, tough. With someone else, he probably would have become a gelding. But he was just like Real Desire. He was so fast and naturally gaited that you had no idea of how fast you were going. One of my great regrets is that we retired him after his winning the Triple Crown in the Yonkers Trot. He was then as good as he ever was. I truly believe that if we had raced him at 4 and then 5 he could have become one of the world’s great trotters. He would have been ideal for the Prix d’Amerique and the Elitloppet.”
“I’d always been a fan of Balanced Image and Amigo Hall was one that I really liked. As was my norm, I showed up at the sale late, in this instance thinking I had no chance of buying a first night Tattersalls yearling and he had already been sold. I looked to see who had bought him. It turned out that he had been bid in at $33,000. We went to Alan Leavitt and asked him if he was for sale. Alan said, “everything is for sale.” We made an arrangement that if he would sell him for the bid in price, we would buy him contingent on him being acceptable to me in the paddock. We went to the farm the next morning and Steve Katz turned him out. He promptly ran into the fence. After determining that he hadn’t hurt himself badly, I said ‘We’ll take him.’ Deal entered into. Not so fast. As we were leaving, Steve ran up to us and said the deal was off. Alan had told him that he would only sell if he could retain 50 per cent ownership. I said to myself, ‘Why not?’ Another owner in the stable won’t hurt.
He didn’t race much, but raced really well as a 2-year-old. Ken Middleton actually picked him as his Hambletonian favorite.
“At 3, he started well, and finished great, but he was not in the same breath as Glidemaster.
Trevor Richie raced him early, but didn’t want to come down to The Meadowlands to qualify him. He qualified well with Mike Lachance. John Campbell had the favorite in the Hambletonian to which he was committed. I asked him if he would drive Amigo Hall in the elimination for the race with a view to getting him into the final. I’d worry about a driver later if he made it. He qualified.
As I was leaving the paddock, Mike Lachance was standing there and said something to the effect of, “Looks like you need a driver for next week.” I’m sure I answered something like, ‘No. I’ve got one and you are him.’
“He finished the season on a tear and won an O’Brien.”
“He was from the first crop be Real Desire and we looked at all of his yearlings. We thought Tell All was the best one. There was a sales fiasco when he was sold. Myron Bell was bidding from the back as was Carl Jamieson. Myron was prepared to go much higher, but he thought he had bought him. When they brought the sales slip to Carl, Myron flipped out as he is sometimes capable of doing. Knowing Carl and Myron, it was an instance of the immovable object meeting the irresistible force. Eventually things cooled down and Carl sold Myron the ticket at a substantial profit.
“Tell All was a colt that needed a little time. I was extremely patient with him. I loved him from the beginning, but I had my doubts about him being able to sustain a tough 2-year-old season. He didn’t qualify until December and I then raced him in the Winter Series. After his first start in January, he made a skip in the first turn and still won with a huge move up the backside. Myron called George and told him, ‘You can’t buy the best 3-year-old this year, because you already own him.’ He was right. He won the Jug, the NA Cup and was Canadian Horse of the Year (tied with 2-year-old Somebeachsomewhere).”
“The only one of my great horses that I didn’t buy and develop myself, but likely one of the ones who gave me the greatest satisfaction. Most people know his story. He almost severed a tendon in a race as a 2-year-old at the Red Mile. If it had been anywhere but Lexington where there is so much great veterinary care available, chances are he might have had to be euthanized. He was saved. But there was a long road to his ever seeing a racetrack again. The wound was miraculously sewed up and he spent the next year in rehab at Brittany Farms.
Because of my reputation for patience and great care, George Segal and Myron Bell sent him to me for a year of light racing beyond his rehab year.
Although unsaid, there was the understanding that if he made it back at a high level he would be sent to another stable. I got him in the summer of his 3-year-old year. I brought him along very slowly as per the plan. I first started him in January of his 4-year-old season. He raced well all season eventually reaching the free-for-all ranks where he was competitive. The tendon was still a slight issue at times, but we were very careful to never over extend him.
At the end of the season Art called and said that he’d be going to Brittany Farms and then would joining the stable of Brett Pelling the following year. Was I disappointed? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. But that was the plan from the beginning and I was fully aware of it.
The rest as they say is history. His battles with Dragon Again were monumental. Western Ideal was a little on the lazy side. I always felt that Mike Lachance was the perfect driver to get him motivated.
Let’s change topics. In order who are the three best drivers you’ve dealt with?
1. John Campbell
2. Mike Lachance
3. Trevor Ritchie
“They are all great drivers. The one thing all three of them have in common is they are all great horsemen as well. Each of them could help you with an opinion of a horse that they’d driven for you. I’d add an also eligible with Jody Jamieson.”
Who are the three best trainers you’ve known and been around.
1. Bill Wellwood — as Bill O’Donnell said, he was part horse. He was as natural a horseman as ever lived. If Woody couldn’t figure out a horse, then nobody could.
2. Stew Firlotte — Different than Wellwood. Still a great horseman. But he excelled at managing a stable. I could visualize him as being in charge of a top thoroughbred stable.
3. Jimmy Takter — Probably everybody in the modern era’s choice as number one. He isn’t mine, probably only because I’ve had so much more experience with the other two than with him.
What’s the best decision you’ve made in your life?
“That’s very easy. I met a Swedish girl working for Skip Lewis many years ago. Getting her to agree to marry me might have been my greatest achievement in life. Not only because of the obvious reason: Karin has been an extraordinary wife and mother.
“From a career standpoint she has also been my greatest asset. She has taken care of most of the top horses I’ve had. Moreover, she has an uncanny ability to predict what’s best for a horse. Many are the times when I’ve thought one thing about a horse and occasionally Karin has disagreed. Almost without exception, she has been right. On the rare occasions when I’ve gone against her judgment, I’ve been proven wrong.”
“They are twofold. 1. I wish we hadn’t retired Glidemaster when we did. It was a terrible mistake. He was at the height of his game with great promise ahead of him. I firmly believe he would have become a world class trotter. 2. Not operating my stable in a more business-like manner. I thought wrongly that all my time should be spent working for the betterment of my client’s horses rather than spend some time in proper communication with them.”
You are in two Halls of Fame, in my opinion belatedly, but better late than never.
“Obviously it’s a great honor, one of which I am very proud. The only negative was having to make induction speeches for each. I fretted and worried for months beforehand. Thankfully they both worked out fine.”
Have a question for The Curmudgeon?
Reach him by email at: email@example.com.