by Victoria M. Howard
There are three mottos Susie McNair of Ontario lives her life by: 1. ”An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” 2. “If you don’t want to do a job right, don’t do it at all,” and 3. “Don’t keep from falling in love.”
McNair is referring to falling in love with a horse for she’s had her heart broken many times, but even the heartaches are worth every minute of being with the horse.
Anyone involved in harness racing knows that falling in love with the horse is not hard to do for when you care for a horse, unless you have a heart made of steel, you will undoubtedly love the horse as if he’s one of your children.
Born and raised in Walkerton, ON, McNair works with her husband Gregg taking care of their 60 horses — along with stepson Doug, one of Canada’s top drivers.
“I was born and raised in the business,” Susie said. “Along with my four brothers and four sisters, we worked alongside our parents in the stable. My father is Hall Of Famer William “Bud” Fritz. Ironically, my husband Gregg got his start in the harness racing world when he was 18 and began working for my father.”
Susie says ‘her all time high’ in the business was when her father won the North America Cup in 1990 with Apaches Fame.
“It was such a thrill for all of us and I was honored to be a part of that.”
Unfortunately along with the highs come the lows and McNair personally experienced that in August 1982 when her barn was hit by lightning.
“Dad was racing in Orangeville that night and when he got home and walked up the laneway seeing everything he had worked for and loved in flames — I pray I never see that again.
“Fourteen of our horses perished in that fire, but thankfully we managed to get 12 of them out.
“But the good times outweigh the bad and I cherish the good times — like when I groomed PIE IN THE SKY in my early teens. She put a lot of bread and butter on our big family table.
“That mare is definitely one of my all time favorites, as is Apaches Fame.
“For my husband Gregg, there have been numerous faves, such as, Sprig Hanover, Tiz To Dream, Eagle Luck, Aracache Hanover, OK Commander, Swinging Beauty, Precocious Beauty, Three Of Clubs, Beautyonthebeach, Prescient Beauty, Mayhem Hanover, Karma Seelster and Bettor Sun.
“Precocious Beauty was a world champion and her racing career was a ride I will never forget,” said Susie.
“Keeping up with her babies racing is almost as much fun, though! Tall Dark Stranger has been amazing, and I got to look after her first foal Beautyonthebeach. Her owner, Jim Avritt, is a great man and a good friend.”
Susie is Gregg’s right hand woman, but considers herself a ‘caretaker.’
“I’m going to be blunt here. Caretakers really ARE the unsung heroes and I’m glad to see we are finally getting recognition. The contribution caretaker’s make is being noticed in Ontario for we have a “caretakers appreciation night,” and that really means a lot.
“Caretakers definitely don’t punch a time clock and every day is different. There are the usual jobs: cleaning stalls, harnessing, bathing the horses and putting them away, but there are days when the horse is not feeling well or has colic and the groom becomes their nurse.
“I’m usually in the barn by 5:30 – 6 am and usually done between 1-3 pm, and then of course on race nights it makes for a very, very long day.
“I have a little plaque hanging up in my section that says, ‘I’m so busy I don’t know if I lost my horse, or I found a rope!’”
The McNairs race mainly in Canada and train in Guelph, ON. It can get downright brutal during the Canadian winter, so for the past nine years they have winter trained in sunny Florida on their farm in Okeechobee.
“I’ll admit that the warmer climate has spoiled me, but when it gets cold I dress in layers, put my ‘big girl pants’ on, and suck it up
“I love racing in Canada, and especially Ontario, for it’s topnotch. The horsemen there are a pretty close-knit bunch and I love that everyone pulls together in times of need.
“The only thing I regret is by being so dedicated to my horses I have missed my family. I have three children and would like to spend more time with them. I have a grandson who is one-year-old, so heading to Florida this winter is going to be really tough.
“But if you’re in this business you have to be married to it. Yes, there are a lot of long hours, but no other job can compare to the adrenaline rush you get when a horse you have given your all to gets in behind that starting gate. It makes it all worth it.”