A conversation with Mike Lachance on the occasion of his 70th birthday
by Bob Heyden
Mike Lachance turned 70 on Wednesday (Dec. 16), a quarter-century after he was inducted into the U.S. Harness Racing Hall of Fame.
Born in Quebec, Lachance was third in career earnings ($190,781,434) as a driver when he retired in 2014 and 10thin wins (10,421).
Lachance won the Little Brown Jug five times, the Hambletonian four times, 10 million-dollar races and 27 Breeders Crowns.
He is the only driver to win the Jug in each of his first two tries (B J Scoot in 1988 and Goalie Jeff in 1989) and the first driver to better Niatross’ 1:49.1 time trial mark from 1980 with a 1:48.2 TT with Matts Scooter eight years later.
Lachance has eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
“Cody has a nine month old, so I am now a great-grandfather,” Lachance said, gleefully.
In case you’re wondering, Cody was the little girl in the Hambletonian Bowl in 1999 when Self Possessed set the record of 1:51.3.
Looking back at some of the horses Lachance has driven is quite a list. Matts Scooter, Cantab Hall, Mystical Maddy, Continentalvictory, Cabrini Hanover, Cameron Hall, Camluck, Western Ideal, Bettors Delight, Western Dreamer, Self Possessed, Shady Daisy, Victory Dream, Imperfection, Artiscape, Four Starzzz Shark and many more.
“I was lucky. I had the opportunity for 20-25 years in a row to have a shot each year at some of the very best horses,” Lachance said.
“I raced against three generations of the top drivers. Starting in the late ‘60s with Del Miller, Dancer, Haughton, Sholty and then that followed with Campbell, O’Donnell, Manzi, Jackie Mo and then against Yannick and Tetrick and David Miller and Brian Sears. I’d like to think I earned the respect of them all. That means a lot to me. I’m proud of that.”
Lachance said he has had no desire to be a full-time trainer.
“Right now with my sons Martin and Patrick I am at the barn every day. Martin races in Canada and I am part-owner of 15-16 horses with him and Patrick. I help out all the time. I like that. But as far as training for outside owners, no. No amount of money could get me to do that.”
Asked if he knew when his last drive was upon him in October of 2014 at the Red Mile, Lachance said, “Yes and no. I was winding down… I knew I would be stopping soon. I won with Propulsion for Tony Alagna. I always got along well with Tony. That was not an easy horse to get going. But that was it for me. I packed up all my stuff and said my goodbyes. I got in the car and looked at (my wife) Micheline and said that that was it. I would not be driving anymore. I felt I was losing it a bit and it’s much, much better to be leaving 2, 3, 4 years early than too late like some people have done. I never wanted anyone to say I was getting in the way out there. The time was just right.”
Do you feel you raced at the very best time WITH the best?
“Yes, I really do. I know a lot of people would say the same thing, that they raced at the best time to race. But I really feel fortunate to have done so, and against this caliber of drivers. I was spoiled for a lot of years. I felt comfortable out there, in charge. I was able to change accordingly, too. If I needed to be a finesse driver for a certain situation I could do it, then a power driver. I could flip the switch there, too.”
Brittany Farms. You were always loyal to them.
“Yes, they were very, very good to me. Horses always ready, class operation. George Segal and Art Zubrod. When I stayed with Firm Belief in the 1996 Jug in the second heat even though I won the first with Armbro Operative, it was because of Brittany.”
Let’s take a look at some of those horses you had never driven before, yet still won a million-dollar race with.
Amigo Hall – 2003 Hambletonian. “I always stayed around for the very last qualifier. One day in late July, 2003 — and it was about 100 degrees — there were 22 or 23 qualifiers and Blair Burgess needed a driver in either the last or next to last qualifier for Amigo Hall, who they were intending on taking a shot in the Hambletonian with. I qualified him in 1:54 and a piece. Blair told me that Trevor Ritchie had the Hambletonian FINAL drive. Fine. (John Campbell would be the one to qualify him in the elims, but wound up choosing the eventual Hambletonian favorite Power To Charm). I had a couple I was racing in the elims, too. Blair asked me what I thought of his chances, would he look foolish putting him in the Hambo. I said by all means put him in. Pull his shoes and put him in. As it turns out my elimination horses didn’t make it, and Trevor chose another one. So I wound up with the drive on Amigo Hall ($57). I never would have gotten that drive if I hadn’t been there at the end of the qualifiers.”
Mach Three – 2001 Metro. “Bill Robinson won both eliminations that year for the Metro and my two horses just weren’t good enough. The next day, I’m in my car and Bill, who always called me “Lucky”, asked me if I wanted to drive one of his in the final and to pick which one. I told him I would drive one, but to wait until AFTER the post-position draw and let Randy Waples, who drove them BOTH in the elims, to pick first. Red River Hanover drew the 2 — Randy’s choice — and Mach Three the nine if I remember right. I wound up winning it, the final. Randy has joked to me through the years that it took him a LONG time to get over that one.”
Safely Kept beat Western Hanover in the 1992 North America Cup first time Mike. Straight Path upset in the 1998 NA Cup first time, too. And All American Theory won the 2003 Meadowlands Pace ($17) for trainer Des Tackoor, not only first time Mike, but giving Mike the sweep of the Hambletonian and Meadowlands Pace that year both with horses he had never driven in a race prior — at 7-1 and 27-1.
“There was also Righteous Bucks in the 1987 Cane Pace for Richard Marine. First time I sat behind him. And Laughs in the 1985 $600,000 Sheppard Pace at Yonkers. First time.”
But wait, Laughs won the 1986 million-dollar Meadowlands Pace at 10-1 for Buddy Gilmour. Why no Mike Lachance and that would have been your first million-dollar win.
“Because I was racing at Yonkers, exclusively. I had an agreement with the owners that I drove all the half-mile stakes.”
(Note: It would be two Meadowlands Pace editions later (1988 with Matts Scooter) for Lachance to get the first of 10 million-dollar wins in his career. He moved full-time to New Jersey on May 1, 1988).
One more just to set the record straight. Mike drove Peace Corps only once — in the 1988 Merrie Annabelle that went for $484,000 (now called the Jim Doherty Memorial) — and won with her.
But you did make it to the Meadowlands in 1986 for the Hambletonian.
“Billy Haughton had passed away 18 days earlier. Tommy wanted me to drive. I did — Shane Scottseth (12th at 20-1). The reason I was there is that I had one of my own in. Plus, it was afternoon racing and it didn’t affect my 10-12 drives at Yonkers.”
What do you remember from your long career?
“I remember 1967, Quebec City, watching Denis Larochelle with his collar all straight and changing into his colors — in those days you changed in your barn — looking very neat and classy. Wonderful guy, a gentleman, like a Dave Magee. Beyond belief good guys. I remember when I was at Liberty Bell in 1975 with Pierre Touchette working for me. I was 24 and had 40 horses. Back then, -the owners I had from Montreal treated me like I was the King of England or something. They had confidence in me. I worked for my brother Gilles when I was very young. I miss those days.”
What about COVID-19? How has that impacted your life in 2020?
“For the first four months I didn’t go to the barn once. Then in June, I did, but was always very careful, just like I am now. I missed the sale at the Red Mile this year for the first time in 53 years. I did go to Timonium for a day or so, but felt uncomfortable and was glad to get back.”
Do you still have the fire for the horses?
“Yes. I am as involved as I have ever been. I think I always will be. I watch pretty much all of Patrick and Martin’s races, but if I miss a stake race somewhere, I watch it the next morning. I am still in love with the horse business. It is still a big part of my life. I wouldn’t want to be on the turnpike every night or battling the extreme cold weather all the time, but I do miss seeing the guys. Talking. I had a nice chat in Florida with Bob McClure last year. He sought me out. Twenty minutes, very enjoyable. I would love to catch up with Ronny Pierce. I talk to him a couple times a year.”
Last question: You and Ron Gurfein…
“I know Ronny didn’t get along with everyone, but he and I did. We were always on the same page.”