Ranking the 15 greatest Canadian horsemen of all time

Ranking the 15 greatest Canadian horsemen of all time

June 6, 2021

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My list of the best from the Great White North.

by Murray Brown

On Dec. 8, 2019, I authored a column headlined on HRU: Ranking the ten best horsemen of all time (full story here).

A few days ago, that column was reincarnated by Norman Glazer on the Facebook page Harness Racing History.

To say that the column brought about a whole lot of interest and not just a minimum of criticism would be somewhat of an understatement.

Most of the criticism was levied against those missing from the story. Chief among these was the absence of Canadians on the list, in many instances, specifically the absence of Joseph
Cyril O’Brien.

Mr. O’Brien certainly should have been included among them. I plead guilty as charged.

This author was accused of both favoring Quebecers (still a province of Canada) and discriminating against Canadians. I found it difficult to understand how I was favoring natives of La Belle Province, when not a single one of the chosen 10 was a native of Quebec. But alas, that is among the numerous mysteries of the Internet.

This led to this column giving my opinion of the best horsemen to emerge from Canada.

In order to some degree duck criticism that is bound to come my way, I decided to enlarge my list from 10 to 15.

Whereas the previous list was focused on trainers, this one includes drivers as well. However, extra credit in my excuse for a mind, was awarded to those who I felt were multi-talented in terms of driving and training.

All are Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame members, with the majority also being member of the Living Hall of Fame in Goshen.

Here they are in descending order:

15. Jack Kopas

Together with Ralph Baldwin, one of two Saskatchewan natives on this list. Like Baldwin, an inductee in both Goshen and in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. Jack Kopas with his wife Alice first set up camp racing a stable of mostly young horses in Trois Rivieres, QC and occasionally racing some of the better ones at the Montreal tracks Blue Bonnets and Richelieu Park. After a few years, he moved to Ilderton, ON when he purchased the first great star in his stable Dr George Boyce’s Super Wave. Super Wave was a mainstay in the Kopas stable for several years. As a 5-year-old in 1971 Super Wave was voted the Canadian Trotting Association Horse of the Year. Not to be outdone by his pupil, Kopas was voted Canadian Horseman of the Year in 1969 and 1976. The success of Super Wave was followed by a progression of top horses including Super Wave’s full brother Springfield, Areba Areba, Nat Lobell, Jade Prince, Armbro Evita and Shadow Star.

14. Bill Wellwood

Inducted in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. He was the trainer of the Breeders Crown winners Aviano and Village Jiffy and millionaires Village Connection and Village Jasper; also Metro winner Rustler Hanover and such notables as Keystone Gary and Surge Hanover. Not only a great driver and trainer in his own right, but also a trainer of the two future Hall of Fame inductees Bill O’Donnell and Ben Wallace.

13. Blair Burgess

An inductee in both Goshen and the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. Blair is a specialist in making lemonade out of perceived lemons, certainly in terms of buying modestly-priced yearlings and developing champions from them. Among the great horses he developed were the Triple Crown winner Glidemaster, the Hambletonian winner Amigo Hall and the champion pacers Frugal Gourmet, Amity Chef, Real Desire and Tell All. Sometimes forgotten is the huge role that Burgess played in the rehabilitation of the great Western Ideal after suffering a near severed tendon in a racing accident as a 2-year-old.

12. Bob McIntosh

A member of both the living Harness Racing Hall of Fame at Goshen and the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, McIntosh is world renowned for developing and often breeding his own champion after champion. He was twice honored as the recipient of the Glen Garnsey Award for United States Trainer of the Year and twice as the Canadian Trainer of the Year. He is the former leading trainer of Breeders Crown winners. Among his numerous trainees were Horses of the Year Artsplace and Staying Together; Canadian Horse of the Year Whenuwishuponastar, Artiscape and the great sire Camluck.

11. Buddy Gilmour

In the entire history of harness racing, there are few more beloved personalities than Buddy Gilmour. He is a member of both the Living Hall of Fame at Goshen and the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. He started out working with multiple Hall of Famer Clint Hodgins before heading out on his own. He was always among the leading drivers and stables in the glory days of Roosevelt and Yonkers Raceways. Among the multitude of great horses he has been associated with are On The Road Again, Matts Scooter, Joie de Vie, Laughs, Follow My Star and Steinam.

10. Bill O’Donnell

A member of the Living Hall of Fame in Goshen, the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. Considered by many to have been at least for a period of time to have been the greatest to have ever sat behind a horse. Together with John Campbell, he dominated drivers from 1981 through 1988, leading the money list four times and finishing second to Campbell another four times. He was the first driver to ever drive the winners of over $10 million in a single year. Driver of the Year in 1982 and 1984. Horses he has driven read like a veritable who’s who in the history of the sport. They include Nihilator, Valley Victory, Prakas, Camtastic, Cambest and Napoletasno.

9. John Campbell

The vast majority of people when asked who was the greatest driver ever respond John Campbell. I certainly would concur. As with most of these horsemen, Campbell is a member of both the sport’s living Hall of Fame in Goshen and the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. He was the youngest inductee ever at Goshen at the age of 32. He is also a member of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. He is the driver of the winners of nearly $300 million. He has won just about every Classics race worth winning, many of them numerous times. The horses he has driven consist of a Hall of Fame unto themselves. They include, but are not limited to, Mack Lobell, Peace Corps, Artsplace, Pine Chip, Cams Card Shark, Muscles Yankee, Armbro Goal, Art Major, Glidemaster and Real Desire.

8. Clint Hodgins

Another member of both the Living Hall of Fame in Goshen and the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. Hodgins’ first claim to fame was with the world champion 2-year-old trotting filly Acrasia. He then drove and trained Prince Adios, the first top horse sired by Adios, a horse that was to rule pacing for over a decade. In 1949, Hodgins led all North American drivers in both wins and money winnings. He drove and trained Bye Bye Byrd who was Horse of the Year in 1949. He drove Adios Butler to wins in the Little Brown Jug and Cane Pace as a 3-year-old. Among other renowned horses that he drove and trained were the great trotting mares Proximity and Elaine Rodney.

7. Ralph Baldwin

Yet another double Hall of Famer in both the United States and Canada. Baldwin, along with Jack Kopas are the two horsemen on this list who come from the Western Canadian province of Saskatchewan. The soft spoken Baldwin trained and drove the world champion, Triple Crown winner, 1963 Horse of the Year and successful sire Speedy Scot. He was also responsible for training and driving the Hambletonian winner Flirth and trained the Hambletonian winner Diller Hanover. Other notable horses that Baldwin trained and drove were Race Time, Carlene Hanover, Dartmouth, Snow Speed, Egan Hanover and Geranium.

6. Ron Waples

Perhaps the hardest worker this writer has ever known in harness racing. A man of perpetual motion whenever I saw him, both as a trainer and driver. He came out under the best of teachers, his cousin Keith Waples before he went out on his own. He has won every race of consequence including but far from limited to the Hambletonian, Little Brown Jug, numerous Breeders Crowns, Meadowlands Pace, Kentucky Futurity and North American Cup. Among the many outstanding horses with which he was associated were Ralph Hanover, No Sex Please, Sugarcane Hanover, Park Avenue Joe, Presidential Ball, Fake Left, Sportsmaster and JM Van Gogh.

5. Herve Filion

Per W. R. Haughton: “There are a lot of good harness drivers, a few great ones… and there is Filion.” Where does one begin in describing Herve? He retired as the all-time leading race-winning driver with 15,180 wins. He is a member of three Halls of Fame — add the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame to the two major harness racing ones. Winner of the Lou Marsh Trophy as the Canadian Athlete of the Year. Ten consecutive years from 1968 to 1978 as the leading dash winning driver in North America. HTA Driver of the Year 10 different times. Canadian Horseman of the Year.

4. Michel Lachance

Thought by many to be the best all-around horseman of the modern era. Before embarking on a career as one of the greatest catch drivers of all time, Lachance trained and raced a stable of about 30 head, almost all of them owned at least in part by himself. Among his numerous feats were winning 770 races in 1986, the most ever in a single season to that time; the leading race winner in four separate years; the leading money winning driver in 1996; the winner of four Hambletonians, five Little Brown Jugs and numerous other classics events on a regular basis throughout all of North America. Among the numerous great horses with which he is associated are: Bettors Delight, Continentalvictory, Matts Scooter, Self Possessed, Victory Dream, Dragon Again, Western Dreamer and Magical Mike.

3. Joe O’Brien

Joe O’Brien leaves the greatest legacy of perhaps all Canadian horsemen in the form of the O’Brien Awards named after this quiet master horseman from Alberton, PEI. Joe passed away in 1984. The O’Brien Awards were instituted in 1989. They could not have chosen a better subject trophy with which to honor the recipients of Canada’s greatest horses and horsemen. It was said that there was not a hole too small that Joe O’Brien could not find his way out of. As a driver, he was noted for his almost never needing to use the whip. O’Brien’s accomplishments were numerous. He trained and drove the Hambletonian winners Scott Frost and Blaze Hanover. He had given more horses their initial 2:00 mile than any other driver in history. He trained and drove the Little Brown Jug winners Shadow Wave and Melvins Woe. He also trained and drove the Roosevelt International winners Fresh Yankee and Armbro Flight. Among the numerous other horses his names is associated with are Flower Child, Ima Lulu, Nero, Armbro Ranger and Governor Armbro.

2. Keith Waples

Voted by the readership of the Canadian Sportsman and of Trot magazine as the most outstanding Canadian horseman ever. Much to the embarrassment of Trot, they didn’t even have Mr. Waples on their list of those they suggested as eligibles. Nevertheless, their readership voted him in as a write in candidate. When it came to harness racing, there was very little that Keith Waples couldn’t and didn’t do. In addition to training and driving numerous champions, Waples was involved in the building of three harness tracks Orangeville, Cloverdale and Sandown Raceway. It was as a driver where he received the most fame. He was the first to drive a horse in 2:00 in Canada with Mighty Dudley in 1959, the first Canadian Roosevelt International Trot winner with Tie Silk in 1962 and winner of the Little Brown Jug in 1972 with Strike Out. However, as great a driver as Keith was and he was most certainly that it was as a role model and teacher of drivers where he might have been most adept. Great drivers such as Herve Filion, Mike Lachance, his cousin Ron Waples, Ron Feagan and Bill O’Donnell among others credit him with being the driver from who they learned the most about how to conduct themselves both on and off the racetrack.

1. Ben White

Ben White is the only one of these horsemen that I was never privileged to see. From 1922 on into the 1930s, he dominated harness racing like no other. A good deal of my information was gathered from a masterful article on him written by Jerry Shively that appeared in the October 1985 issue of Hoof Beats magazine. The article can be accessed by googling Ben White harness racing. Mr. White excelled in every area of the sport it was possible to excel at — as a trainer, driver, breeder and was among, if not the best conditioner of young horses in the history of the sport. He was the first trainer to winter train his horses in the south, training for 30 years at Seminole Park and then later moving to the lamented training center that was to bear his name, Ben White Raceway.

He trained and drove four Hambletonian winners — Mary Reynolds, Rosalind, The Ambassador and Volo Song. The Ambassador was a maiden and reportedly offered for sale for $1,500 before the Hambletonian. The thought was that he might have had one or two more Hambletonian winners because some years he had several candidates for the race.

He also trained and drove seven Kentucky Futurity winners, six Matrons and four Review Futurities, then for the most part all the major Grand Circuit events of the sport.

Like numbers two and three on this list, Keith Waples and Joe O’Brien, Mr. White was known for not using the whip for anything other than as a guiding tool. His horses were known for their outstanding manners and great gaits.

A listing of his horses include several who have been a great influence on the breed. Horses such as The Abbe (paternal grandsire of Hal Dale), Scotland, Mr McElwyn, Volga, Kashmir, Iosola’s Worthy Sumatra and Ruth M Chenault are still found in numerous pedigrees today.

He believed that in addition to Rosalind, his greatest horse to be the ill-fated Volo Song who many people thought was the greatest trotter ever to that time, perhaps even better than his contemporary Greyhound.

Also Eligibles

Here are some other Canucks in alphabetical order who are worthy of mention. Apologies to those I might have left off:

Earle Avery
Doug Brown
Dr. Glen Brown
John Chapman
Casie Coleman
Steve Condren
Ray Remmen
Benoit Cote
Jim Doherty
Ron Feagan
Henri Filion
Yves Filion
Vic Fleming
Lucien Fontaine
Stew Firlotte
Clint Galbraith
Bill Gale
Wally Hennessey
Bill Herbert
Gilles Lachance
Trevor Richie
Roger White

Have a question or comment for The Curmudgeon?
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