Holding on

Desperate Man’s popular all-Canadian victory in the $1 million Pepsi North America Cup resonates with the eternal harness racing themes of hope, small-town families and the ability of a single great horse to be the ultimate equalizer. But to John and Kathy Cecchin, it’s about holding on to those things to which they hold dear.

by Dave Briggs

At the Cecchin family’s farm in tiny Arthur, ON they hold on to things — like that old tractor named Abner, that old trotter named Emmitt and John’s beloved “company truck” his daughter Nikki Davies says isn’t worth $500.

“I heard him say he might have to put some wood on instead of bumpers,” Davies said, “because the bumpers had fallen off. I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

Last Friday, John was delighted to use the company truck to deliver the family’s star pacer Desperate Man to Woodbine Mohawk Park’s retention barn for the Pepsi North America Cup. He left the farm in plenty of time to account for the possibility of the truck breaking down along the way, which Davies said has happened before.

“We are just on standby to pick him up when that thing breaks down,” Davies said, laughing.

As fate would have it — and, make no mistake, fate plays a major role in this story — the trip turned out to be as perfect and uneventful as the one Trevor Henry carved out a little more than 24 hours later in the $1 million final that delivered a mild 7-1 upset victory in Canada’s biggest harness race (replay here).

Though, having the company truck at the track did pose another problem in the aftermath of a surreal evening for the Cecchin, Davies and Henry families.

When John went to take the Pepsi North America Cup trophy to his truck, Megan Walker, Woodbine’s senior manager of standardbred racing operations, suggested he make sure to lock the doors, to which John replied, “I don’t think it locks. One window doesn’t work.”

The $500,000 cheque that comes with that trophy has little bearing on whether John Cecchin will get a new truck anytime soon.

“He could’ve bought a new truck at any time,” said his wife, Kathy Cecchin, Desperate Man’s trainer and co-owner. “He’s very stubborn.”

Truth is, John Cecchin is also sentimental. The truck used to belong to his dear friend and employer, trainer Mark Austin. John was Austin’s second trainer when Austin died at the age of 54 in September of 2014, a little more than a year after Austin’s pupil Fool Me Once won an elimination of the 2013 North America Cup and finished fourth in the final won by Captaintreacherous.

“Fool Me Once was the last horse that any of us were associated with that raced in the North America Cup,” Kathy said. “John just thought the world of Mark and when (Desperate Man) crossed the finish line and Nikki and I were just screaming and hugging each other, (Austin’s daughter) Paige was the first person there. As soon as we saw Paige, we just started to cry.”

*    *    *

There are hundreds of interconnected little pieces from there to here in Desperate Man’s story — most speak of the sport’s dominant themes of families and hope and the ability of a single great horse to be the ultimate equalizer, no matter what an auction says he’s worth and regardless of how many horses you have in the barn.

Long before Paul and Nikki Davies were a couple, Paul got his very first pari-mutuel driving win piloting Thinga Me Bob N to victory at Hanover Raceway for Kathy Cecchin in 2009.

“They put him down just to give him a shot in his first year driving,” said Nikki, whose first job as a caretaker, apart from working for her parents, came at age 14 working for Trevor and Shannon Henry, who now train at the Cecchins’ farm.

That John and Kathy even looked at Desperate Man is because Paul and Nikki own Outlawgrabbingears, an Alberta horse with career earnings of some $250,000 that they share with Deborah Pinel.

It was Paul that bought Outlawgrabbingears for $22,500 from the pacer’s breeder, Connie Kolthammer.

“I was at the track the day that Connie Kolthammer that bred him and raised him brought him in to train. I saw (Outlawgrabbingears) training and I went up and offered her some money and we made a deal and bought him that day. That led down the line to (Desperate Man),” Paul said. “The mother of Outlawgrabbingears (Grand Slam Woman) and the mother of Desperate Man (Dreamlands Latte) are full sisters. Kathy found (Desperate Man) and she pursued it and got him and we were just lucky enough to be involved.”

By now you may know that Desperate Man, bred by Winbak Farms, was a $20,000 yearling purchase at the 2019 Lexington Selected Yearling Sale. You likely also know he was a wedding gift from Kathy and John to Nikki and Paul. John and Kathy gave Nikki and Paul a choice between half-ownership in the Ontario-sired son of Shadow Play or a down payment for a house.

“There was never a thought the other way,” Nikki said of their choice. “Paul and I got married in Vegas, so it was an affordable wedding. Mom and dad actually bought the dinner and we booked the whole buffet. I said, ‘That’s lots, mom. That’s a great wedding present.’ I know those aren’t cheap. I said, ‘You don’t have to do anything. We’ll buy our share (in Desperate Man).’ They insisted and it was a super generous gift and I can’t believe it all worked out the way it did.

“Mom always says, ‘You could’ve got half of nothing. You just got lucky.’”

Truth is, they all know they got lucky and plan to appreciate every second of their good fortune — welcoming photographers and reporters and TV crews to their farm with open arms.

“There will never be another horse like him for us and we know that,” Kathy said.

The Cecchins have been around the game long enough to have some highs and some devastating lows. Austin’s death is a low point, of course, but so was the early hours of April 2, 1992 when 69 horses died when a fire gutted Barn 3 in the Mohawk backstretch. John Cecchin lost his stable that night.

“They’ve had a lot of heartache,” Henry said. “Those are all things that happen in life, right? This time something good happened.”

Leave it to Slick to turn this, the wildest of dreams, into a reality.

*    *    *

It wasn’t long after Desperate Man stepped off the truck from the Lexington sale that the pacer earned his nickname.

“As a yearling, it was a joke because he was anything but slick,” Kathy said. “He was a great big horse and he fumbled around. You’d jog him and he would barely get off the walk.”

One thing Desperate Man has in his favour — beyond being a son of Shadow Play — is perfect conformation. He wears very little equipment.

“He has a beautiful conformation. You cannot fault him,” Kathy said. “He’s just the easiest horse ever. You can’t imagine that he’s as good as he is because he’s completely without drama. I laugh that we did geld him. I think that he would be a handful if he was still a stud because he’s a good feeling horse – he always feels saucy — so I just think that he might have been a problem.”

Instead, Desperate Man is so chill he’s barely awake — which is often the sign of a great horse.

“He’s a cool horse and he has a great personality,” Nikki said. “He’s basically asleep before he goes out onto the track. I’ve never been in the paddock with him before. I usually just play owner and mom does all that, but he was actually sleeping (before the NA Cup). I said, ‘Should we be worried?’ and she said, ‘No, this is him.’”

It’s pretty amazing for a horse that spent the entire winter confined to his stall.

Despite posting a solid 3-1-1 record and earnings of $162,747 in six rookie starts in 2020 that included three Ontario Sires Stakes (OSS) Gold Series victories, the Cecchins discovered at the end of his season that Desperate Man had a P1 stress fracture he likely raced with in his last two starts.

The options were surgery or stall rest.

“I did feel terrible for him because he never got to get turned out. He stood in the stall for the entire winter,” Kathy said. “I did not want to do surgery on him. We could’ve done the surgery and they would’ve put screws in it and I just didn’t want to. I just wanted to stand him and let it heal. It did heal beautifully, so it was lucky.”

A lockdown of racing due to the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be another stroke of luck for Desperate Man’s camp. The lockdown forced the Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) to move the North America Cup from its usual slot in June to Sept. 11.

“We would not even have been in it if it went in June,” Kathy said. “He wasn’t good in June. We thought he was racing okay, but he wasn’t going to take on Perfect String. Perfect Sting was on fire.”

As it turns out, Perfect Sting was the horse Desperate Man’s connections were most concerned about as the NA Cup field turned for home.

*    *    *

The consensus from the experts is that Trevor Henry gave Desperate Man a perfect trip.

“That was the only trip that he could’ve beat them with,” Kathy said. “Trevor just said, ‘It was all or nothing.’ He had to get away closer to the front. If he had got away eighth or ninth it would have been too much to overcome.”

Desperate Man doesn’t have the greatest gate speed and Henry said the horse is “kind of goofy and shy” behind the wings.

“The other night, he got away a lot better and, of course, that’s what helped him. Those races you’ve got to be in position,” Henry said.

Ultimately, that was the winning move.

He got away fifth while Kathy was still hiding in his paddock stall, refusing to watch. Race favorite Bulldog Hanover took a commanding lead to the quarter and half-mile half stations. By the time Kathy finally peeked at a monitor, her concern was the slow fractions of :27.3 and :55.1.

“But I still felt that (Desperate Man) was going to get money and then I could see that he had power. When they were coming off the last turn, he was wanting out and you could see that he had his head turned,” Kathy said.

By the top of the stretch, Desperate Man was third behind Bulldog Hanover (driven by Jody Jamieson) and Perfect Sting (David Miller).

“When we came off the turn, I noticed Dave asked his horse to pace on and then Jody asked his,” Henry said. “Jody had no pop. I knew I was probably going to beat Bulldog, but I wasn’t sure that I was going to beat Perfect Sting. He’s a tough horse to get around and he’s an awful good horse. He did all the work and I just happened to pick him off.”

“When (Henry) flipped (Desperate Man) off cover, I think everybody just cheered as loud as we could and hoped he got there and he did. We couldn’t have asked for a better drive. Trevor did a great job,” Nikki said.

Despite it being his first NA Cup win, Henry deflected all praise.

“It just worked out,” he said. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. That time was the perfect time to have it work.”

As he crossed the finish line three-quarters of a length ahead of Perfect Sting, Henry felt the pressure lift from his body.

“It was a long week leading up to it, because it’s all you think about,” Henry said. “You don’t want to screw up because you feel bad if you do. It’s not as bad if it’s people you don’t know – you feel bad, of course, but it’s not the same. I’ve got to see them the next day.

“We’ve just been great friends for years. When I decided to go on my own, I came (to the Cecchins’ farm) and they gave me stalls. We’ve owned horses together and we’ve had luck and they are just great people. They are very humble people.”

*    *    *

Small towns have a way of molding people differently. Kathy comes from one of the smallest.

The granddaughter of a prairie horseman, Kathy was born and raised in Welwyn, SK, a town of 78 people near the border with Manitoba.

Saturday, it seemed as if everyone in town was watching as the race unfolded on national television.

“My brother said his phone rang off the hook… My mom is 87 and people her age were screaming at their TVs. I just never thought of that. I was just so focused on the horse and trying to survive up to the race that I just wasn’t thinking about the bigger picture.”

Arthur, ON, located about an hour north of Mohawk, has a population of about 2,500. On Saturday night it seemed as if half of the town jammed itself into the winner’s circle.

“I just could not believe how many people there were,” Kathy said. “When they said, ‘Take him to the back, I was, like, ‘How am I going to take him through there?’

“The best part, the funny part, is that every single person bet him. It must’ve only been our people. My brother said, ‘I made $1,300.’ My nephew made $1,000. My other nephew made $1,000. I think (our son) Jay made $1,500. Nikki, who never bets, she bet $50 to win on him.”

Beyond those that cashed tickets, there’s no doubt it was a popular victory thanks to the beloved underdog or “little guy” narrative. But most of all, this one resonated not because of their size in the industry, but more because the winners are lovely, hardworking souls big on humility and long on perspective.

Anyone that knows them knows it is a team effort. Those that have never heard of the Cecchins likely “never will again,” Kathy joked.

Still, despite getting a kick out of the fact Desperate Man is the third straight NA Cup winner and fifth in the last seven to be trained by a woman, Kathy just laughs.

“That’s too cool, but I certainly wouldn’t put myself on the same level as Casie (Coleman-Herlihy) or Nancy (Takter),” Kathy said.

In truth, she said she feels uneasy getting most of the credit simply for being listed as the horse’s trainer.

“(Desperate Man is) my only horse. John has three and then I just have him. He’s about all I can handle,” she said. “John entered him to baby race and he put me down as trainer. I said, ‘You didn’t have to do that. I don’t need to be the trainer.’ I am a glorified groom and John is a wonderful horseman. He said, ‘No, he’s your horse and you’re the trainer.’ We do everything together. John goes all the miles with him because he’s so lazy. I could never get him to go. He’d be going miles in three minutes if it was me.

“I think John is so much more deserving of it, really. I do wish it was John’s name instead of mine,” Kathy said.

For his part, John diverts the credit to Desperate Man, Nikki said.

“Dad says the same thing all the time, ‘He’s so smart. He’s smarter than we are.’ That’s the main thing he says about him,” Nikki said. “Dad would never talk about himself. Even the night of, I was with dad loading up the equipment on the trailer and everyone was congratulating us and dad was just saying, ‘Sometimes you get lucky.’ He never takes any credit for the hard work that he puts in or anything like that,” Nikki said. “He’s a really patient horsemen, so it’s nice to see it all happen for him, too. He deserves that.”

Still, Kathy was instrumental in the triumph. For one, she wasn’t about to leave her only trainee alone overnight — especially a horse that sometimes gets cast in his stall.

Friday was her birthday. She spent it sleeping in her van outside the retention barn after receiving permission to do so from Woodbine officials.

“I thought if he were to get cast it would take us over an hour to get there, so I slept in the parking lot,” she said.

That it was a less-than-stellar birthday didn’t bother her. Her father died on her birthday in 1994 and, ever since, it’s not been much cause for celebration. That her birthday falls four days before the anniversary of Austin’s death doesn’t make it any better.

“It’s never a happy day,” Kathy said.

Thankfully, Friday night was uneventful and positively peaceful.

The next night was pandemonium, leaving Kathy and Nikki positively gobsmacked as first-timers winning a million-dollar race.

“There was so much that we didn’t know was going to happen. Everybody was so emotional,” Kathy said.

“How this all happened, I still can’t process it all,” Nikki said.

“I just kept thinking, ‘Oh my God, he did it. He did it.’ I just kept saying to him in the winner’s circle, ‘This is all you, big guy. This is all for you,’” Kathy said.

Desperate Man simply took it all in as the maelstrom swirled around him.

“I kept saying to Nikki, ‘He’s the only one that is acting like he’s been here before,’” Kathy said, laughing. “The rest of us were complete lunatics and he was just standing there. He never moved or whipped his head around.”

*    *    *

So what will they do with the money?

Likely not a lot, as you might expect. Kathy and John are made of earth and salt, after all. Perhaps the best thing that will come from it is it will likely keep them in the horse business a little longer.

“Everybody knows that he’s the only horse that my mom looks after,” Nikki said. “For a while it didn’t look like they were even going to have any more horses. She also breeds dogs, so that was her main thing.”

Kathy breeds world class German Shepherds. Naturally, the night after winning the North America Cup — as if the weekend wasn’t eventful enough — a litter of seven puppies arrived.

“I was, like, ‘Sure, why not, let’s do that,’” Kathy said.

Life, as yet, seems shockingly normal for the Cecchins in the aftermath of a million-dollar victory.

“John keeps saying, ‘When the cheque comes, it’ll sink in.’ Maybe, because I can’t imagine a cheque with that kind of number on it. I can’t even really get in my head what that would look like,” Kathy said.

Nikki and Paul hope to take a trip — maybe back to Vegas. They might invest in some fencing for the farm.

Kathy said she finally might be convinced to buy a new tractor. Though, she wouldn’t think of getting rid of Abner.

“I heard the murmuring around here yesterday that if anything is going to get bought, it’s going to be a tractor,” Kathy said. “We have a really old tractor… Its name is Abner. We can’t get rid of Abner. John said, ‘You don’t have to get rid of Abner, but we can get a new tractor.’ We’ve had Abner since we’ve moved here and we’ve been out here since 2002. Abner is part of the family.”

Just like Kathy’s 23-year-old trotter Emmitt, who is living out his days at the farm in glorious retirement.

“Emmitt was not the fastest son of Armbro Agile. He was a $5,000 yearling and made $288,000. Again, in the theme of ‘We keep things,’ Emmitt is retired and lives the life of luxury… We have a big pond in the centre of our racetrack and we call it Lake Emmitt. Emmitt paid for everything.”

You can bet Desperate Man will pay for some more, but it likely won’t be a new truck.

“I was laughing when I was loading (Desperate Man). I said to my dad, ‘Your million-dollar horse and your $500 truck,’” Nikki said.

But that shouldn’t be the takeaway.

In an industry where millionaires buy the best horses and top trainers condition barns full of talented youngsters, this story — as positively, delightfully, improbable as it is — provides hope to all the rest.

“John said when we were driving home, ‘People like us can never win a race like this because you always have to sell the horse,’” Kathy said. “When somebody comes with the money, you’ve got to take the money. Last year, we did get some very generous offers and I said, ‘I don’t want to sell him.’ He was never bought to be sold, but I said to Nikki and Paul, ‘If it will change your guys’ life, then we will sell him.’ They said, ‘Nope.’ They didn’t want to sell him and we were just going to race him,” Kathy said.

Proving holding on to the things you love can sometimes transcend sentiment to provide the thrill of a lifetime.