A conversation with Anthony MacDonald: The man behind TheStable.ca

by Murray Brown

Over 900 owners from 13 countries. If that was the only contribution that Anthony MacDonald and his wife Amy’s entity, The Stable.ca, have made to harness racing, it would be quite significant.

One thinks that it would be safe to presume that upwards of half those wouldn’t be owners and probably wouldn’t be involved in our sport if not for their participation in The Stable.

Anthony goes further and says that a significant number of them had never even seen a harness race before embarking on the trip of ownership. He is quick to point out that he does not consider it in any way to be an investment.

“You invest to hopefully make money. If you buy into a horse in The Stable, you are doing so to be entertained, to be part of something that can bring thrills, pleasure and enjoyment to your life. If you get lucky, there is a chance, albeit usually a small one, that you can make some money. However, from my experience with people who have bought pieces of horses in The Stable and made money, more often than not, they have taken that money and spent it on the purchase of more horses in The Stable. As we who have been in the horse business know, it can be quite addicting.”

The stable now numbers in the area of 100 horses. Once the Indiana and Harrisburg Sales are concluded, there will probably be 110 or slightly more. Approximately two thirds will likely be coming 2-year-olds.

It has been a long, sometimes, but rarely, arduous road that has led Anthony and his wife Amy to managing the largest number of group owned racing harness horses in the sport.

Let’s start at the beginning. Most people would think that you come from a harness racing background.

“I would say yes and no — mostly no. My dad, Fred, was a college professor in Prince Edward Island where the family lived.

“In PEI it seems that most everyone has some sort of affiliation to harness racing. They own a horse, know someone who owns or are directly involved with horses. My dad always owned a horse or two. My mom Gail was a track photographer. We were always exposed to horses, but were not necessarily involved with them. There are six of us, all boys, of the six, four of us ended up making horses our full time vocation.”

Let’s talk about your brothers in order of age.

“Lloyd — He had a horse racing show when he was younger. He didn’t ever race but was interested in racing. He was always very handy and capable. He was never very far from a screwdriver and is always up to date in the latest form of technology. He is very much like Curtis. Curtis would probably say that he and Lloyd have learned a great deal from each other. He has a business in Ottawa where he practices his craft.

“Bobby — He is not a blood brother, but he is everything but. All of us look upon him as being one of us. He is a blacksmith and a darn good one.

“Anthony — The black sheep of the family. Not really. But I would say that of the three of us that ultimately became trainer/drivers, probably the one with the least natural talent. If there is something that all of the PEI MacDonald brothers possess, it is drive and passion for the horses and the sport. I can’t say that I have more of those attributes than Mark and James, but I can say with absolute certainty that they don’t have any more than me.

“Mark — A great driver and a person possessed of more true grit than anybody I know. Mark was the first to leave the nest of PEI and went to work for Mike MacDonald at Windsor Raceway. He began driving sporadically and his natural talent caught the eye of Bob McIntosh. Bob began using him to drive for his powerful stable and Mark quickly became the leading driver at Windsor and shortly throughout Ontario. Most drivers have hit the ground and have occasionally been banged up, but it has happened to Mark more than anybody I know. Not only has he been banged up a lot, but terribly so. I remember one accident where every bone in his face was broken. I went to visit him in the hospital and literally did not recognize him. That was the first bad spill, but there were others. Each time he was able to get off the ground and come back swinging. Mark is unique in that he is incredibly adaptable. He can drive anywhere and with any kind of horse.

“Curtis — He, along with Lloyd, are the technology savants of our family. They are both incredible in that area. I use Curtis as a videographer for our horses in training. He also developed a system for using drones to capture the horses in action. His work is varied and includes being used by racetracks to improve and modify their systems.

“James — One might think that with his older brothers so active in the sport, James would have been involved from the very beginning. The opposite was the case. He never showed much interest in the horses until he was 20 or so. Through his teenage years he did what most teenagers do, he went to school and screwed around. He eventually realized that he had to do something with his life so he came to work for me. I was tough on him. Actually all of my brothers have always been tough and very competitive with each other.

“If one were looking for the definition of what is a natural as far as drivers are concerned, then James personifies it. He has incredibly soft hands and an extraordinary soft touch with horses. As he began driving, he followed Mark’s lead. He rose through the ranks to where he is now arguably the top driver in Ontario. He is certainly in any such conversation. He drove a bit in the States against the best in New Jersey and Pennsylvania this summer and proved that he could drive anywhere.”

Let’s speak more specifically about you as a trainer/driver.

“I would say that I’ve paid my dues. I am neither the best, nor the worst horseman ever. I followed Mark to Windsor Raceway where I also worked for Mike MacDonald. I then went to Montreal where I worked for a good horseman named Jean Beaulieu. Mike MacDonald had come to Montreal from Windsor, so I went back to work for him. Mike was a great teacher and a great horsemen. He was also tough. He threw compliments around as though they were manhole covers. If he gave you a compliment, it was a certainty that you earned it. He started using me to drive some of his horses. I took that to mean that I at least could do an okay job.

“I then started my own stable, I first began in Ottawa and got my driving start in Belleville, then I went to Windsor where I had a small stable and worked for Jack Darling. I then moved to Mohawk where I headquartered for some time.

“I was getting by, winning my share of races, doing okay and surviving. Then came 2012 and the Liberal government announcement that they were pulling out of the SARP (Slots At Racetracks Program) agreement and were going to stop helping racing in Ontario in any way, shape or form. I, as well as most of the horsepeople in Ontario were crushed. We held rallies and did pretty much everything that we felt we could do to help change the way the tide towards horse racing was turning.”

You then decided to enter politics. How did that go?

“It was an adventure. I ran as the Progressive Conservative candidate in Guelph. Looking back, I can see that I probably didn’t stand a chance. I still managed to finish second. I was running against a well-established foe (the sitting education minister) who had represented the district for a long time. Through my campaign, I visited every single household in the constituency, I would guess at least 12,000 homes. Guelph is within an hour’s drive of four functioning racetracks, yet it seemed that hardly anybody that I spoke with even knew that we or harness racing existed. Although I probably didn’t realize it at the time, therein was probably where the genesis for The Stable began. We of course lost the election and I had to go back to work training and driving horses. I realized that something had to change. I was getting by, but just that. I had to do something different. I came up with the idea for The Stable. Through my visits to people when I was running for election there were two main things I learned about our sport: (1) Virtually no one knew of our existence. (2) Those few that did, were certain that they could not afford to become involved even if they were interested in doing so.”

So, you asked yourself, how do we fix that problem?

“I’d be lying if I said that the concept of The Stable was entirely for the truly altruistic purpose of benefitting harness racing. I would also, if not primarily, be helping myself. I didn’t have many owners. Moreover, I didn’t know many people who could afford to buy and maintain a whole or several horses. I thought though that I could find many people who might be able to buy small parts of horses. I decided to concentrate on yearlings. We would try to buy the dream and hopefully have fun trying to do it. We could begin with the young horse and all of us would hopefully grow with developing that baby. From the very beginning I made it clear that this wasn’t going to be an investment made to make money. It wasn’t an investment in the accepted sense at all. Buying a piece of a horse would be a means to having fun and enjoyment. If by some quirk of fate, we made some money, that would be great. From the very beginning I felt that good communication would be the key to the venture’s success.”

You now have the dream, what did you do?

“Communicate. I let people know what we were planning to do primarily through social media. I got in touch with several breeders offering to work with them on yearlings that they felt they couldn’t get fair value for. The response from the public was better than anticipated. We developed some software which would enable both us and our partners to know where we stood from a financial standpoint at any given point in time. I started going to the yearling sales looking for value. I was spending money that I already had in hand or which had been pledged to the program. I was probably playing a dangerous game, but thankfully it all worked out well and those that said they were coming in, did. So did a few breeders who liked the concept and supported it.

“Our first year, we had 30 horses in training and maybe 85 clients who owned them with us. We had a fairly good year at the races. Throughout the time leading up to the racing aspect of the venture, we regularly kept in touch with our partners through email, video transmissions and welcomed everybody to come see them train. I considered it a huge success We have continued doing so, adding various bells and whistles periodically such as overhead videos taken by drones. People just love it. We have lost some partners as any business would, but their time spent with us has drawn many back in. We have also thankfully gained more along the way.”

So, you get a catalog from a sale, what do you do next?

“I try to attend as many sales as I possibly can. I concentrate on the pedigrees of those that interest me. I look at them and then set a value to those that I’d potentially bid on. My primary goal when buying is value. You can find just as much value in a high priced horse as you can in a cheaper one. I’ve found that speaking in general terms its usually easier to sell shares in a higher priced horse than it is in a cheaper one. This becomes more the case as we achieve greater success on the racetrack.

“Success on the track certainly helps with stable interest but the experience you get in being a part of the group itself is the ultimate reason for our high retention rates. It isn’t necessarily from winning races. Thankfully each year has improved over the preceding one.”

You mentioned that this year was your most difficult one from a practical standpoint.

“Indeed it was. We found ourselves in a very difficult situation. Ontario racing was for all intents and purposes shut down. I had to make a decision and had to make it quickly. Thankfully, we were in the position where our portfolio of horses was diversified, with roughly one tenth of them bring Ontario sired. We had quite a few Ohio and Pennsylvania breds with some New Jersey and New York sired ones as well. Amy and I decided that we had to get out of Dodge. We packed up the three kids, took both cars and made our way to Ohio. Amy said, ‘We have no place to live.’ ‘We’ll stay in a hotel until we get somewhere more permanent,” I responded. We did that for three weeks. If you think that five people living in one room for any length of time is fun, I’ve got news for you, it isn’t. We finally rented a home. Even though we are now back in Ontario we still have a lease through April on a home in Macedonia, OH.

“We set up Ohio as our home base. We raced there a lot. If we were racing elsewhere, we made plans to ship the horses to someone who we knew and trusted in the new locale. The bottom line was that we ended up having our most successful year ever on the racetrack. The kids, who we were most worried about, adapted extremely well. We raced a lot at the Ohio fairs and the entire family ended up having so much fun. When things got better in Ontario we came back and are here now.”

It’s yearling time again. You already have 47 and are planning on maybe having a total of 60. What’s your schedule from now until the end of Harrisburg?

“I do about two to three hours of videos to our clients each week. All of our partners have access to it on YouTube. We are always available, day and night to anybody that wants to communicate with either Amy or me, or both of us. The preferred method is probably email, but texting, telephone or any other means are also options. I still believe that communication is and should remain our biggest asset. I’ll be in Indiana the latter part of this week while Amy will be at The Meadowlands with Threepointbluechip hopefully securing a place in the Breeders Crown finals, the following week (editor’s note: he finished fourth in one of three eliminations, with James MacDonald driving, and is an also eligible for the final). He is somewhat special to us because he was our first six-figure yearling. I look at him as being somewhat emblematic of our entrance to the big time. After Harrisburg, we gather the troops and begin the dreams sequence one more time.”

What is your preference trotters or pacers?

“Undoubtedly trotters. For these main reasons: I like a good horse, but there is something about a good trotter that is so appealing. If you have one that has a modicum of ability and stays on the trot, chances are that you will do fine with it. With pacers, you may think that you have one that is really good because he or she might be able to pace in 1:52. Then you will find one, or even a dozen, who will beat you going faster. I would guess that about 70 per cent of those we buy will be trotters.”

In what geographical areas do you prefer to race?

“People generally like the areas where they have the most success. In our case that would probably mean Ohio. We’ve also done well in Pennsylvania, Ontario and Indiana. I’m not crazy about New York and New Jersey. It’s very far to travel. The competition is very tough and New York in particular is such a big place. It really is tough to operate there and everywhere else.”

Let’s close off with your family.

“My wife Amy and our three kids Ava (10), Oliver (8) and Adeline (3) are the greatest thing that I could have ever envisioned. The ability to be with and spend a great deal of time with them has been by far the best thing to come out of this COVID disaster for me.”

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