Alberta bound

Top Canadian race caller Shannon “Sugar” Doyle is on the move from Western Fair back to Wild Rose Country.

by Melissa Keith

When Shannon “Sugar” Doyle signed off at The Raceway at Western Fair Wednesday night (Jan. 19), it marked a genuine end to a memorable era at Canada’s #1 half-mile track.

“I think I accomplished what I wanted to do for race calls last night,” he said the next day. “I had friends that showed up out of the blue, and ‘my girls,’ the ticket-sellers… They showed up at five o’clock last night after the pre-game show. They surprised me with a card and a gift card.”

The Summerside, PEI native was only slightly nostalgic, reminiscing about the first day of his eight-year tenure in London, ON.

“I still go back to that first day, showing up, driving into the infield. I think the fair was going on. I came in in September and my manager, Greg Blanchard, met me and welcomed me. We talked about where we wanted to go with things.”

Starting in 2013, Doyle became part of a team (then consisting of director of racing Blanchard, future racing manager Greg Gangle, and marketing coordinator Amy O’Toole) which would oversee a string of record-breaking handle increases.

“Here’s the thing: A winter racing track only, no summer dates, took the number two spot for wagering in Canada, behind Woodbine Mohawk Park. That was a huge accomplishment for everyone who worked in the racing department here in London,” said the race caller, analyst and assistant pari-mutuel manager.

December 23, 2014, The Raceway handled an all-time best $697,000, then smashed that mark December 22, 2016 with a 16-race card that brought in $765,685. December 31, 2019, handle hit a new peak: $795,590. Then the track’s March 18, 2020 card shattered the pre-pandemic milestone, attracting $992,536 in wagering.

Those numbers aren’t entirely attributable to any one factor, but Doyle deserves considerable credit. In turn, he attributed much of the track’s recent success to friend/guest handicapper Lou Sorella, who has circulated timely results and betting information on social media for six-plus years: “This guy, he’s been a true ambassador for The Raceway.”

Friday (Jan. 21), Sugar left London for a one-way cross-country drive to Edmonton, AB. “My walls have been bare for about a week in my office; they’re normally crowded. I only left with a few bags.”

After taking time to thank everyone from production crew to regular clocker and judges, he knew what was expected in his final appearance as “The Eye in the London Sky”: some trademark “Hit me!” calls at fast fractions, plus at least one “Show ‘em if you’ve got ‘em!”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever mailed in a race card,” he said with a smile, “but I wanted to bring some of my best last night.”

And he did, over the span of 10 races filled with familiar horses and drivers from the close-knit colony. Doyle said he was happy “seeing Scott Young go two for two,” capturing the distaff Preferred-2 Handicap with So Frisky and, two races later, winning with Manhattan Night as Sugar declared “The Answer’s in, again!” Doyle didn’t coin that nickname, but said it perfectly suits the son of trainer Bob “Knowledge” Young.

The race caller’s well-timed words underscored Canada’s fastest mile (1:54.2h) on any half-mile track so far in 2022: A dramatic “Lights out, Night Watchman!” accompanied Brett MacDonald’s gate-to-wire trip aboard Wednesday’s top class winner. Alberta reinsman Nathan Sobey drove show finisher Icy Blue Scooter in that Preferred-2 Handicap, coincidentally making his seasonal debut in Ontario the night of his race-calling friend’s departure.

“There’s a certain connection I’ve had with many people out there,” Doyle told HRU, mentioning Sobey, Century Downs/Mile regular Tyler Redwood, and retired Northlands trainer/driver Ron Graham, among others.

He held it together until the winning driver waved toward the announcer’s booth from the sulky, following the last race:

“In the finale, Scott [Wray] won and he came back and circled, and that was it.”

Doyle needed the next day to unwind, and is now more than ready to step into his next role: racing and wagering development manager at Century Mile Racetrack and Casino, which opened in 2019. “I’ll be the voice for both harness and thoroughbred at Century Mile,” he added, noting he’s not stepping away from the mic. “It’s going to be real busy, but I thrive on being busy.”

Doyle said his latest opportunity came along at the right time.

“I’ve had three extended lockdowns in Ontario. Even when I did manage to get home to Prince Edward Island, I isolated two weeks in a hotel and couldn’t go anywhere, see anybody… Before the pandemic, I was in the paddock every Friday night, visiting.”

Edmonton was where Doyle began his career. He was the successful applicant for a rare position at Northlands Park, which he learned about on the message board. “I tried for years, this goes back to the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s, trying to get an announcer job back around the Maritimes,” he recalled. “It just wasn’t going to happen.”

Northlands’ racing manager asked him, over the phone, if he’d ever called races before. “No, but I know I can do it,” came Doyle’s reply. “Well, we’re still looking, but if you can manage to call a race somewhere down there, get it on VHS tape, mail it out to us and we’ll give it a listen.” Red Shores Charlottetown announcer Vance Cameron let Doyle call his first pari-mutuel race there, on a cold day in late January 2006.

“I had been calling a few matinee races up in O’Leary [PEI] before,” he remembered. “Vance said that day, ‘So if you get the job, are you really going out there?’ I said, ‘Of course!’”

Listening to Doyle’s VHS recording, Northlands’ assistant general manager responsible for racing Les Butler said to hire him before the race even reached the half.

Friday night in London, Leamington Raceway announcer Nathan Bain stepped up to call the action. One of tens of applicants for the position vacated by Doyle, Bain is a previous guest announcer at The Raceway, mentored by the man for whom he’s currently filling in.

“Sugar was very good to me, and I wouldn’t be where I am without his support,” Bain said.