The rich and unparalleled life of vet, owner, trainer and driver Dr. John Hayes

by Murray Brown

There was never any doubt that Dr. John Hayes was going to become a veterinarian. At least to his late father, John Hayes, Sr. The inevitability of that happening was part of his growing up, where Hayes, Sr. would introduce his son, “This is my son, John. He’s going to be a veterinarian.”

Dr. John recalls his dad introducing him at a very young age to renowned horseman Morris MacDonald, “This is my son John. He’s going to be a veterinarian.” The crusty MacDonald’s response being, “Not another f–king vet!”

Looking back, the senior Hayes was one of two sons, the elder, Frank, was allowed to go to university. The younger, John, wanted to become a veterinarian, but was told by his father to remain home and operate the family farm. Unable to pursue his dream as a vet, he decided that destiny for his son, John.

Any story of Dr. John Hayes would also have to involve the larger than life Hall of Fame horseman John Hayes, often known as The Senator.

One might think that there was the strong possibility of there being issues with growing up as the son of such a strong-willed personality. There might have been some, but there was also opportunity, lots of opportunity.

“Maybe with someone else, growing up with a predestined life would have created problems. However with me, I was both compliant and used to my father’s rule, so pursuing veterinary medicine, it has been. Farm life and horses were what I knew, so becoming a vet agreed with me. It has been a great life. I’m now 73. Except for an occasional bump in the road there’s nothing that I would change.

“My father was a strong willed man, but also a very wise one. He wasn’t always right, but he was more often than not.

“I had a great childhood and upbringing.”

From tending to the family farm in Oshawa, ON, Hayes Sr. progressed to becoming a bookmaker — a legal one. He along with Cliff “Chappy” Chapman (brother of renowned horseman John) had purchased bookmaking charters from the Province of Ontario for fall fair racing.

“Father was a gambler, a pretty smart one. He always carried a substantial bankroll of cash, although at any given time that might have been all the money in the world that he possessed. There was a time when he had started training horses where he might have starved, if not for the poker games in which he took part in the afternoons, before racing in the evenings.”

The younger Hayes recalls being an observer at some of those games.

Dr. John has now been retired from actively training horses since 2013.

Q: Let’s begin with your name. You’ve been known by several, including but not limited to, Robert John, John Jr., Dr. John and Doc. One could understand all of those, but the one by which I and others have occasionally known you by was Sam. Where in the world does Sam fit in?

“You knew father quite well. Anybody that knew him knew that he rarely, if ever lost an argument. If he did lose one, he’d be loath to accept it. When I was born my mother and sister wanted to name me Robert John which became my legal name. Father wanted something like Paul, I think. He didn’t want Robert John. So he nicknamed and called me Sam which caught on with everyone outside home. Soon others picked up on it and I became Sam to some who knew me, occasionally you.”

Q: Do you miss the sport?

“Not too much. I’m still involved as a member of the Horse Racing Panel of Ontario. We hear appeals of violations of the rules of racing for all three breeds in Ontario. I still follow most of the big events. I enjoy seeing good horses. But I do not miss the business aspects of the sport. In 2012, when the slots agreement was terminated, I saw the handwriting on the wall and decided that the direction the sport was heading into was not for me. I decided to get out. I have no regrets. When some doors close, others open.

“Things have been very good for me. I’ve embraced a new lifestyle and group of friends. I exercise a lot. I love playing online fantasy sports, pretty much all sports, but especially baseball. I’m intrigued by the stock market and dabble in it. I am actively involved with managing my portfolio. The sudden passing of my wife of 37 years in 2015, just as we sold the farm, with retirement in view, has been difficult. She was a gold standard person and partner. We raised two great sons and now have four grandchildren. Christopher and Robert and their families are enjoying successful lives in Toronto. I regret that Heather who sacrificed as a horse trainer’s wife, didn’t get the retirement opportunity that she so deserved.”

Q: Let’s start near the beginning with your career in harness racing. What are your
earliest recollections?

“Father raced a small stable comprised mostly of fairly cheap trotters at Blue Bonnets and Richelieu Park. That was destined to become quite different when he decided that he hated trotters and only wanted pacers in his stable. I’d help out wherever I could or more truthfully, when I was told to. In the afternoons, he and a group of horsemen would play poker in a tack room. They’d get thirsty and would give me a five dollar bill and send me out to get some soda. The treat was that I’d get to keep the change.

“I remember father sending me on a horse van when I was about 10 years old with two horses to race in Quebec City. I didn’t speak any French and very few there spoke English. Father taught me how to say bacon and eggs in French. So all my meals were bacon and eggs for two days.”

Q: Tell me about the Shapiro brothers and Beejay Stables.

“Brothers Bob, Conrad and Leo Shapiro were women apparel manufacturers and wholesalers in Montreal. They were also avid harness fans. You would find them at their reserved dining room table at Blue Bonnets during every racing program. Father and the Shapiros became partners in the mid-‘50s as Beejay Stables. That partnership continued for almost 50 years.

“It began with one unrated mare, Lassie York, who became the dam of their first good horse Sharp N Smart. It grew to several prominent racehorses and a large breeding operation. All the breeding stock, the mares, foals and stallion interests were sold to Dr. Phil McCarthy and Walnut Hall Farm for a seven figure sum.

“Strike out was undoubtedly their best racehorse, but they had many other good pacers including Conquered, Penn Hanover and Keystone Pat. Bob, who acted for the brothers was extremely supportive of me and my career.

“For example, while I was in university, with Bob’s encouragement, I had many occasions where I’d leave vet school on Friday or Saturday and drive Keystone Pat in a feature at Yonkers or Liberty Bell. I might take a physiology text along for reading in the paddock.

“In 1970, again at Bob’s behest, I spent the summer with a truck and trailer and Penn Hanover going from track to track, racing him in Saturday Night preferreds. I groomed, trained and drove him and slept in front of his stall for three months. It was a magical coming of age experience thanks to the Shapiros.”

Q: Was there ever any doubt about you becoming a veterinarian?

“Father wanted it and I complied. Unlike some kids, I always loved school and did well. While I was going to vet school at Guelph, I’d work in the stable while school was out. I was sure that I was going to become an equine vet. While at Vernon Downs I met Dr. John Steele. He encouraged me to work a locum with them after graduating to gain experience, which I did. I would work with one of the practice vets during the day and in the Vernon Downs paddock on race nights. I also did emergency calls at night and on weekends. I was busy, but I had a great time. I learned a lot and met many wonderful people.”

Q: What was your greatest thrill in harness racing?

“Without a doubt that would have to be the 1981 Meadowlands Pace with Conquered. Conquered was a very nice horse, but not a great one. I went into the race as a beaten favorite in my elimination and had an outside post in a 12-horse field. I hoped that I could get a piece of the purse, but winning the race probably didn’t even cross my mind. I was sitting 10th at the top of the stretch, realizing that I was going to be somewhere. He just kept on eating up horses or perhaps they just came coming back to him. It was nevertheless a great thrill that very few get the privilege to enjoy. Another great thrill for me was winning the inaugural North America Cup with Legal Notice in 1984. Ironically it was the same horse, that same year that was responsible for my biggest disappointment in the sport. I was boxed in full of pace in the Little Brown Jug. If I would have been able to get out, I’m sure I would have won. Instead Colt Forty-Six was the winner. But, as they say, that’s horse racing.”

Q: Let’s talk a little more about The Senator and some of the quotes by which he was best known.

“They mostly revolved around the Little Brown Jug, which was then the ultimate in pacing. When he said he would rather win the Little Brown Jug than go to heaven, he absolutely meant it. The Little Brown Jug to him was heaven.

“When he was asked if he thought he could win the Jug with Strike Out he said, ‘I didn’t come to Ohio to run for governor.’

“When he was asked if he had any driving instructions to give Keith Waples who was driving Strike Out, he said, ‘I told him to just make four left turns.’”

Q: It’s well known that you are a runner and have loved running for quite some time.

“Not so much now as it used to be. This body and my joints are not able to take the running near as well as before. I’ve qualified and entered in 12 and competed in seven Boston Marathons. I was a late scratch in the ones in which I didn’t run. I was in the terrible one with the bombing in 2013.”

Q: Through the years which horsemen have you admired the most?

“I’ll start with father. There were two people who he absolutely placed on a pedestal. They were Keith Waples and Carter Duer. It took someone very special to impress my father. Those two certainly did.

“Myself, I admired the journey of Ronnie Waples. Parlaying a modest beginning, hard work and abundant talent, he created his own brand. Three others who I’ve admired from afar and up close as well were Michel Lachance, Benoit Cote and Jacques Hebert. Not only were they great horsemen, but all three are gentlemen in the truest sense of the word. It’s no surprise that all four of them are members of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, with Ronnie and Michel also being members in Goshen.

Q: Who was the greatest horse you’ve seen through the years?

“That would have to be Niatross. He did it all, on all size tracks and everywhere. I’m fortunate enough to have lived through multiple eras starting with Adios Butler, then Bret Hanover, Albatross and in recent years Somebeachsomewhere. Maybe not by much, but Niatross was the best.”

Q: Who was your favorite?

“Certainly not one of my best, but a pacer converted to the trot, Decked, helped me gain stable decision independence from father. He was a homebred by father’s first Grand Circuit horse Penn Hanover. His dam was a chestnut mare from Adios’ last crop named Battling Bess. For the era, Battling Bess was probably as well-bred a pacer as one could find. She was a half-sister to Best Of All and Coffee Break. Although Decked was bred to be a pacer, he wanted to be a trotter. I wanted to let him trot, if that was what he wanted to do. Father was winding down his physical involvement with the horses at the time. He just scoffed at me when I told him that I wanted to let Decked trot. ‘There’s no way he will be a trotter. When he goes faster, he will just switch onto the pace. You are just wasting your time and effort.’ But Decked and me had other ideas. He wanted to trot and trot he did. He was a stakes winner from the very beginning at 2. He went on and earned of $140,000 on the trot. We did try to get him to pace. To say that he was an ordinary pacer would be giving him too much credit.”

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