by Murray Brown
John Burns, AKA “Burnsie” was 13 years old when he first met Clarence “Shorty” Lockhart at the Collingwood, ON fairgrounds. Lockhart had a well-known stable of trotters and pacers based at the fairgrounds. Burnsie would regularly ride his bicycle past the fairgrounds and often make a stop at Lockhart’s stable. At the time, Burn’s greatest interest, as with most young Canadian boys, was with hockey. It soon expanded to become horses and hockey.
At the time, other than fair venues, the only operational racetrack in Ontario of consequence was Old Woodbine, which was to become known as Greenwood. They only raced in July and August. Burns began working for Lockhart and ended having two stints working with the Lockhart stable.
Burns did everything that a young man could do around a stable of horses, including grooming, trucking and training.
At the age of 14, Burns acquired his first horse, a pacer named J. R. Spencer. He won in 2:18 as a 2-year-old. Lockhart suggested to Burns that he send the colt to Keith Waples, who was racing in the big time as it were — the Montreal circuit of Blue Bonnets and Richelieu Park. Burns told him he didn’t have the money needed to pay for the training and maintenance of the horse. Lockhart then made him the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse. Lockhart would guarantee all expenses for J. R. Spencer. The colt was sent to Waples and he won his first start for him in 2:06 on the Richelieu half-mile track. J. R. Spencer remained with Waples. Added baggage was Burns, who began a decade-long stint working in the Waples Stable. One of the highlights was winning the Centennial Pace in Peterborough with his J R Spencer.
Burns did for Waples essentially what he did for Lockhart. He groomed, trained and shipped horses to and fro between Ontario and Montreal.
He describes his time with Waples as the greatest learning experience a young man could have.
“Keith was the nicest person you could possibly work for. If you kept your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut, you would learn a whole lot,” Burns said.
Waples’ life-long partner in the stable was his brother Murray, who Burns describes as a gruff sort on the outside and a good guy on the inside. Cousin Ronnie Waples, who was destined to become a double Hall of Famer, as of course was Keith, was also working there. Among the owners in the stable was lumber man Hector Cloutier and the successful Quebec stable La Ferme Drummond. Burnsie well remembers Mighty Dudley winning the first 2.00 mile at Richelieu Park for Waples.
Dr Rosario Gauthier, who Burns remembers as the greatest veterinarian he has ever known, oversaw the health of the horses as well as that for most of the successful stables in Quebec at the time.
“He was just the most amazing vet I’ve ever known and a real gentleman to boot. What he didn’t know about a horse’s health probably wasn’t worth knowing,” Burns said.
After 11 years with Waples, Burns decided to go out on his own.
His first major owners were Dave Morrissey and Bob Hamather.
“Dave liked owning racehorses and would pay whatever it took to get good ones. He wasn’t even slightly interested in buying yearlings. The first real top horses we got were Merry Isle and Dangerfield Bruce. By then I had moved my stable to The Meadowlands. John Campbell helped me a whole lot. He got me some owners and drove most of my horses. We won the Oliver Wendell Holmes beating Hot Hitter with Merry Isle. Dave had made a deal to buy Dangerfield Bruce for $100,000. I was standing there with a lead shank waiting to pick up the horse while Dave was consummating the deal with a check. Some time went by. The horse and me were getting restless. I asked Dave what was the delay? He said that the man now wanted $110,000 instead of the agreed upon $100,000 for Bruce. I told him to just give him what he wanted. He did and Dave owned the horse.
“I was at The Meadowlands four years. I also had some horses at Greenwood and would race some at Roosevelt, as well. It got to be too much. I was traveling all over. No wonder my wife didn’t stay with me. We got divorced. We were up to 72 head at one time. It was too much. I decided to go back home. Morrissey gave the horses to Dave Elliott to continue racing at The Meadowlands.
“I assembled a stable to race on the Ontario Jockey Club circuit. John Campbell was a big help in getting me started. He got me some owners. Among them were Bill Perretti and Arlene Traub. They both had a reputation for their horses coming with roller skates on their trunks. They lived up to their reputations.
“Among the first horses I got was a Dream of Glory pacer named Armbro Worthy. I got him from Joe O’Brien’s stable. He was making breaks on the pace. I tried him on the pace and he continued to make breaks. I then tried him on the trot. After three races, he was in the invitational trot.
“I did like Perretti. I got along with him pretty well. One of the horses he sent to me was Wild Bill Skipper. He had been a $250,000 yearling. I told Bill he was no good. He can go in 2:07. Bill had George Berkner pick him up.
“I loved George. What a character he was. I remember him telling me about Perretti, ‘Don’t take all his money. He has enough for both of us.’”
Q: You’ve had a lot of owners in your time in the game. You’ve already spoken about Morrissey, Perretti and Arlene Traub. Let’s talk about some of the others.
“I guess in retrospect there weren’t too many that I’ve missed. When I first came back to Canada I had a very diverse stable.
“One of the first owners I got was Earl Warren. Earl was a well-known radio personality in Toronto. He was a wonderful man, who was horse poor. He was paying the bills on 13 horses. I told him that was ridiculous. There was no way he could sustain a stable with that many horses, especially since most of them were not very good. We began culling. Eventually, he reached the point where he may not have been making money, but he sure was losing a whole lot less.
“I suppose the one owner I was most associated with was Harold Shipp. He had his horses with Bill Wellwood. He contacted me and said he wanted to make a change. Would I take his horses and buy some yearlings for him? Is the Pope Catholic? You are darn right I would. We enjoyed a lot of success and had a lot of fun together.
“Here’s couple of stories about Harold. He liked Dream of Glory. He instructed me to go to the Canadian Classic yearling sale and buy him some Dream of Glorys. I bought seven of therm. The best of them was a filly whose name he changed to Shipps Doll. She earned $213,896. I was somewhat restricted in my buying for him, because he was friends with the Armstrong family and wanted to buy mostly from them.
“He had two dogs. They were named Trapper and Schnoops. He had bought a lovely chestnut Armbro Omaha colt from Armstrong whose name he changed to Shipps Trapper ($225,795). For some reason he wanted to get a gray colt whose name he would change to Shipps Schnoops to go with his chestnut. We were in Lexington. Armstrong didn’t have any grays in their consignment. Harold came upon a gray in the Almahurst consignment. He asked me to look at him. I told him that I didn’t like the colt. Harold had to go home, but he told me to find him a gray colt. Stoner Creek was selling a gray colt by On The Road Again out of Watering Can. I thought he was alright and bought him for Harold. That was to be Shipps Schnoops. He ended up earning $658,123. We parted perhaps not on the best of terms. However down the road we reconciled and renewed our friendship. He was as good an owner as there was to be found in the sport.
“Two of my dearest friends and partners were the sports figures, the hockey player John Ferguson and the baseball pitcher Dan Plesac. Both of them are wonderful guys who really loved their horses and harness racing.”
Q: Let’s talk about some of your best horses.
“We’ve already spoken of Merry Isle and Dangerfield Bruce. I claimed Fight The Foe three different times. I bought him first for $12,00, then $20,000 and finally for $40,000. He kept going up the ladder, but I stopped at $40,000.
“My all-time favorites would probably be a dead heat between Towner’s Image and Hardie Hanover. If I had to, I’d give a slight edge to Towners Image. I looked upon her win in the Jugette as being my entrance to the big time.
“Then there were all the Shipps Horses — Shipps Scorch( $755,065), Shipps Schnoops ($658,123), Shipps Dream ($643,757), Shipps Fella ($478,191), Shipps Expectation ($318,053), Shipps Belle ($265,335) and Shipps Doll ($213,896).
“Another really good filly we had in the stable was Triplet Hanover.
“Adding it all up, we’ve had five O’Brien Award winners and won two Breeders Crowns.”
Q: Rate the best five trainers you’ve known in numerical order.”
“1. Billy Haughton — Just an incredible horseman and an even better human being.
“2. Bill Robinson — It might have taken some time for me to acknowledge it. He ran a remarkable operation and always beat me.
“3. Bob McIntosh — Year after year, horse after horse. I believe he is still the leading Breeders Crown winning trainer. If not, he is darn close.
“4. Brett Pelling — He’s a guy I’ve learned to respect. His entire body of work is incredible.
“5. Ronnie Waples — I hate to have to say it, but he is one great horseman (laughs).”
Q: Do the same for drivers.
“1. John Campbell — He leads in everything both on and off the track.
“2. Keith Waples — To quote Neil Diamond, ‘It was a different time and a different place. But he was the first really great driver I’ve seen.
“3. Bill O’Donnell — For a defined period of time, maybe the best to sit behind a horse.
“4. Doug Brown — For several years as good as Canada ever had.
“5. Steve Condren — A great driver and a great judge of pace. Took very good care of a horse.”
Q: What have you been doing with yourself since retiring?
“This past winter I worked with Bill Cass. He’s a wonderful guy and a terrific horseman. We were two old guys taking care of three horses. He is now down to two. So I became redundant (laughs).
“As it has for many people, COVID has had a terrible effect on my life and lifestyle. It has prevented me from traveling and going to the sales. I miss doing some of the things I took for granted.”
Q: What has been your greatest thrill in all your years of racing?
“That would have to be winning the Jugette with Towner’s Image in 1993. A close second would be Hardie Hanover’s Breeders Crown.”
Q: Any parting words?
“I’ve been pretty fortunate. I’ve always had great teachers, great help and the benefit of being around and utilizing the best drivers and trainers. If there is one thing I’ve learned in this life of ours you cannot do it alone.”
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