Garnet Barnsdale on a lifetime in the game
Handicapper, writer and harness racing super farn.
by Murray Brown
Garnet Barnsdale has been going to the racetrack since he was four years old. He is now 57. When asked how long he has been wagering on horses, his response is that he has been betting for almost as long as he has been going to the track. He began going to the track during the days of Old Woodbine, soon to become Greenwood.
“Those were the great days, for me anyway he says. My dad, who loved horse racing, especially betting on the horses, would take me along with him most of the times that he went. I’ve replicated those experiences with my son Nicholas. Back then, we probably went to see the thoroughbreds as often as the harness horses, perhaps even more. I liked both breeds, but even then, my favorites were the trotters and pacers. I suppose the main reason was that I could relate more to the drivers as opposed to the jockeys. In order to ride horses in races you had to be quite small. That is one thing I grew out of quickly when I hit puberty. Drivers, on the other hand, especially back then, came in all shapes and sizes. That was something I could dream of becoming or at least practicing. I could never imagine myself sitting astride a thoroughbred.
“Betting always intrigued me. I handicapped horse races from the first time I could read a program, perhaps even earlier. I loved the challenge of ‘picking the winner.’ Somewhere in my memory I looked back to the times when I would pick my choices from the way a horse looked in the post parade, or the way the driver sat in the bike or perhaps the way the horse scored down. My dad might give me two bucks to bet on a given horse or would allow me to share one of his bets.
“Those Greenwood days were glorious. Greenwood might have been the best located racetrack ever. It was on Queen Street east in downtown Toronto, easily accessed by public transportation. The streetcar stopped immediately in front of the track’s main entrance. I often look back and think of what horse racing missed out on when the decision was made to sell it. There would be a good possibility that if that track were still there and functioning as a racino that it would be the most successful one in North America, or perhaps even the world. I understand that economic factors made the selling of the land essential to the preservation of the then Ontario Jockey Club (now Woodbine Entertainment) a must do, but a guy can dream, can’t he?”
Barnsdale was involved with racing throughout his youth through to the present era. But horse racing was not exclusive in his likes. He liked just about all sports and developed a deep interest in most of them. Along with his interest in most sports, he also became involved in the wagering opportunities.
His interest in horse racing, specifically of the harness variety led to an avocation associated with handicapping, writing and general fandom for about 40 years. In his final year at Humber College, Garnet interned at the now defunct Standardbred Magazine which was owned and operated by Barb Lennox (daughter of Keith Waples), who died earlier this year.
Q: Most people who do not know you — and perhaps some that do — might be surprised to find that your handicapping, writing and general interest in the sport is secondary to your day job. You really have another means of making a living — what might be considered in the “real” world as a 9 to 5 job.
“That is so. Although, I’m not certain that if the opportunity for full time employment in racing had presented itself sometime in my formative years, that I would have not jumped at the chance to go where my heart probably would have dictated. I actually started out with the intent of possibly becoming a full-time journalist. I graduated from Humber College here in Toronto with honors in journalism. From there I worked at waste management where I spent 22 years. I then went to work at The Region of Peel, where I’ve been for the last eight years. As supervisor of waste collection, I am responsible to ensure that curbside waste gets collected from 350,000 homes every week in three municipalities that border Toronto to the west: The cities of Mississauga and Brampton and the Town of Caledon. It is an always interesting job, and, garbage is recession proof.
“The genesis of my current involvement in the harness racing journalism started with miniature horses, believe it or not. We owned some at the time, and I had a chance to drive one in a miniature horse race at Hanover Raceway, a B track here in Ontario. I contacted Peter Gross who publishes the racehorse newspaper, Down The Stretch, devoted to thoroughbreds, standardbreds and quarter horses in Ontario, to see if he might be interested in running a story about my driving experience. I suppose that’s where my horse writing career began. From there, I started doing Mohawk Park picks for a now defunct website and I guess I was noticed by DRF Harness editor Derick Giwner, who contacted me and asked if I was interested in doing the nightly Mohawk analysis because he had an opening. Of course, I jumped at that offer. It was kind of a dream job for me in reality.
“I have been producing the Mohawk Park analysis for DRF Harness for more than eight years now,, and I have never missed a card. In 2019, I was contacted by John Siscos, who at the time worked for Ontario Racing, to ask if | would be interested in doing daily analyses of every “B” track in Ontario, with the ultimate goal to help increase handle at those tracks. That’s how the “Tips From The Pros” page on the Ontario Racing website originated. I have a couple of colleagues, Melissa Keith and Michael Carter that do some of the cards for me and they do a great job. I have also written for this publication (the Buzzworthy column), Trot magazine and the handicapping program inserts on the big racing cards at Mohawk Park. My proudest moment came at the 2020 O’Briens when I won the Media Excellence Award for a piece I wrote on my dear friend and Hall of Famer Bill Galvin. To me, that validated that all the hard work that I did the previous 10 years was worth it.”
Q: Are you acquainted with all the horses that you do the handicapping on? If so, how do you follow all of them?
“I am and I do. I feel that I’d be somehow cheating if I didn’t, because I need to have as much information as possible to do my job and I like to think that, at least sometimes, I provide my readers with useful information they don’t have themselves. In general, as a fan and as a lover of the sport, I feel that in terms of whether simulcasting is good or bad for the sport I would tend to go with the good. However, there is a down side. It keeps people from attending the races and having a better knowledge of the horses and those involved with them. Of all the ails of the sport, I think that lagging track attendance is something that if it isn’t already there, will contribute to the lessening interest in harness racing. However, for what I do in terms of handicapping it is a necessity. I’m at home watching races from all over for many hours of the day. Without simulcasting that would be pretty much impossible. It’s a big aid for me. Take $7,000 claimers for example. They make up the bulk of races at all of the B tracks that I handicap. I try to memorize these horses as much as possible because all $7K claimers are not equal. Understanding each one’s ability and racing tendencies gives me an edge.”
Q: Let’s go back in time. You started going to Greenwood Raceway and then continued by going to Woodbine, Mohawk and Garden City. What is it that you remember about these places.
“The one thing that applies to all of them is the people factor and the atmosphere created by those people. There is something good and more exciting with people around while you are watching the horses race. This doesn’t only apply to horse racing, it applies to all sports. At Greenwood, we had the extra bonus of having the open paddock in the middle of the grandstand where the fans could see the horses and drivers and even interact with them. I’ve never seen this at any other track and I cannot understand why not.
“I’m afraid that with the exception of major racing days or nights such as the North American Cup, the Hambletonian, the Little Brown Jug and perhaps the upcoming Grand Circuit stakes seasons, highlighted by the Breeders Crowns that we’ve lost that. I cannot think of anything we can do to replace it. Of course, the addition of sports betting can and possibly will negatively impact us. But there is a way to turn that negative into a positive. We are a sport. Why in the world are we not considered an integral part of sports wagering? To me that is a given. All we need to do is convince the powers that be to include us. I know that in Ontario, WEG CEO Jim Lawson has been working hard trying to get horse racing on all of the sports gambling sites platforms that started up here in April of this year. That would create some great exposure for the sport up here, and you would hope, produce an increase in handle.”
Q: Do you have any favorites among the numerous horses and horsemen that you’ve seen?
“With horses, my all-time favorite would be San Pail. There were very few of his races that I didn’t see. He was close to the perfect horse in my estimation. You’d see him often and more often than not you’d then see him in the winner’s circle. He had most of the ingredients. He was a hometown hero who came from rather humble beginnings By racing for several years he built up a significant fan base.
“But, it was more than that. My (now deceased) sister was a huge fan of San Pail and in her last days, she was invited to go see him at Rod Hughes’ farm. That was actually the last day she got out of hospice prior to passing away two weeks later and she referred to it as the “best day ever.” For that I am forever grateful to the Hughes family and the great champion San Pail.
“With horsemen, most people who know me know that I idolize Ron Waples. He did everything and did it all well. In addition, he is a great person who was and still is readily accessible to just about everybody. Of all the thousands of races he has won, one stood out to me. I remember it as though it was yesterday. It was the final of a stakes which he won with Dream Maker in the then astonishing time of 1.56. Ronnie is a real credit to the sport. Prior to Waples, my favorite was another Ron, Ronnie Feagan who dominated the OJC when I was in my early teens. His early passing was a real loss for the sport.”
Q: You have an interest in just about all the high profile sports. Which is your favorite?
“I almost always cheer for the home team. I love the Raptors, the Blue Jays and the Leafs. But my all-time favorite plays football less than a hundred miles from home. I’m a huge Buffalo Bills fan and season-ticket holder. Not being able to go to their games during COVID was a real kick in the butt for me. I love football almost as much as harness racing.”
Q: What is it you dislike most about racing today?
“I hate the post time drag, but I think we are past the point of no return with it. I’ll give you an extreme example of the (appropriately named) drag. I was watching coverage of a major stakes race recently and I swear there was 0MTP on the screen for 20 minutes before any horses even came out on the track. What is the point of that and how do I explain it to a newbie? Unfortunately, it has been proven that when a track removes the drag it loses handle. But I still dislike it. Maybe the answer is a concerted effort by all racetracks over a reasonable period of time — perhaps enough time to acclimate the customers to believe that a specific time is when the race will go off. But that would involve cooperation, something that most racetracks haven’t shown any inclination for.”
Q: Your son Nicholas appears to be following a road similar to yours insofar as a future involving harness racing is concerned.
“I suppose you could say that. Much like me, he has loved horse racing from the first time he was exposed to it. He has a great love of horses themselves and he enjoys going to the races and handicapping them. He is pretty good at doing so. I try to get to the Hambletonian and the Jug each year. He always comes with me and it has been a great source of father/son bonding. Nicholas, like his father, graduated from Humber College with an honors degree in journalism. He is already a published author and also a handicapper with a following. I hope that he can benefit from the errors I’ve made and build on the good things I’ve done. One thing that I think he sees and tries to emulate is my strong work ethic. Nothing I have in this business was given to me. My motto is something like: work hard. Then work harder. Then work harder still and don’t say no to work. Good things can and will happen as they have for me. I feel blessed to work in this industry that I love and I never mail it in. I think I produce consistently good work that I am proud of, and I am already seeing that with Nicholas. He makes me proud every day.”s
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