A conversation with the marvelous Paul MacDonell

by Murray Brown

It took more than two years after he was elected to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame until he received his ring commemorating the honor. However, it was certainly worth the wait and then some according to honoree Paul MacDonell, one of the extremely worthy class of 2022, who were inducted at the recent dinner welcoming that class.

“Without a doubt it was the greatest honor I’ve received in a lifetime spent in our great sport. I don’t think the wait was any great negative, because I knew that I was elected and that darned COVID would eventually allow the installation dinner to take place. The dinner itself was just fantastic, especially the part which allowed my dad to be my presenter. Not only was he there, so was my extended family and a good many great friends.”

One might ask what is it that led to this great happening. If we were starting most recently, one would point to the numbers — 5,726 racing wins enroute to earnings of $112,701,811 by the horses he drove throughout a six-decade career.

“I’m now reaching the twilight of my career, but I still believe that I’m able to compete with the best, among a group of excellent drivers on Canada’s premier harness racing circuit. I’m undoubtedly not as good as I was when I was younger, but I still am competitive and I believe I can hold my own. As is often said, ‘Among the surest of sure things are that Father time and Mother Nature are and always will be undefeated.’ I realize that I have no control over either of them, especially Father Time. The best I can do is hold them at bay as long as I am able. It’s been a great ride. I’m so glad that I’ve been able to hold on as long as I have. In terms of my driving, I still am able to compete, although I don’t drive as much as I used to. I look upon that as not necessarily being a bad thing. I’m 59 years old, in good health. I may not be driving as much as in my younger days, but I’m still quite active. I now am training a relatively small stable of my own, plus I’m still getting some catch drives. I keep busy. That is something with which I’ve always thrived. I’ve always been one to get up early. I now have added going to the stable on a daily basis to what I regularly do. It’s been a pretty good life. I’ve done what I’ve enjoyed doing all of my adult life. I have my health and a great family.”

Q: How did it all start and progress?

“My dad was from the Maritimes. As you know, among the most favorite pastimes of the native ‘Down Easters’ are involvement with horses, more specifically with harness horses. So it was with my dad. He left the Maritimes to work at the General Motors plant in Oshawa. His love and affinity with horses came along with him. He always owned a horse or two which he would race at the “B” tracks in Ontario. For as long as I can remember I’d accompany him when he was racing or going to the stables to. He was a shift worker at the GM plant, so our times with the horses could vary depending on the shift that he was working. I was pretty young when I decided that working with horses was what I wanted to do. I’d groom and jog dad’s horses. I don’t remember exactly when I started jogging, but I’d guess I was somewhere around eight or nine years old. It wasn’t too much later before I started to help dad out in training them. I first started racing at Kawartha Downs from 1981-1984. My first job was working for Doug Brown. I don’t think it was planned that way, but I guess I was a catch driver from the very beginning. I started driving and picked up some drives as I made progress. I had a great teacher in Brownie. At the time I worked for him, he was probably the best driver in Canada. It was 1984 when I first came to the Ontario Jockey Club. I was driving at Greenwood and Mohawk on the then OJC Circuit. I did reasonably well and as time went on I gradually did better. I reached the point where I was doing well enough to become known as a full time catch driver. I suppose that with the exception of a couple of brief periods at The Meadowlands in 1985 and 1986 when the horsemen and the OJC were on strike that I’ve never really left.”

Q: You went to The Meadowlands. Were you ever tempted to stay there?

“I thought of doing it several times, but I never really took that next step. I was happy and doing well enough racing in Ontario. There might have been a time or two when I seriously contemplated going to the States for good, but I really never acted upon them.”

Q: When one hears the name Paul MacDonell, quite often the name Somebeachsomewhere enters one’s mind. I would guess that with the exception of Brent MacGrath and his wife Rhonda you probably spent more time with the horse that many consider to be the greatest ever than anybody else. How did the association come about?

“As far as I am concerned the word ‘consider’ is not necessary when describing the Beach. In my mind he is clear out the greatest standardbred of all time. He did and was capable of doing maybe even more than any other horse ever. He was just a wonderful horse. Even though he left us much too early, I believe that he may have surpassed himself on the racetrack with his multiple achievements in the breeding shed. That book isn’t near completely written yet. His numbers are beyond exceptional. Not only that, he is taking his achievements to another level. There is no doubt in my mind that he will go down in history as the greatest sire ever. Just look at his achievements with his sons and daughters on the racetrack. His daughters are already great broodmares and we’ve only scratched the surface. Wait until they get bred to horses like Bulldog Hanover. The pacing breed might reach an even more advanced level. Yet, with all that he has done, it is likely that with his sons in the stud he has reached a level never before seen by any other stallion ever. Just think — from a relatively short period of time he is responsible for Captaintreacherous, Downbytheseaside and Huntsville. Stay Hungry is already making waves with his now exciting bunch of 2 year-olds. All that with Papi Rob Hanover and Beach Glass still to be heard from. Trust me – they will be.”

Q: You’ve already left your mark — primarily as a driver. You’ve seen a lot of great drivers in your career. Which one was the best?

“If I were picking just one, it would be John Campbell. Just check all the records. He holds more of them than anybody else. He won all the races that there were to be won — many of them several times. All of us make errors on the track. John has made less than anybody else. It seems that he was always in the right place at the right time. If there was or is one who is any better, I’ve never seen him.”

Q: How about trainers?

“If we were talking only on a percentage basis, that would likely be Brent MacGrath. I’ve been fortunate enough to have driven for some of the best ever. If I were picking just one, it would likely be Bill Wellwood. He was in my opinion as great a horsemen as ever lived. Not far behind him is his daughter Paula. One who doesn’t get enough credit is John Bax. Now his son Matt is making all sorts of waves. Those two families, the Wellwoods and the Baxes don’t train that many, but on a percentage basis, they’ve probably trained as many top trotters as anybody.”

Q: We’ve talk mostly about your driving. You are now mostly a trainer. How do you enjoy that?

“I love it. I’ve got a small stable of seven in training right now. I expect to buy two or three yearlings, which will leave me with about `0 this winter. I expect that I will be buying mostly Ontario breds. Our sires stakes program is great. The stakes payments are reasonable and we don’t need to ship all around creation to race them.”

Q: In looking at Ontario breds are there any sires that you favor?

“With trotters my favorite is Muscle Mass. They are just such nice horses. They are generally pretty talented, plus they are smart, good gaited and show a lot of desire. They usually can be bought without breaking the bank. With pacers Bettors Delight stands alone, not only here in Ontario but also wherever pacers race throughout the world. Big Jim is a horse that I really like a lot. There aren’t that many of them and they show up. Once again, they are usually affordable.”

Q: You are now in the baby game and as you say, you aren’t getting any younger. Have you ever thought about training your stable down south in order to escape the cold Canadian winters?

“Not at all. Of course it can and does get cold. But it doesn’t stay too long. It’s nothing compared to the way it used to be racing at Greenwood with the bitter cold wind hitting you off Lake Ontario. I can live with a few cool days if I have to. The plusses in staying up here outnumber the minuses. I’m just a few minutes’ drive from the stables and close to Mohawk as well. My family is nearby. I get to see my daughters, my grandson and my family almost on a daily basis. Life is good.”

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