Standardbred Canada’s O’Brien Awards are on tap for Saturday night in Ontario.
by Brett Sturman
If 2021 was considered a breakout year of sorts for driver James MacDonald, then 2022 solidified his status as one of the best drivers in Canada. On the heels of winning his first O’Brien Award as the Keith Waples Driver of the Year a year ago, it’s likely MacDonald will take home the award for the second consecutive time as Canada’s best driver when results are formally announced this Saturday (Feb. 4) evening.
Heading into 2022, it would have been hard to imagine MacDonald keeping pace with — let alone further exceeding — his tallies from 2021. All told that year, MacDonald won 322 times, earning over $6 million (USD) between races over Canadian and American soil. While the 322 wins that year was not a record for MacDonald (he won 335 times in 2014), his earnings were more than $2 million better than any seasonal earnings prior. In 2022, MacDonald took it up even more notches.
He won 451 races this past season, including 400 alone at Woodbine Mohawk; a number not seen with WEG-circuit wins since 2006. With earnings of over $7.6 million (USD) and $8.8 million (CDN; Note: Standardbred Canada records earnings at par, while the USTA converts), MacDonald boasted a UDRS rating of .344 improving further from his then-lifetime best rating of .318 from 2021. His 2022 UDRS was one of the sport’s best across all North America.
For MacDonald, it was a matter of keeping an even-keel mindset heading into this past season. Reflecting on his mentality, MacDonald said, “I would probably say that an overall consistency was kind of my goal for the year. I wanted to come back and not try to worry about numbers too much, just try to show up every night, grind away and come to the track with a good attitude. That first and foremost stands out.
“Obviously, the big eight-win night was awesome, it was something I’ll never forget. I had some big stakes wins and a good start to the year with the SBOA (MacDonald swept SBOA Finals in May with Adare Castle and Silver Label), and the Juravinski Cup with Linedrive Hanover. We had our own horse Hasty Bid who won the Wellwood consolation and then finished fourth in the Mohawk Million, so it was a good year all around with a lot of exciting things going on.”
MacDonald’s reference to the eight-win night was a record that occurred towards the end of the year. On Dec. 5 at Woodbine Mohawk, he won eight of the 10 races on the card, including reeling off wins in the last seven races of the night consecutively. After tripping out Locatelli at odds of 4-1 in the ninth race’s preferred trot that night and establishing a new career mark for the gelding, MacDonald capped it off with eight wins when he safely guided home race favorite Never Mind N in the nightcap.
Reminiscent of Michael Jordan’s iconic shrug game from the 1992 NBA Finals, MacDonald was in the zone that night.
“One hundred per cent,” MacDonald said. “I think if you talk to any driver when they’re having a good night like that, it’s almost like you can’t do anything wrong. You could make what would normally be a mistake and it ends up working to your benefit. It’s one of those things where you get the hot hand, you keep ending up in good spots. Obviously, you need the horses also to win and it was one fortunate drive after another that night. A million different things could have happened, but all the horses that night brought their “A” game, and it was really a special night for sure.”
In part, MacDonald’s five-week stint of driving in the United States in May of 2021 acted as a catalyst for what would follow in the next year and a half. During COVID-19 restrictions in Ontario, MacDonald drove in the States with success at tracks that included The Meadowlands, Pocono, Chester and Yonkers.
“A lot of people last year said [the success] was because I went to the States and I came back as a different driver,” MacDonald said. “Maybe there is something to that, just something new, little more experience against different drivers. I lived with my brother Mark and stayed with and worked with a lot of high-quality drivers. And when I came back, I just felt great in the bike. I was really confident, and it led to success. And from there, as you start to do well, you start to get more good horses and it’s one of those things where success breeds more success.”
With Woodbine Mohawk Park operating predominantly on just a four-day-a-week schedule, MacDonald notched his 400th win of the year at the track with the horse Littlebearcat on Dec. 29. In doing so, he became only the fifth different driver to win that many races on the WEG circuit. Coincidentally, the last driver to reach that milestone came way back in 2006 and it was achieved then by none other than Macdonald’s brother, Mark, at 404 wins.
“Mark, Anthony and all my brothers and all my family for that matter: they’ve always been my number one fans and cheering me on,” MacDonald said. “You’ll see us razzing each other quite a bit, but deep down we’re doing everything we can to help each other succeed.
“[Mark] texted me when I was getting closer to his record, so when I hit 400, I heard crickets for the rest of the year. And then I had two nights at the end of the year where I could have tied or gotten closer depending on how things went, I got shut out those last two nights. So, he texted me on Jan. 1 and was like, ‘Where did you end up? Did you end up beating me?’ And of course, he knew. But with Mark and all my brothers, we’re always picking on each other and it’s always in good nature with the right intentions, and we always have each other’s backs.”