by Murray Brown
It’s a long way from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island to becoming the guiding force behind the largest stable of fractionally-owned harness horses on the planet.
Anthony MacDonald and his wife Amy now find themselves the stewards of a stable of 126 head. TheStable.ca is comprised of 60 2-year-olds, 27 3-year-olds and 30 older horses. In addition to those numbers, there are nine broodmares.
There are close to a thousand individual owners involved. They inhabit five continents and14 countries throughout the world. Those that are presently racing do so in Ontario, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Kentucky, Indiana and even Australia.
That’s quite a journey. How did it come to pass?
“I suppose that the genesis of The Stable goes back to the horrible years of 2011 and 2012. Harness racing in our home province of Ontario had reached its nadir. The ruling Liberal government had essentially pulled the plug on us. I was in fear of not only the industry’s future but more specifically that of mine and my family’s. All I had ever known or done related to and involved harness racing. We were blindsided. The only thing we could do was to fight back as well as we were able to.
“We held a rally at Queens Court in Toronto that was attended by 3,000 people. I was one of the speakers. It so happened that a leader of the Progressive Conservative party was in attendance. He spoke with and encouraged me to do something directly to help remedy our cause. He prevailed upon me to run for public office in the province. At first, I said no. What did I know about politics? After significant urging, he ultimately convinced me to take the plunge. I was overwhelmed. Essentially, I knew nothing about politics except that it could be a dirty game.
“I desperately needed help. Advice was readily available. Ernie Hardeman, an old politician, advised me to first acquire two pairs of sneakers. If I wanted to have a chance of winning the election, I had to wear out these shoes going from door to door visiting with my constituents. I did that and more. Unfortunately, [and maybe not] I finished a strong second to the sitting education minister. The PC party wanted me to run again in the next one. I had enough, but I think I learned a lot. In going door to door in our riding I discovered that so very few of the people even knew of the existence of harness racing. This in a district that was not much more than an hour away from four racetracks: Mohawk, Flamboro, London and Georgian Downs. ‘How can this be?’ I asked myself.
“Moreover, the few that might have heard of us had no interest in our sport. The most common excuses were that they were not gamblers or that they could not afford to participate. I suppose somewhere in the far-reaching depths of my mind I resolved to change that outlook. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, ‘When you ain’t got nothing, you ain’t got nothing to lose.’ I was in that position. Why couldn’t Amy and me put together a stable made up of ordinary people each investing small amounts which would allow them to participate in our great sport? They wouldn’t necessarily be looking to make money, although that was a possibility.”
So here you are looking into what must have been a bleak future. What were you up against?
“Initially our biggest problem was money. We just didn’t have much of it. We took out some from the equity in our home. We also spoke with some of the breeders in the sport. Two that came aboard almost immediately were Tom Grossman of Blue Chip Farms and Jeff Gural of Allerage Farms. Our initial pitch was that all breeders have fair price estimates that they put on all of their yearlings. We suggested that if that number was not met at the sale that they bid that yearling in and that horse would enter The Stable. In effect they were acting as bankers for The Stable. Our job was to get as many people as we could get interested, involved in our enterprise.”
How did you go about getting people interested in coming in with you?
“First and foremost, we made it clear that this probably was not a good investment in monetary terms. It was an investment that entailed a great amount of risk. We promised them that they would have a whole lot of fun. We told them that they would be well and honestly treated. Their horses would be well taken care of and they would have a clear line of communication with us on a regular basis.
“Then Amy and I went out and beat the bushes. We held seminars at racetracks and outside of them. Any time we could spread our message, we did. Our approach was to never hard sell. The emphasis was always put on the enjoyment aspects of The Stable.”
Let us suppose that I came to you with $5,000 to invest in The Stable. What would you tell me?
“The first thing I would probably say would be to cut the $5,000 down to $3,000 and to keep the remaining $2,000 for expenses. I’d make it clear that this was a risky investment. There are no guarantees except that we would promise you our greatest efforts towards your having a great time as part of our team.”
You mention communication as having a key role.
“Indeed, it is. I put out videos on YouTube on an almost daily basis. If a horse races well his video will be up on our website the next day. Every horse will get mentioned regularly. You will be up to date on the progress of your horse. You will know where it is on any given point in time. If it trained well, you will know. If there are any problems, you will know that as well. I, Amy or any of the team members are available at all times. If you have any questions, we are there to answer them. If we are unable to get you an answer at that time, we will make sure that is done ASAP.”
You have 126 horses under your control. Obviously, it takes several people to make sure things are well administered.
“We have what I consider to be a great team. We have outstanding trainers such as Harry Poulton, Mario Baillargeon, Jason McGinnis and Dominic Gladu working exclusively for us. We also have others with great experience such as Tim Twaddle in Pennsylvania, Megan Scran in New York and Stacey Miller in south Ohio, to whom we send horses to race in their areas.
“I try to go to drive wherever the schedule fits. I’ve also learned how to let go where I think the horse will be better served when driven by someone else. For example, we have nine horses racing today and I will be watching them race from home. We are also very fortunate in having my brothers — James, who is the best driver in Canada, and Mark who races regularly in the big time at The Meadowlands, Pocono and New York — available to drive for us on a pretty regular basis. They are both great horseman and better drivers than I.”
You started out last year with 60 yearlings. How are things looking for this season with them?
“Right now, actually very good. We started with 60, if things go like they are looking at this point, we will probably be qualifying 57 2-year-olds. That’s a pretty darn good percentage. Of course, getting them there doesn’t necessarily equate to them doing well once they get to racing. Generally speaking, I am very pleased with what we have. They are a pretty diversified group. We have 16 Pennsylvania eligibles, 15 Ohio, 10 Ontario, seven New Jersey, three Indiana and two from Illinois and New York and one from Michigan. We also have a few that are dual eligible. I expect that we will begin racing the 2-year-olds in June and probably continue starting them through the entire season. They will tell us when they are ready. We are racing a decent group of 3 and up horses right now. We have starters racing at Mohawk, Northfield, Oak Grove, Delaware, New York and Plainridge.”
I would guess that having so many horses does not lend itself to much time with your family.
“I guess that is sometimes the case, but far from always. Instead of flying to venues, I now mostly drive. This enables Amy and I to load up the kids and go to where we are going. It allows us to have more time together. Moreover, it also provides a business incentive for the trips because I do a good many of our YouTube videos from the car.”