John Watkins went out a winner

The well-known and well-liked Ontario photographer died this week just before his filly broke her maiden Tuesday at Woodbine Mohawk Park.

by Melissa Keith

John Watkins sported a quiet smile, professional camera and MEDIA vest for major races at Woodbine Mohawk Park. The smile was there when he attended the races at Woodbine and Mohawk without his camera, too. Tuesday night (Aug. 8), Watkins’ absence from the winner’s circle stood out as driver Louis-Philippe Roy turned 2-year-old pacing filly Pretty Missy May to pose for her picture after she broke her maiden. Watkins, who co-owned the winner of WMP race 2, died Sunday (Aug. 6) at Lakeridge Health in Oshawa.

Race caller Ken Middleton, Jr. was also absent from the homebred Big Jim—Little Miss Sporty daughter’s photo. He co-owns Pretty Missy May (p, 2,1:55.2s; $11,789) with James Grant and David Walls, both of Sarnia, ON, as well as the estate of John Watkins. Middleton is still recovering from a training accident that has him sidelined from regular action on the training track and behind the microphone.

Middleton said that Watkins felt like an old friend, even though he was a more recent one who had initially connected with him via social media.

“That’s what’s funny about John, he can grow a friendship very quickly,” Middleton said. “I learned a lot about him in a short time, because he was a person you wanted to spend time with… He’d be the quietest guy in the room. His photography is what drew me to him. I chimed in one day and said, ‘You’re a magnificent photographer… You take very unique and interesting shots; you go the extra mile.’ We did eventually meet up and have conversations about life and family and horses… He made a lot of friends.”

Middleton said he was somewhat worried about his friend’s health back in June. Watkins had received dialysis treatment for years, prior to a kidney transplant in 2006 with an organ donated by his sister, Nancy.

“We did a lot of talking through Facebook messages,” Middleton said. “He told me he wouldn’t be able to get back to me for a couple of days… Then lo and behold, he was back North America Cup night, taking pictures with his MEDIA bib on. He loved being there on big race dates.”

Recently, the WMP announcer got the feared bad news about Watkins: “His wife [Jane] reached out to me on Facebook and told me he’s not doing well; he’s on a ventilator; on dialysis; he’s got pneumonia… She was going to meet with physicians in about a week’s time. Then she messaged me to say he was going to be taken off life support on Monday [Aug. 7].”

John Watkins died Sunday (Aug. 6). He was 59 years old.

“I think [Woodbine racing analyst] Monique Vág texted me and said that he had passed away, and then [former Mohawk racing analyst/current Grand River Raceway racing manager] Chad Rozema, then I saw it on Woodbine social media,” Middleton said.

Watkins was somewhat new to horse ownership, partnering with Middleton’s ownership group and adding Pretty Missy May after a conversation last year.

“I met him and his wife either at the Winbak Farms open house or sale,” Middleton said. “He’d won a free breeding to Stag Party from a random draw. I said, ‘Well, you’d better have a broodmare or figure out something else.’ I told him I had two of my own homebreds… So that’s what John did: He bought a small percentage of both yearlings.”

Middleton said he didn’t recall Watkins spending much time around the training center recently, for understandable reasons, although the Ontario-based racing photographer had visited with family in the past.

“I don’t think he ever came to the barn to see the filly we have this year, but I’m sure he came to the racetrack to see her or watched her online,” Middleton said.

Tuesday night would have brought another smile to Watkins’ face, whether he was on track or not.

“I didn’t even know if his wife knew [Pretty Missy May] was racing,” Middleton said. “So, I sent her some pictures and said, ‘You know, we had some divine intervention in that.’ I sent her still-shot pictures of the TV. We watched it from home. Some of my family was there… [fill-in race caller Shannon] ‘Sugar’ Doyle made some nice comments.”

Middleton said he was disappointed he couldn’t be there for his filly’s special win and new lifetime mark.

“I’m convalescing,” Middleton said. “I’ve still got a long way to go. Sleep quality is hit and miss. I’ve got a follow-up with my surgeon in a week’s time. Now it’s just rehabilitating and healing. They had to go right down to the bone in the deepest part of [my] body.”

Middleton must receive daily intravenous antibiotics as he recovers from complications after his original June 29 accident.

“It got infected,” he said. “It’s quite a setback. My right arm, where I made impact with my shoulder and my arm, there’s some nerve damage I’ve gotta deal with. They found there was a piece of bone that was impinging on the spine and irritating it. It’s marginally better. I get up and go on little walks and stuff like that. The big thing is I can’t lift anything of significance.”

Fatigue is also a problem.

“There’s no consistency… it’s frustrating,” he said. “If we’re having a good day, maybe we can go to Costco and get a few things. Other days, I have to leave the patio chair to sleep for three or four hours in the afternoon… I let my body tell me what to do.”

Middleton is grateful for having support.

“I’ve got lots of people helping with the work-related, horse-related stuff,” he said. “Sarah, my girlfriend, has been a guardian angel… I need help with a lot of things… I needed help feeling half-normal again. She’s taking me to appointments. She runs the antibiotics into me every day… She’s taken it upon herself. I’m pretty lucky.”

Losing Watkins was a tough blow for Middleton as he remains sidelined: “I was in [the hospital] for three weeks… It was just a bad place mentally. I did not want to be there.”

Middleton’s winning filly did come home to his Cambridge, ON farm the day after her WMP victory, when she raised his spirits with her own game attitude.

“She runs in a little bit, so they opened up on her a little,” he said. “It looked like the filly on the front end [4-5 favorite Premier Heiress] got a little bit lost. Halfway down the lane I could see [Pretty Missy May] was gaining. She sprinted hard and just kept going forwards… We’ll get her revved up for the next [Ontario] Sires Stakes race.”

The filly’s co-owner James Grant said he was also saddened by Watkins’ passing.

“I met John through Ken Middleton,” Grant said. “I was fortunate enough to be invited by Ken to partner on Bob Loblaw [p, 3,1:50.3s; $202,744] and Dont Poke The Bear [p, 3,1:55.3s; $75,189] a few years back now. We had a lot of fun. When Ken had his next crop of horses coming up, John joined up with us and he fit right in. Just a great all-around guy.

“John was involved with us on Grammys Girl [p, 3, 2:01.0h; $9,047] previously and we had some really good times. When Pretty Missy May came along, the group kept moving ahead. John was a positive guy who loved horses. A great partner.”

Echoing Middleton’s thoughts about divine intervention in the filly’s win, Grant said Watkins’ camera work will also be missed. He had been runner-up for the O’Brien Media Excellence Outstanding Photography Award for “In The Pocket”, a mid-race close-up of driver Doug McNair that was featured on the Ontario Racing website on Oct. 23, 2020.

“I’ll miss John’s positivity and love for horses,” Grant said. “He had a wonderful way of talking about racing while also working in his great photography skills to paint a picture as well. You could really feel the photos he shared. They always told a great story of how he felt towards the animals he was shooting.”