Doug McNair rallies to secure silver at the 2023 World Driving Championship

Breaking down every leg of the WDC held in The Netherlands and Germany.

by Melissa Keith

Last Saturday night (Aug. 19), Doug McNair returned to Woodbine Mohawk Park after finishing second in the 2023 World Driving Championships (WDC). He had flown back from Germany Saturday morning at 11 a.m. local time, stopping in Switzerland and then continuing on to Toronto, arriving at 4 p.m. (Eastern). His girlfriend dropped him off at Mohawk at 7 p.m.

“After the eighth, I was off until the last three races,” said McNair. “Obviously they weren’t stake races, and I just booked off on them all because I was getting pretty tired.”

Reflecting back on the 2023 WDC, he said the European tournament began, and ended, on personal and professional high notes.

Day 1 took place at Victoria Park Wolvega, Netherlands on Sunday (Aug. 13).

“Nice track,” said McNair, the 2022 Canadian National Driving Championship winner. “It’s a good-shape track. Those were as good of horses as we drove all week… They were all pretty nice horses.”

He had five drives in the WDC opening leg, winning with trotters Floris Van Egmont and I Dream With You. He took the early lead in the tournament, tied with Australia’s Peter McMullen on points — both had 49 points — but ahead on wins; two for McNair vs. one for McMullen.

“I got nice horses and I got them off the gate pretty well and got good trips with them, but we [drivers] really had to perform, too,” said McNair. “That one horse I won with, he doesn’t like to pass [horses], but he did on that day, I guess.”

Floris Van Egmont remained in the pocket following McMullen’s horse, Idylle Des Berthes, into the stretch of the 2,600-meter distance race and edged out that leader at the wire for the Canadian driver.

The next WDC leg was hosted by Trabrennbahn Gelsenkirchen, a.k.a. GelsenTrabPark, Germany, on Tuesday (Aug. 15). The Canadian representative had by then made friends with some other Commonwealth participants.

“After a day or two, you kind of find your circle, who you hang around with,” McNair said. “We kind of hung around the Kiwis [with driver Blair Orange] and the Aussies [with McMullen]; they brought a few people with them, as well as myself. I had a couple of buddies with me, and they all clicked.”

McNair recounted how WDC day 2 was “the worst day [I] had,” results-wise. He said he struggled with getting a weaker group of trotters to drive.

“It was just such a disadvantage that day,” McNair said. “I think I got five points out of the whole day. I think Rick [Ebbinge], the guy who ended up winning [the 2023 WDC title], he got 75 points that day.”

The Canadian driver said he had an ominous feeling every time he looked at the digital odds on the tote board that day.

“I had the most numbers beside my numbers,” he said. “That’s not a good sign, to be honest with you… After you’ve been there a bit, you realize that if you have a 3.1 or whatever, it kind of means you’re 3–1… The numbers I had, one was 134 and the next one was 95.”

“Everybody else drew some bad horses too, likely,” he said.

McNair’s luck on day two was almost comically bad, as he came to understand more about the trotters he was assigned.

“One guy who helped me over there, kind of a translator, his name was Timmy,” McNair said. “He told me before that day, ‘Your horses are so outclassed, you have no shot of even getting points’… One horse I was driving that day showed three wins in a row. I said, ‘This has got to be a good horse.’

“He said ‘The last time it won was on a grass track, with seven horses, five who scratched because of the rain and the other one made a break, so there were two horses left.’ He also usually races 300 meters; this was 2,300 meters… You can’t blame anybody, but that’s the way it went.”

McNair said that owners received 400 Euros per horse entered, so there were some uneven fields to ensure that every participant could have a horse to drive. This had also been a factor in the 2017 WDC held in Canada and won by James MacDonald.

“You’ve got to have good horses to win that, and I got lucky in the first and last days,” McNair said. “I wasn’t so lucky in the middle.”

Day 3 was at Hippodrome de Wallonie, Belgium.

“That was nice,” McNair said. “They told me in the first one I was the heavy favorite, and I was pretty excited. The [previous leg], it was just so bad, I was excited to drive a good one.”

Then came another almost-comical twist.

“The trainer [Christiaan deWachter] came up to me about an hour and a half before the races and told me his horse hasn’t raced in 40 days,” McNair said. “I said, ‘Well, in North America, that usually means they’re probably not going to be any good. What does that mean over here?’

“He kind of looked at me sideways and said, ‘Maybe next week he’ll be a lot better.’”

Hylton De Rambures finished last in a field of 10.

“He was just short,” McNair said. “The guy gave him the summer off and he was sick all summer. It got better, but if that horse had raced once more in the last 40 days, he probably might have got me a lot more points.”

In his four subsequent drives at Hippodrome de Wallonie, McNair managed a place result with Miss du Chatault; a fourth with Captain Danover; and two fifths, with Maestro Lj and Janice de Janna.

On the final day of the tournament, the Woodbine Mohawk Park reinsman excelled at Trabrennbahn Berlin-Mariendorf, Germany.

“It was really good,” he said. “I went into that leg about 40, 50 points behind the leader [The Netherlands’ Ebbinge], and then got back within… maybe 11 points. He led from day 2; I led on the first day… I thought it was over halfway through. The last day was a pretty big comeback. He was sweating pretty good, going into the last race, I think.”

Ebbinge captured the 2023 WDC title with 163 total points, while McNair was second with 150 points. He had more victories than third-place Hannah Huygens of Belgium, who also finished with 150 total points.

McNair reflected that aspects were very different from North American racing.

“We went the opposite direction at two of the four tracks…” he said. “It’s just like anything, you do it once or twice and you get used to it… I couldn’t blame going in the ‘wrong’ direction for screwing up… Just like anywhere, if you get the right horses, you get in the winner’s circle.”

Looking back, he was happiest about two horses and a trainer who showed up for him on the last day of the tournament.

“I drove a horse called ‘Loverboy’, a pretty easy name to remember,” McNair said. “He ended up winning the race… The two horses I drove who won the last day, they both raced really well, and they both raced the total opposite. One [ Loverboy v Assum], I think I was 20 lengths out halfway through the race; he closes really good and he wins easy. The other one [Rolfi], I just put on the front and probably two or three guys tried to take a run at him.”

Gregg McNair was there to celebrate afterwards.

“My dad actually surprised me in Berlin; I didn’t even know he was coming over,” Doug said. “That was pretty neat. He’s so busy he doesn’t travel much. He trains 60 horses. It’s tough to get him away from the farm. He kept it pretty quiet from me.”

The event itself was anything but quiet.

“The last day in Berlin was their biggest weekend,” Doug said. “They had a race [the Deutsches Traber-Derby] going for 250,000Euros. That’s pretty big money, about $350,000Canadian… I was talking with my dad about it and he’s usually pretty close when it comes to numbers of people. He kind of figured there was close to 10 thousand people at the last track. It was unbelievable.

“I don’t even know if I felt that good winning Breeders Crown or Metro or races like that, the way they treated you. [The track] put your song on. I gave them ‘Thank God I’m a Country Boy’ by John Denver. After, when you win, you have to go down the whole stretch with your flag, with close to 10 thousand people there and your song just blaring. Everybody’s cheering and clapping and they’re waving your flag around. It was an unbelievable feeling. I don’t think I ever had a feeling like that before.”

It was a happy, if imperfect, conclusion to his second WDC.

“I think I led the whole way in Sweden [in 2019], and then the last day I had a bad day and things didn’t go right,” he said. McNair finished fourth that year, behind repeat champion Ebbinge.

Back to business now at his home track, McNair said he looks forward to sitting behind Canada’s equine ambassador at two international Grand Circuit events on the near horizon.

“The Maple Leaf Trot with Logan Park [eliminations Aug. 25; final Sept. 2 at Woodbine Mohawk Park]…” he said. “I think they just invited him over to the [MGM Yonkers] International Trot [Sept. 9] too.”