Rallying to support former Woodbine broadcaster Chris Connor

“The Pride of Fredericton” now suffers from multiple sclerosis and needs help with costly care.

by Melissa Keith

Chris Connor conducted his final Woodbine harness racing broadcast on Nov. 15, 2008. The New Brunswick native came home soon afterward, becoming track announcer at Fredericton Raceway, a landmark half-mile oval in the provincial capital. He had started his harness racing career at the 153-year-old track, helping horseman Eric Lakes in the 1980s.

Broadcasting would come a little later.

With encouragement from raceway manager Brian Embleton, Connor created a weekly segment called “Racing Roundup,” which aired on local radio station CFNB while he was still a student at Fredericton’s St. Thomas University. It helped launch his career as a radio broadcaster and on-air hockey analyst with the Fredericton Canadiens, former American Hockey League (AHL) farm team for the Montreal Canadiens.

In 1998, Connor returned to racing, assisting the Atlantic Lottery Corporation (ALC) in a short-lived deal to grow the sport across the three Maritime provinces (NS, NB, PEI). His friend Greg Blanchard, now director of equine programming at The Raceway at Western Fair in London, ON, was working for Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) at the time and suggested Connor apply.

Hired in 1999, Connor worked as a host for WEG standardbred and thoroughbred simulcast shows and on The Racing Network (TRN), the subscription-based precursor to Woodbine’s HPItv. When “Race Night on The Score” launched on Canada’s The Score Television Network in March 2000, he was recruited to join the nationwide Monday night broadcast.

Woodbine Mohawk Park racing analyst Elissa Blowe frequently worked alongside Connor before his 2008 departure from the company.

“Obviously I love [current co-hosts] Randy [Waples] and Jeff [Bratt], but [Chris] is just a pretty awesome guy,” Blowe said. “He’s a tough act to follow. Chris was one of my favorite co-hosts. Chris and I hosted the Woodbine thoroughbred broadcasts for a number of years together.”

Blowe said that Connor’s future wife Erica Parker was a member of the broadcast team.

“Erica used to work with us at Woodbine too,” Blowe said. “She was assistant director, I think… She worked her way up.”

Not wanting to speak exclusively in the past tense about her former colleague, Blowe recalled what set him apart as a racing commentator during his career, and still sets him apart as a person.

“[Connor was] always positive, and he loved, loved, racing, whether it was thoroughbred or standardbred,” Blowe said. “His passion was immense. It didn’t matter what show he was on or who he worked with, everybody loved working with Chris. When trainers and drivers would win races, they enjoyed being interviewed by him, because he would ask really good questions. He was such a good listener.”

Blowe said Connor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) when he was still in Ontario, but kept quiet about his diagnosis.

“You wouldn’t have known it,” she said.

She recalled one of her best memories with Connor.

“[Woodbine producers] never finished it, but they sent us to go and drive standardbreds together for a feature that was going to be played,” Blowe said. “The mission was for us to go training miles with these two 2-year-olds, and I think we went to Pat Hudon’s farm. Both of us had jogged horses for a number of years, so we kind of knew what we were doing…

“Of course, we did it, but I wasn’t as close as I thought. In my mind, I was on his helmet… We were laughing at each other when we finished it, and were pulling the horses up. We were kind of relieved, and then they told us to go and do it again!”

Now, Blowe is one of many helping to spread the word about Connor’s situation.

“I worked the [Woodbine simulcast] thoroughbred show [Thursday] and we did it there,” she said.

Last Friday (Nov. 17), Lindsay Williams set up a GoFundMe campaign to help gather donations for Connor, who now requires a motorized wheelchair, a motorized lift and personal care workers due to the neurological condition.

Williams is the best friend of Connor’s wife, Erica.

“We met in kindergarten and we’ve been inseparable since,” Williams said. “I met [Chris] as soon as they started dating. They actually met at Woodbine, as colleagues, and a romantic relationship didn’t start for a while… They have always had a beautiful chemistry.”

Erica is now a postal delivery worker.

“She’s walking 17, 18, 20 kilometers a day with a very heavy bag on her, and then she rushes home, gets out of her work clothes, puts on her day clothes, and then she’s taking care of Chris,” Williams told HRU. “He doesn’t have enough strength to move his own body, so the lift is necessary.”

Williams said she started crowdfunding out of necessity, both financial and personal. She encouraged friends who may have lost touch with Connor to reach out.

“Chris is a very private person…” Williams said. “Part of what happens with a chronic disease like this is it really chips away at your ability to be social. We need to ask for help to be able to pay for his care. There’s this perception, people think that if you have Parkinson’s or MS or other things, the care is paid for, but it’s not.”

She said that Connor is awaiting placement in a care home.

“He’s grieving, but at the same time he’s trying to enjoy the time he has,” said Williams. “He still likes to stay connected to his friends. He still goes out to the [off-track] every Friday night with his friends when he can do it, and he stays up to date on all the sports that he loves; he’s a huge sports fan. He speaks very fondly of his time at Woodbine.”

WMP announcer Ken Middleton is still sidelined by an injury from a training accident, and not expecting to be back in the booth before the new year. He remembered getting to know Connor. They were initially “passing ships in the night because there were so many components of the broadcasting department back then.

“When we expanded to more broadcast shows on The Score and Sportsnet, and even some simulcast gigs, I got to know more about Chris. At every level, he’s a likable guy… He’s a fellow Boston Bruins fan, so we have that in common.”

Middleton said he was heartbroken for Chris and Erica.

“It just goes to show how delicate life is…” he said. “You spend so much of your early life working hard to establish things for yourself when you grow older, and then [MS] happens.”

Middleton said stepping back from a career in racing is always hard.

“It’s a funny business,” he said. “We get so wrapped up in it because it’s our job, but it’s also our passion and our interest, our love. It’s not like a lot of other industries, where you punch your clock from 9 to 5 and then you go home and forget about work. In harness racing we don’t do that, because we’re fans.”

He identified Connor’s attentive interviewing style as perhaps his greatest strength.

“It’s just one of those things, you either have it or you don’t,” Middleton said. “If you ask me what Chris was best at it is interviewing, because he made people feel comfortable… He just had that presence about him.”

The race caller remembered he and Connor calling each other a nickname from Austin Powers in Goldmember.

“We’d always laugh about certain parts of the movie when we saw each other,” Middleton told HRU. “We all had a great camaraderie: Greg Blanchard, Chris Hickey, Chris Connor, and Mike Hamilton. There was a strong roster of horses in that stable. All great broadcasters, but we were all great friends on the side.”

Blowe encouraged others across the industry to support Connor, who allegedly earned another nickname, “The Pride of Fredericton,” from Hickey and Blanchard.

“We’re thinking about him,” Blowe said. “I donated; I’m sure a lot of other people are. People should. That man probably never had an enemy. That’s one thing racing does very well: We all come together when people need something, right?”