In the same vein of Elliotte Friedman's 32 Thoughts, I have 33 thoughts on the 2021 O'Brien Awards with the list of finalists being revealed late last month.
Elliotte's lists were comprised of 31 thoughts until Seattle joined the NHL this past season to make 32 teams, so I'll put forth 33 thoughts with the O'Brien Awards turning 33 this year.
Before getting into the list, I hope that everyone had a safe, healthy and happy holiday season.
1) The first thought actually deals with this wish of good health given the current COVID-19 climate. It's a polarizing issue for sure, but given the nature of cases and the way the numbers are trending at the time of writing, it would be hard to imagine the 2021 O'Brien Awards in anything but a virtual setting on February 6. Regardless of your stance, capacity limits in Ontario at this time wouldn't allow for such an event and case numbers here would surely have to change for the better in the next month to make that gathering a possibility. And that's just the basic gathering itself, not accounting for the immense amount of planning that goes into the event.
Erring on the side of caution back in October when the announcement was made didn't sit well with many but right now it looks like the right choice given what's changed since then.
2) There will always be points raised of snubs and "criminal" omissions at award time, and the O'Brien Awards are certainly not immune to that commentary. My votes lined up pretty squarely with the 2021 Dan Patch Awards, and I can say the same about the 2021 O'Briens. More importantly, I can understand the differences from my selections in each. A sincere congratulations to all the finalists.
3) Last year, Century Farroh won the Somebeachsome Horse of the Year with four seasonal wins. (And I agreed with that voting). A season with unique challenges, for sure, but a season not unlike this one. Could Desperate Man pull off the feat with just three sophomore wins? He did emerge victorious from our informal Ontario-Sired Horse of the year web poll taken after the OSS Super Finals in October.
4) Looking at the three-year-old pacing colt category, Lawless Shadow is one of those horses on the outside of the O'Briens looking in but his success stateside definitely elevates the campaigns of both Bulldog Hanover and Desperate Man. Great to have such a solid group of Ontario-sired three-year-olds all planning to return to the track at four in 2022.
5) The consensus pick for driver of the year is James MacDonald. That's not a spoiler — I don't know the vote totals, for the record — that's just a fact. Having said that, not much has been said about Sylvain Filion's successful season. He posted better numbers than his 2017 and 2018 campaigns, both of which were conducted over full calendars. Third in voting last year, and he'll finish no worse than second in 2021. The future Hall of Famer is doing his part to keep the Woodbine Mohawk Park youth movement at bay, at least for now.
6) One of the horses that Filion made headlines with was OSS Super Final winner Bob Loblaw. Winning an O'Brien while hosting the O'Briens would put longtime host / up-and-coming trainer Ken Middleton into rarified air, for sure, and I'm curious as to where his colt finished in that category.
7) There is one trainer we know will win an O'Brien Award: Nick Gallucci, whose talented tandem of Prohibition Legal and Silver Label comprise the top two in the two-year-old pacing filly category. The O'Brien Award will be Gallucci's first, and based on his successful season, possibly not his last.
8) In the Trainer of the Year category, Gallucci is a first-time finalist against the division's all-time leader: Richard Moreau. There seems to be a difference in how this category has been received over the past few years versus that of the U.S. trainer of the year award.
Not knocking any of the decisions, and not saying one country is wrong, but the numbers that Moreau posts in comparison to his competition in Canada remind me somewhat of Ron Burke's numbers stateside. In the U.S. over the last few years, the voters went with Burke just once (2021 - Richard "Nifty" Norman, 2020 - Nancy Takter, 2019 - Marcus Melander, 2018 - Ron Burke, 2017 - Brian Brown) despite his nation-leading numbers that literally dwarf his competition. Merely pointing out an interesting difference.
9) On paper, Richard Moreau has posted better numbers than those of a year ago. He's also landed three finalists — Grandma Heidi, Fashion Frenzie and Wheels On Fire. In his run as Trainer of the Year in Canada, he's had just two horses win divisional honours — Sandbetweenurtoes and Jimmy Freight.
10) A win for Fashion Frenzie would definitely be rewarding for co-owner and top Quebec-based trainer Francis Richard, who just missed making the list of O'Brien Award finalists by finishing third in Future Star voting in 2017, 2018 and 2020.
11) Speaking of the Future Star Award, Kyle Bossence was defeated by Alberta's Chris Lancaster in 2018 but posted career best numbers in 2021 to return as a finalist this year. Brett MacDonald was a finalist in 2016, lost to Louis-Philippe Roy, but emerged victorious a year later in 2017.
12) Five finalists this year — Donna Soprano, Scarlett Hanover, So Much More, Perfetto and Richard Moreau — have the opportunity for back-to-back O'Brien Awards. There have been 11 trotting fillies repeat at two and three, eight pacing fillies to post repeats. Only one female has won at two, three and four. That horse is Peaceful Way, who captured her division at ages two, three, four AND five.
13) Perfetto can join some pretty good company with an O'Brien Award title defense in 2021. Among the trotters with back-to-back titles as Canada's Older Trotter of the Year: No Sex Please, Billyjojimbob, Earl, Impeccable Image, Glorys Comet, San Pail and Mister Herbie.
14) On the topic of streaks, another impressive streak has quietly come to an end. There hasn't been a year since I've been with SC that the name Takter doesn't appear on the list of finalists. Going back to the start of the millennium, either Nancy or Jimmy have been there every year as at least a finalist. A pandemic-adjusted season is the likely culprit of a very impressive streak coming to a close.
15) At the 2017 O'Brien Awards, the Takter-trained Pure Country lost to Sandbetweenurtoes in the Older Pacing Mare category. One year later, Caviart Ally lost to Exhilarated in that same category. There's a definite comparison to the category this year with Dan Patch winner Lyons Sentinel and defending champion So Much More. The stats are one thing, the contribution to Canadian harness racing is another.
16) While on the subject, I fully agree with the essence of the O'Brien Awards and how the winners should exemplify the division's best contribution to Canadian harness racing.
17) For some observers, that will beg the question of what is "contribution to Canadian harness racing"? Some years, that's an easy answer. Others, it's more challenging.
Two-year-old trotting fillies, for example. Did Venerable contribute the most in that division by winning the 2021 Mohawk Million (over O'Brien finalist Duly Resolved) and 2021 Peaceful Way (over fellow divisional finalist Adare Castle) in the midst of her Grand Circuit success, bringing attention and prestige to the Canadian races and Canadian harness racing?
Or is it Adare Castle, whose performances through the season — including a second-place finish to the top trotting filly on the Grand Circuit — reinforce the strength of the breeding program, participant skill and talent pool here to make her the O'Brien Award winner?
You can agree with one of those takes, but that doesn't necessarily make the other take wrong. One of them just holds more weight for you in this case.
18) If I was to make any sort of adjustment to the O'Brien Awards, it would be for a horse to be considered in a category without making three starts on Canadian soil that year. That doesn't mean any horse with two starts would be eligible. It would mean that the connections of a horse with fewer than three starts would have to apply for exceptional status, like how players in junior hockey have to apply to be draft-eligible prior to a certain age (see Connor Bedard or Shane Wright) or like the Jeff Gural stallion rule for horses that retire before the age of four.
This year, for example, I'd look at a horse like Forbidden Trade. Could the case be made that his Dan Patch Award-winning season provided the greatest contribution to Canadian harness racing for any older trotting horse in 2021, even though he made just two starts on Canadian soil?
19) Forbidden Trade's trainer, Luc Blais, is an O'Brien Award finalist for the revised Award of Horsemanship. This change to the award is an example of how the criteria was adapted to fit with the evolving role of a trainer.
20) Mark Etsell is Luc's competition in this category, and I think Mark would have found himself here regardless of the change that came into effect for the 2021 O'Briens.
21) The most fascinating category of 2021 has to be the older trotting mares. We'd all love to own mares like Grandma Heidi and Power And Grace, but I'd say it's a pretty safe bet that no one had those two names on their 2021 O'Brien Award finalists bingo card at the start of the year or even half way through it.
22) Grandma Heidi's owner is Brad Grant, who owns all or part of three finalists. He's tied with Millar Farms as the owner with the most 2021 finalists.
23) If there was an O'Brien Award for Comeback of the Year, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better recipient than Armstrong Breeder of the Year finalist George Millar. Read the feature in the December issue of TROT for more information on what he's had to endure to enjoy the fruits of this sensational season.
24) There isn't a lot of representation from western Canada this year but Alberta's Blair Corbeil has a piece of two O'Brien Award finalists. He's part owner of Older Pacing Horse finalist Warrawee Vital while also being part of the group that owns sophomore trotting colt Logan Park.
25) Both of Corbeil's horses are trained by Rob Fellows, who is the cover feature for the January 2022 issue of TROT. Fellows finished in the top five in earnings for trainers on Canadian soil, his first time in the Canadian top 10 since 2008 (when he also finished fifth with a career best $2.14 million).
26) The success of Shadow Play's sons this season is well documented — see thought #4 — but perhaps overshadowed (pun intended) is fellow Winbak Farm stallion Archangel, who is the sire of three finalists and both of the sophomore trotting colts — the aforementioned Fashion Frenzie and Logan Park, and rookie trotter Twin B Archie.
27) The list of O'Brien Award winners does read like a who's who of star Standardbreds. Shadow Play might be one of the best horses to be eligible for (three start minimum in a given year) but never win an O'Brien Award.
28) For the first time, the O'Brien Awards employed a two-step process for voting on trainer and driver of the year. A bit more cumbersome but the second round didn't change my first round votes.
29) I am a fan of the fan voting. I think it's great to give the public a voice in Canadian harness racing's awards. I've had a few comments / questions on why the fans have to vote on every category. The idea behind the fan voting is to give the fans a chance to have a say like the voters, who vote in every category. It's not intended for someone to vote for their single favourite horse or participant, and no one else.
30) The 2021 Media Excellence Awards finalists were revealed on Wednesday, and for the first time I can remember the outstanding written works actually deal with the same subject - horseman Tyler Redwood. Kudos to Jeff and Melissa, and the rest of the finalists.
31) One award I cannot comment on yet is the Outstanding Groom Award, with nominations still being accepted, but the addition of this award to the O'Briens arsenal is welcomed to recognize the unsung heroes that ensure #thehorsecomesfirst.
32) For the virtual gala, I like the Sunday night timeslot and think it makes sense on so many levels. When we're back in person, I'd expect a shift back to Saturday.
33) The O'Brien Awards gala is a night that I look forward to every year. I have a good rapport with many of the finalists and it's great to congratulate them for their success in person, face-to-face, so they can truly understand the sincerity of that compliment. And I look forward to doing it again when it's safe to do so.
Stay safe, best wishes for 2022, and thanks for reading. Feel free to leave a comment below, or reach out via email.
The views presented in Trot Blogs are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Standardbred Canada.