By virtue of four wins in tournament races, Doug McNair claimed the 2018 National Driving Championship (NDC), presented by Standardbred Canada, on Wednesday night (Sept. 26) at Grand River Raceway.
A winner of over 3,000 races and close to $50 million in purse earnings, McNair has enjoyed recent success on both sides of the 49th, most notably with Tony Alagna trainee Stay Hungry, winner of this year's Cane Pace and Messenger after capturing the Breeders Crown last year. The Guelph, Ont. resident was also the primary driver of 2013 Shes A Great Lady winner Precocious Beauty and was Canada's Driver of the Year in 2017.
"It's a big thrill," said McNair of earning the NDC title not even a week after his bid for a Triple Crown with Stay Hungry came up short in the Little Brown Jug. "Racing's got a lot of highs and lows. When you have a bad day, it makes these days a whole lot better."
McNair, who was an eleventh-hour replacement for Louis-Philippe Roy in the NDC, won aboard Dry Creek Image ($32.20), Jdcyril ($9.80), Donald Doc ($12.10) and Lumiere ($2.90), and also recorded two second-place finishes and one third-place finish in the eight-race tournament. His early dominance guaranteed him the title with two races to go, and his 92 tournament points out of a possible 120 outpaced runner-up Stephane Brosseau (62) and third-place finisher Kelly Hoerdt (51).
“When that horse from the eight-hole won parked the whole way, I figured I had a good shot since a lot of my better ones were later on, I thought," McNair continued.
McNair will represent Canada alongside 2017 World Driving Champion James MacDonald in the 2019 World Driving Championship, to be held in Sweden next May.
"I think we're gonna have a whole lot of fun; it's going to be a great time," McNair concluded.
Doug McNair earned one of his four wins in the NDC with Jdcyril
A race-by-race recap follows:
Race 2: Despite being parked the entire journey, GMC Trooper ($35.00) and Kelly Hoerdt sprung a 16-1 upset to open the competition. The four-year-old Daylon Frontier gelding left for early second-over position, was left uncovered as Hashtag Hughie (Redmond Doucet) worked clear at the end of a :27.3 first quarter, and then overcame the breeze to duel Hashtag Hughie down before edging away at head-stretch for a 1:58.3 score.
Invitation Todream (Doug McNair) split rivals out of traffic to finish second, while Badlands Badboy (Guy Gagnon) chased off the winner's cover to take third.
Trainer George Large co-owns GMC Trooper with Michael Doersam; the pair also bred the two-time winner.
Race 3: Not only did Dry Creek Image ($32.20) and Doug McNair overcome the outside post 8 and a sustained first-over grind, but they also battled back in the lane after being headed by runner-up Apple Tart Hanover (Redmond Doucet) to narrowly claim the second of eight NDC races.
The four-year-old Rockin Image mare was left uncovered five-sixteenths in as Lady Everlong (Guy Gagnon) cleared amid a contested early pace, and she worked on to apply pressure at the :57.4 half-mile station. Dry Creek Image dueled to a narrow lead with five-sixteenths to go, but had to brace for the three-wide challenge of Apple Tart Hanover, who angled off third-over cover to make her sweeping bid.
While Apple Tart Hanover claimed the lead at head-stretch and started to extend to a length, Dry Creek Image battled back to just nose out her outside rival in 1:59.3. Rousey Ronda (Kelly Hoerdt) circled belatedly down the grandstand side to take third.
"I knew I had the best horse in the race, but the trip didn't work out at all," said McNair. "Down the lane, I thought I was going to be second. From the eight-hole, you just try to get as many points as you can, but the win certainly helps."
Trainer Daniel Martin co-owns eight-time winner Dry Creek Image with Gilles Tremblay.
Race 4: Jdcyril ($9.80) and Doug McNair defied a presser-stalker bias and stole the third NDC race on the front, rating a comfortable :59 middle half en route to a 1:56.4 score.
The four-year-old Carlspur gelding cleared Prince Adiran (Stephane Brosseau) on his way to a :27.4 first quarter, and then immediately backed down the pace through the middle stages of the race before sprinting away at the eighth pole. Prince Adiran held second, while Melanies Magic (Redmond Doucet) rallied three-wide off failing cover to save third.
Randy Van Meer trains seven-time winner Jdcyril for Donna Van Leer.
Race 5: A sweeping last-to-first push from Donald Doc ($12.10) gave Doug McNair a third straight win in the NDC and a hefty lead at the turn.
After Sheldonthepsychic (Jamie Gray) controlled early fractions of :27.3, :57.2 and 1:26.4, McNair pointed the five-year-old Big Band John gelding four-wide into the final turn, and the pair made ground immediately.
"In the last turn, I figured I had a decent shot," McNair said after the race.
In fact, Donald Doc was able to chase down Face Of War (Stephane Brosseau), who circled from third-over to take the lead nearing head-stretch. Donald Doc lunged to just reach at the winning post in 1:57. Face Of War was second, while Little Clayt (Kelly Hoerdt) was third off a ground-saving tirp.
"I've just got to pick away at it, and I figure I'll be successful," McNair continued. "The more you win, the better you drive."
Trainer Don Beatson co-owns 11-time winner Donald Doc with Cole England and Ken Beatson.
Race 6: A pillar-to-post effort from odds-on favourite Mollie McGeoch ($3.70) gave Maritimer Gilles Barrieau his first win of the tournament.
"She was the best one that I've driven tonight so far," Barrieau said of the four-year-old Badlands Hanover mare. "I was looking forward to her coming up, because things haven't been that great."
Mollie McGeoch and Barrieau protected the lead from the pole and seated Im Rylan (Trevor Henry) into the pocket through a :27.2 quarter. The two-mare breakaway held separation over a struggling second flight through middle fractions of :57.2 and 1:26.4 and, despite late deceleration to the end of a 1:58 mile, crossed the line one-two. Eataams Trauma (Doug McNair) rallied mildly to just nab Cold Creek Lacey (Stephane Brosseau) for third.
Bud Sinclair trains four-time winner Mollie McGeoch for Linda Richardson and Lindsey Sinclair. The win lifted Barrieau from sixth into a share of third with Brosseau, but McNair maintains a 26-point lead over Kelly Hoerdt.
Race 7: Larjon Legacy ($15.40) and Guy Gagnon split leavers to secure the lead, controlled a comfortable middle half, and turned aside steady first-over pressure from So Bananas (Kelly Hoerdt) on the final turn en route to a 1:58.1 victory.
After edging clear of So Bananas, the three-year-old Mister Big Filly held her ground to the winning post to hold off Falls Creek (Doug McNair) by half a length. The runner-up finish was enough to put McNair out of reach of Hoerdt, who faded to also-ran status.
Greg Campbell owns and trains six-time winner Larjon Legacy.
Race 8: Lumiere ($2.90) gave Doug McNair his fourth win in the NDC, battling back in the stretch after being headed by Little Turk (Stephane Brosseau) to take the penultimate leg of the tournament in 1:58.1.
The nine-year-old Lis Mara gelding had no trouble clearing Highland Bogart (Redmond Doucet) into the first turn and hung Stonebridge Bettor (Kelly Hoerdt) out through early fractions of :28.2 and :59.1. After his first-over challenger stalled with three-eighths to go, Lumiere braced for the bold three-wide challenge of Little Turk. The pair passed three-quarters in 1:29, and Little Turk worked to a narrow lead on the final turn.
Off the home corner, Lumiere dug back in and reached to win by a widening length. Little Turk was second, while Highland Bogart (Redmond Doucet) chased from the pocket for third.
"I thought I had an average card, to be honest," McNair said of his thoughts coming into the night's tournament. "Once he made it there, I didn't want to give it up to anybody."
McNair's lead expanded to 40 points with a race to go, while Brosseau passed Kelly Hoerdt for second by way of his runner-up finish in the race.
Patrick Shepherd trains 35-time winner Lumiere for Carl Kuepfer.
Race 9: April Bandit ($10.80) and Stephane Brosseau parlayed a pocket trip to take the final NDC race in 1:58. After drafting behind So Long Sugar (Guy Gagnon) through splits of :28, :57.4 and 1:27.3, Brosseau moved the nine-year-old Real Artist mare off the pegs at the top of the stretch. The pair edged away to prevail in the final 40 yards, while Mighty Mouse (Kelly Hoerdt) saved ground and hooked wide in the stretch to take third.
"I'm very happy about it," said Brosseau of his runner-up finish in the NDC. "To be beaten by Doug McNair, I don't think it's a bad thing. Being second with all these good drivers is surely a nice feeling. It doesn't matter the age, you try to improve yourself. I really like the way I'm driving right now; it's fun. I want to always do better, and I think there's a couple years left where I can be as good as I am now."
Steve Coulter owns and trains April Bandit, now a 28-time winner.
The final NDC standings are as follows:
1. Doug McNair - 92
2. Stephane Brosseau - 62
3. Kelly Hoerdt - 51
4. Guy Gagnon - 43
5. Gilles Barrieau - 40
6. Redmond Doucet - 38
7. Trevor Henry - 29
8. Jamie Gray - 21
The National Driving Championship was an eight-race event and drivers earn points based upon their finishing positions. Drivers were able to have input into the horses they will be driving as a hockey pool style “draft” was conducted Friday for them to choose their horses in each race before the post position draw was made.
Eight drivers from across the country qualified in four regional events co-ordinated by Standardbred Canada and congregated in Elora, Ont. for the event.
To view Wednesday's harness racing results, click the following link: Wednesday Results – Grand River Raceway.