From the time Chris Christoforou can remember, donning a set of driving colours for a living seemed like his destiny. Now, the man known to many as ‘Little Greek’ or ‘Junior’ has a long list of driving accomplishments, including four O’Briens as Canada’s top pilot, so it’s hard to pick a highlight. One day that will always stand out, however, was the one when he captured the Little Brown Jug, in Delaware, Ohio. By Dan Fisher.
Astreos - 2000 Little Brown Jug Champion
There was never a doubt in the mind of a young Chris Christoforou when it came to how he would eventually make his living one day. “From the time I can remember, the horses were the only thing that I was ever going to do. I never had an inkling of doing anything else. I never once said ‘That looks interesting’ or ‘this looks interesting’. Nothing else ever looked interesting to me except the horses,” shared the newest Standardbred driver elected to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
“I have some recollections of the backstretch at Garden City, my dad was stabled there, and a few flashes from Buffalo and Batavia as well, but it was the backstretch at Mohawk where I think I really fell in love with it. I pretty much grew up there. It was a mixture of the horses and being out in the country… it was a very special place for me.
“At first it was the drivers [that drew me in]. You know, they walk around with the cool suits and the whips; they’re the popular guys around there so I think I got into that a little bit. I used to have this rocking horse at home that I tied some lines up to, and I had a helmet and glasses and I’d drive him in the races all the time there in the living room. Then, as I got older, it was more the horses themselves that took over, and you know, I really enjoyed being around them.
“My dad was probably my idol, but when I started really becoming aware of what was going on as far as drivers and trainers go, Ronnie Waples had just left. That’s when Brownie [Doug Brown] exploded. Brownie was the guy. He was the man. Between him and Steve [Condren], and Steve would drive my dad’s horses a lot… those two guys were the main guys that I looked up to. Dave Wall was a very good, strategic driver - I love Dave. Paul MacDonell… he’s not that much older than me but he started there young and was a guy that I always looked up to and thought was a very good driver.”
After waiting from the time he was a small child, in 1990, at the age of 19, the younger Christoforou, known to most at that point as ‘Junior’, acquired his driver’s license at long last. “I got my first win at Flamboro on a horse of my dad’s named Delias Star,” he recalls with a big grin.
Speaking of his dad, a man known simply as ‘The Greek’ to most, Charalambos Christoforou, or Chris Sr., is also known by many as a man with a flamboyant personality, and at times, a bit of a temper.
“You know, he never put any pressure on me; he was never hard on me. Most people probably think… the feeling I get from other people [laughing] is that most probably think that he would have been. But he wasn’t, he was the opposite. He was very quiet. He didn’t say much to me after the races, even if I drove bad. He would correct me… if I did something in a race that was a mistake in his eyes, he’d say something like ‘I don’t think you should do that next time in that same situation’. But rarely… I mean there really wasn’t much coaching or criticizing going on - he didn’t say much. If anything he was very encouraging, and I’ll always be grateful for that.
“I get the feeling that people think he would be hard on me but he wasn’t. To tell you the truth, the only pressure that I ever felt driving my dad’s horses was the pressure that I put on myself. I did that because he was my father and I wanted to do well for him. I absolutely put more pressure on myself when I was driving his horses - he didn’t put it on me at all. You want to do well for everyone that you drive for, but when it’s your family… now I’m driving for him, I’m driving for my mother, so it’s a whole different thing.
“As for my mother though: I’ve driven in over 45,000 races, and if you ask my mother, every single one of them was a perfect drive. If I won it was because of my drive, but if I didn’t it was because of the horse [laughing]. That’s just my mom though!”
The Christoforou family has had a number of top horses over the past four or five decades, but the one that came along at just the right time, near the start of ‘Junior’s’ career, was the Balanced Image stallion, Earl.
“For a trotter, Earl was really a push-button horse. You could do anything with him. I needed him; I needed a horse like that. He was good to me and he’ll always, always be my favourite, of all the horses I’ve ever driven. I’ll always have a soft spot for him… maybe if I own one that makes me a few million one day he’ll become my favourite though - I don’t know [laughing].”
A Christoforou-homebred, Earl took the ‘Little Greek’ to the Yonkers International Trot as well as the winner’s circle of the Breeders Crown in 1993, and to the famed Elitlopp in Sweden the following year, before being retired to stud duty at the end of 1994.
“When it’s your first one, and he’s a good one, and he’s so easy to drive, it probably makes a young guy look a little better than he is,” Christoforou smiles.
Earl definitely got Greek Jr. off to a good start, then in 1999, six years after their Breeders Crown triumph, the first of Chris’ four O’Brien Awards as Canada’s leading driver would follow. But when it came to putting pressure on himself when driving the family horses, there was a day in September of 2000 that would be like no other.
“There’s two [races], for me anyway, that you want to win, at that time at least… the Jug and the Hambo. You’ve got to win one of those. Those are the two that matter for a person of my age anyway.
“He [Astreos] was second in the Meadowlands Pace, and I think he was second in the Cane. We won a division of the Oliver Wendell Holmes at The Meadowlands on Hambo Day but we hadn’t won a big one and it was getting late. We had never beaten Gallo [Blue Chip] and we had never won a big one… and we needed one big one.
“There was a lot of pressure, again, me putting it on myself; not from my father or his owner. Irving [Storfer of Banjo Farms] has always been incredible.
“So we go down to the Jug and we were in the first division, and Walter Case could have stretched me out a lot further than he did with another one of Mark Ford’s [the trainer of Gallo Blue Chip] but he didn’t. He was a gentleman about it. He knew my horse was much better than his and he cut me loose early… we cruised in :54 or something. I didn’t have to use him too much.
“Then Gallo comes out and just crushes in :51… it was disgusting [laughing]. He just jogged. It was a statement, I’m pretty sure.
“Anytime you can get someone behind you on a half-mile track though, and you can control it, you can beat him. Ask Western Hanover. But did I think that I was actually going to beat Gallo that day? No. I thought I had a chance… and we didn’t go there to lose, but I didn’t really think that I was going to beat him.
“Profita won the third division for John Campbell and Bill Wellwood, and we were all off to the second heat. I drew inside Gallo but Luc [Ouellette] scorched me pretty good early with Powerful Toy. I cleared and then [Daniel] Dube came hard with Gallo. And the last thing the old man said to me going out [laughing], and I’ve got to give him credit - he won the Jug, not me - I’ll give him credit. He usually didn’t say anything but he said ‘If you let him in front of you, you’ll never get back past him.’ And he was right. I agreed… I knew that before he said it too. And when are you ever going to be back [to the Jug] with a chance to win? I know I haven’t been back with a chance to win since!
“So when he came I took him. And the thing was, if I didn’t win, he couldn’t. And neither could Profita, or it would have been all over. So I put him away, and now my horse is done turning for home. Profita is coming on by me and I think it’s over until… here comes little George Scooter to nail everybody at the wire. I think that to this day, George Scooter might be my second favourite horse of all time [laughing]. My buddy [Gregg] McNair came and bailed me out. And make sure you call him ‘Chip’ McNair in the story too… that’s what I call him [laughing].
“Ya… Profita went by me and I’m just looking for anybody to please be coming, and here comes this ‘whoosh’ right at the end. And I didn’t even know, ‘Did he get there?’”
George Scooter, a horse that would race in an $8,000 claimer before his career eventually ended, did in fact get there - at odds of 56/1 for trainer Gregg McNair and driver Ron Pierce. A third heat race-off would now be needed between the four heat winners to determine the winner of the Little Brown Jug because nobody had yet won twice on the day.
“I was a bit hot after the race. I was trying to win and it didn’t work out, so I was a bit pissed off the way things had unfolded I guess. We had a Winnebago and I remember going back there, and a few of my friends were trying to calm me down. I was young and we were racing… that’s just the sort of thing that happens sometimes. It was all good.
“So they drew for the third heat and I drew three and he [Gallo] drew four. I stretched Danny [Dube] out pretty good to get him into the two-hole… I think I had shown him earlier in the day that there was no way I was letting him go [laughing]. Piercey came first-over and I was able to control it, and that was it. We won the Little Brown Jug,” Chris says proudly.
“The winner of the Jug doesn’t always know he’s going to win it until just before the wire, but it was funny, I knew going into the last turn that it was over. The way the race had played out there was no way anyone was going by Astreos at that point, and I had Gallo right where I wanted him.
“I don’t remember much about the celebration afterwards other than that it went on all night. I still had my colours on in the Delaware Inn afterwards because we went straight there and started drinking right after I finished all the interviews. I really couldn’t even tell you what happened that night but I do remember that I saw my dad in the winner’s circle and after that I never saw him again - until we were back in Canada I guess [laughing].
“I do remember that there were five or six of us in a Winnebago and we ended up driving back early in the morning - while I slept - in time to drive in the qualifiers at Mohawk. It was a couple of great days of memories but then we were right back at it the next morning,” he smiles.
Great memories for certain, and eventually enough of them to take the married, 51-year-old father of three - Emma, Niklas and Mia - right into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
“Some other big wins from over the years that stand out to me were the Breeders Crowns with Grinfromeartoear and Allamerican Nadia, and races like the Fan Hanover with Remember When, but something that also comes to mind while looking back is that I’m proud to have won some signature races at a number of different Canadian tracks as well,” he states proudly. “Beating Moni Maker in Montreal with Supergrit in the Trot Mondial was huge. I won the Des Smith in Ottawa a bunch of times, I think I won the Molson Pace in London three times with State Treasurer [twice] and Rare Jewel… I even won the Nat Christie once out in Alberta. I regret never driving in the Gold Cup & Saucer but unfortunately it always seemed to fall right in the middle of the heavy stakes calendar in Ontario.
“There are really too many people to mention that gave me a chance along the way. I’ve spoken about my parents and Irving [Storfer] though, and they’ve all really been there for me since day one.
“When I first started out, Irving had horses with Harry Poulton, my father and Ed Howard… and he had a lot of horses with all three. I’d been driving horses in races for about 20 minutes [laughing] and he calls Harry Poulton and says ‘Chris drives all of my horses from now on’. I’ve been driving for 20 minutes and Harry is just coming off of Matts Scooter and On The Road Again. I mean, oh my God. I remember driving one of the two-year-olds that Irv had with Harry, and I drove him bad. Harry wasn’t happy and I was worried he was going to actually kill me [laughing]. Irving would never say anything though. I’ve never driven one bad for Irving - never. I’ve been driving his horses for 33 years and I’ve never driven a bad race. I swear to you, he’s never complained about one drive in 33 years. Looking back now I feel bad for Harry. Here’s this guy who had a big barn of horses and he didn’t know if I could drive or not. I think with that two-year-old I might have gotten away 7th or 8th and pulled it and started coming at the ¼ pole or something stupid like that. But Harry was good to drive for and in the end he taught me a lot.
In my opinion, Irving Storfer is the best owner in the history of harness racing. How do you drive for a guy for 33 years and never once did he ever complain to you? Every single decent horse we’ve had, he’s owned with my dad. To this day they’re pretty much 50/50 on everything my wife Camilla has for them.
“I’m the only driver, I guarantee you, that will ever say this: I drove my first winner, and I’ll drive my last winner, for the same guy. The wins will probably come close to 35 or 40 years apart or whatever, but they’ll come for the same guy. And that would be Irving. Now you think about that. What other driver, a catch-driver even, will ever be able to say that? My first horse that I ever won with, at Flamboro, was his, and the last winner that I drive, I guarantee you, will be his.
“I’m not sure when that will be. I know that we’ll probably be training horses until we’re no longer able. Camilla loves horses and so do I. What are we going to do? Retire, and fight all the time and get a divorce? [laughing]. As long as there’s Standardbred racing, and I’m alive, I’ll be involved. When I talk to Camilla about the possibility of using catch-drivers on her horses in the future though, I can see her face tense up… she doesn’t seem too fond of the idea. But my last drive could be five years from now and it could be in two weeks. Something will tell me when it’s time. But I will win my last race with one of Irving Storfer’s horses, and then I’ll say ‘That’s it.’”
In the words of...
IRVING STORFER (Banjo Farms/Irvann Holdings)
When I was a young kid someone took me to a hockey game once. I was about 11-years-old and we were poor - I never forgot that. So in both my regular business and in the horse racing world I’ve always enjoyed giving younger people an opportunity and a chance to succeed. We gave Chris a chance and he ran with it.
Chris never hurts a horse and has always been as good as any other driver out there in my eyes. When he was only about 21 and he was driving Earl for us in races like the International and the Elitlopp, there was no doubt in our minds that he was as good as any other driver in there… he was always just so calm and cool in the bike. Sure, he drove the odd one bad back then… he still drives the odd one bad now too [laughing].
Now, he’s also helping train my horses with his wife Camilla and I know he’s picking it right up, because he’s learning to bullshit you just like most trainers [laughing].
I’m glad he’s going into the hall of fame - he deserves it. He’d still be my number one choice today if I had a really good horse, but he’s more than just a driver to me - he’s really more like my own son.
Ever since Chris was about four-years-old he tied some lines to this rocking horse he had and was driving it in the living room all the time. We have a picture of him warming up a horse at Greenwood when he was just 10 or 11, wearing Larry Walker’s colours. He was always going to be a driver - that was it.
In high school they let him take a co-op class and he chose to go to and work for Carmen Hie two or three times a week for it. It was all he wanted to do. After high school I wanted him to go to university but he put his foot down and said ‘no’. That broke my heart. I was very disappointed but he made the right choice.
I never gave him too many instructions when it came to his driving - he was a natural. He won four O’Briens… the kid was good. I don’t really compliment people a lot though… it’s a bad trait, I know, but that’s just me. One night when he set a record at Woodbine with seven wins he called me on the way home to tell me, and I said something like, ‘Well if you didn’t F@#K up that one other race you would have won eight’. I still feel bad about saying that.
I remember in the beginning, some people said that he was doing well because he was getting my horses to drive, and at the start of his career I did have a pretty good stable. But that was just at the start; he did what he did on his own. It wasn’t because of me.
This is bigger than winning any race though. Now he’s in the hall of fame, and his name will be there forever.
This feature originally appeared in the June issue of TROT Magazine. Subscribe to TROT today by clicking the banner below.