This is a story I wrote three years ago. And Bill Megens is still driving – and winning – at age 85. Willyorwonthe is his stable star.
Bill Megens: A Lifetime In Racing
The trotting colts bore down the long Woodbine stretch in the yellow pools of light, like torpedoes from a distant war. Up the slope on a turn waited Bill Megens — trainer/breeder/owner/sometime driver/blacksmith/tackler-of-life’s-blows — to see how it all turned out.
Will he? Or won’t he?
He did. He won. Megens carefully picked his way to the winner’s circle.
Megens has visited many winner’s circles over the years, but this one at Woodbine was special. He hadn’t won a race at Woodbine in more than 13 years, since a sharp filly he trained, Mikestory, won an Ontario Sires Stake Gold elimination and Final in the summer of 2002. She was one of Megens’ homebred stars, trotting her fastest mile in 1:58.3, earning $246,254. Megens has a sculptor’s rendering of her at home, high on a trophy case. It depicts her pulling Megens in his familiar red and white colours, in full flight. It never grows old.
And now Mikestory’s foal had just won at Woodbine again, sewing up a tidy déjà vu for Megens, now 82 years old and still standing, no matter what life throws at him. The foal’s name? Willyorwonthe, now a three-year-old ebony-coated trotter with chutzpah. It had been so long between victories at Woodbine, Megens had to get directions to the test barn.
Bill Megens and Willlyorwonthe (Beverley Smith photo)
Megens and his unusual history are part of the tapestry of Standardbred racing, from long before the harness side moved to Woodbine in 1994, and long afterward, too. The big name driver/trainers may be the warp of the sport, but Megens is the weft, drawn to the sport like a bee to honey, trying to make a living at it.
He didn’t come to the sport in the traditional way. But then, Megens does nothing the traditional way.
Born in The Netherlands, Megens and his family came to Ontario in 1950, when Megens was 16 years old. His father, William John Sr. had been a mixed farmer in Holland. He had Belgian work horses, cattle, chickens, pigs and a riding horse for Bill Jr. — the one we know. Bill Jr. tried dressage and some show-jumping. “One thing I did better than anybody else: stay on a bad horse,” Megens said. He always wanted to go to the rodeo. He’s thanking his lucky stars today that he didn’t. He has broken enough bones in the Standardbred business, judging by the unique turn of his right wrist.
In Holland, the Megens lived without hydro, and everything was done by horses. “Back then, they put you to work when you were 10 years old,” Megens said. He plowed fields long before he came to Canada.
Perhaps his parents just didn’t have time to think of how to name their two sons. After all, Megens was one of seven children. Megens’ full name is exactly the same as his father’s: William John. Megens’ younger brother is John William. When it came time to give names to his own children, Megens avoided “Bill” like the plague. But finally, under family pressure, he donated “William” to son Paul. “Too many Williams,” Megens muttered.
Strangely enough, Paul is the one who named Willyorwonthe and he bestowed the honour on his father. Paul tends to call his dad Willy rather than “dad” or “pops” or “father” or “papa,” or “daddums” or “the old guy.” And so Willyorwonthe has become the standard bearer of all things William in the Megens family.
William Sr. was as sharp as a tack. A wheeler dealer. A very good horseman. He owned some trotters but never trained any in Europe.
The Megens settled in Beaverton, near the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario. The farm was right across the road from a business that dealt with society’s animal rejects. Sometimes people would bring in rogue horses and the folks standing around would take bets to see if Megens could ride them. “I’d stay on quite a bit,” he said.
He made one mistake in this endeavour. He mounted one that threw himself backwards. Megens jumped clear and was safe. They all figured that perhaps Megens had taken too tight a hold, and he hoisted himself up again into the saddle. But when the horse threw himself down again, Megens hit the frozen dirt floor with full force. He figures he broke his hand, but in those days, you just didn’t go to the doctor. “It didn’t stop me a day from working,” he said.
Working? Within a couple of days of his accident, Megens reported for duty at nearby Kirkfield, Ont., for his job as a stone crusher. Megens worked right in the spit, crushing stones for railway tracks that were being laid in the area. His hand wasn’t his only problem. He also felt weak from the 11-day trip over to Canada by boat. For seven of those days, Megens was sea-sick, upchucking constantly. He couldn’t eat. He stood about 6-foot-1 and weighed 130 pounds. There wasn’t much to him to start with.
“That was the toughest job I ever had,” said Megens, who has had plenty of tough jobs in his life. He was paid 67 cents an hour, and finally, eked out a raise to 72 cents an hour. In the fall, the stone crushing job ended, so the Megens boys were sent to Toronto to work during the winter. In those days, everybody worked for the family. The sons sent almost all of their earnings back home.
Megens first worked at a furniture store, loading and unloading trucks. In the spring, they returned to the farm, to help their father.
The following autumn, Megens, then 17, and his brother, 16, headed back to Toronto with the idea that they would work in construction. But Megens wanted to work with the horses and get a job at Dufferin Park. While his younger brother was earning $47 a week, Megens could muster only $30. But because his brother sent home $25 a week, Megens felt compelled to do the same, the price he had to pay for following the path he wanted. With every possible way for him to make money at the track, Megens was left with only about $1 a day to eat. “I guess I starved myself,” Megens said. “Nobody worried about that, I guess. They never asked me.”
Megens stayed in a tack room at Dufferin with three other grooms, but he drew the short straw, with a cot on the wall next to a horse stall. “There was this mare on the other side,” he recalled. “All the harness was hanging above me. The mare kicked the wall all night and sometimes the harness would fall on my bed. It was terrible. Couldn’t sleep. After a while, you get used to almost anything and you are tired enough.”
The track offered meals for 60 cents in the grandstand, but if Megens were to eat three meals a day, that would blow his budget, costing almost double what he had left to spend. So Megens bought cereal – he liked Rice Krispies best – and ate it three times a day, every day.
“I don’t know how long I did this,” he said. “But one day, I’m eating this cereal and took a mouthful and I couldn’t get it down. Just couldn’t. I guess my system was telling me that you can’t live on cereal alone.”
But Megens had just bought the box and couldn’t bear to throw it out. He tried to feed it to the horses, but they wouldn’t eat it.
“God, I thought you were a Dutchman,” said the trainer when he walked in one day on Megens and his Rice Krispies. “But you look like a Scotsman,” a reference to frugal habits. But the trainer had no idea that Megens was sending most of his money home. And Megens never told him.
Megens was never a bettor, but sometimes would supplement his meagre income with a few well-placed wagers. Horses raced in heats in those days, and when he saw the results of the first heat, Megens would make sure he was at the front of the line to place a bet for the second heat, before the odds dropped. At the time, Cliff (Chappie) Chapman was working as a bookie. This way, Megens doubled his money sometimes so that he could eat.
So he survived. The following fall, he worked for a different trainer, Mert Story, and this time, he got $40 a week. Megens looked after and trained the horses and would get Bill Habkirk to drive them. The little stable went off to Quebec City for the summer, Blue Bonnets in the fall, and then returned to Toronto. But because there weren’t enough stalls left for this wandering interloper at Dufferin, Megens and his little band of horses had to stay at Thorncliffe Park, which was primarily a thoroughbred facility and not made for winter habitation.
If Megens thought Dufferin was tough, Thorncliffe was tougher. Megens bunked up in a tack room, but there were no washrooms nearby. He was lucky to find an outhouse. Forget taking showers or baths.
The tack rooms were unheated, and the walls and ceilings had cracks everywhere. Megens would wake up in the morning with his bed full of snow. “It was so damned cold, we’d take some of the horse blankets and put them underneath us, but you couldn’t put your head on them, because they smelled so much,” he said. “You couldn’t stand the smell of it, and there was no way to wash them and it was too tough to dry them.”
“I think in my head, if it weren’t for the love of horses, I could have made a lot more money in other things,” Megens reasoned. He finally came to his senses, could see no future in the game, and headed home to his father’s farm.
In 1954, he dropped all contact with horses and hopples, and checks and bridles and racing programs for the next 12 years. He busied himself with a wide array of pursuits. First off, he worked in an auto body shop, shining up the fenders on many a car. Then, he worked at a business that recapped tires. In other words, the company would take used tires, buff off the treads and then rebuild them. It’s a business that doesn’t exist anymore.
Megens worked in the landscaping business for a time with a friend.
He worked in the tobacco fields for a couple of seasons, but found the work backbreaking.
He worked for three years in offset printing. He’d make the plates that were used to stamp designs or print on paper. “That was an easy job,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how anybody could get tired doing a job like that. But you know, after six months of this, you could get as tired for just doing nothing, as working hard.”
Then he bought some land and had a friend build him a slaughter house/butcher shop.
In the midst of all this, he married Antoinette (Tony) Van Der Heyden, a former Miss Middlesex County princess, who also worked in the tobacco fields. Megens married her when he was 24, she 21. Over the next eight years, she had seven children, the last two being twins. “When they started coming in twos, it was time to quit,” Megens said.
There were five boys and two girls: Robert, who would become a talented driver, even at The Meadowlands, but who now teaches at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont., Dan, who has a stable of horses of his own, primarily at Flamboro Downs; Paul, who spent 18 years driving at tracks like Cloverdale, B.C. where he sometimes led the driving colony, Debbie, a social worker who is now a professor, Sandra, an environmental specialist who supply teaches, and the twins, Mark and Mike.
Megens and his son Dan (Standardbred Canada photo)
(Over the years, Megens, who did all of his racing work by himself, typically hired no grooms. But his children always helped. Sometimes, people would see the Megens children, each with a lead shank in their hands, sitting in Megens’ truck. And at the ends of their shanks were Megens’ horses. They’d putter up and down the length of the Greenwood backstretch, cooling out or exercising in bulk.)
Eventually there was a fire in the home Megens lived in with the butcher shop and he lost all of his photos and mementos. He had bought the place for $4,000, and after the fire, sold it for $10,000. With that money, he bought a dairy farm on 100 acres in Beaverton for $20,000. He found a man who gave him cows -– he milked 40 of them -– and Megens paid him off over time as he sold the milk.
But he scratched to make a living. “We weren’t making any money,” he said. He got $3.75 for 100 litres of milk. The 1,000-pound quota cost him $1,000. He had to keep the cows up and the farm, too. And he had seven little mouths to feed.
Then something happened to change his life. It didn’t take much. Night racing started. A brother-in-law took Megens to the races at Woodbine (Old Woodbine, later to be called Greenwood). And that’s all it took. That fall, Megens went to a horse sale and bought a little horse for $300. Harness racing had its hooks in him, after all.
Things went well in Megens’ new sideline. One of his friends, Ed Peconi helped Megens buy a few more cheap horses. Megens’ cheap little horse, Adios Erin, gave him more than he could handle, at first. He had taken her to someone at the Milton fairgrounds to finish her breaking-in and one day, the guy came up to Megens and said in his high-pitched voice: “Bill, how the hell did you ever break this horse?”
“Geez, it was easy,” Megens said.
“I’ve never had a horse like her,” the man said. “I couldn’t. I tried breaking her in and she just wouldn’t.”
Megens put the harness on her but when he tried to check her up, the filly backed up so far, then threw herself backwards that she hit her head on a plow Megens had sitting at the opposite end of the barn.
Megens could see the problem.
The accident gave Adios Erin a permanent dent in her head. Megens threw the harness back on her when she scrambled to her feet and miraculously, off she went, happily. The incident seemed to cure her attitude. “That was just being lucky,” Megens said. “I just hadn’t realized how bad she was.” Megens was still milking cows while training her. Without a track of his own, he’d jog her along the country road near his farm.
Megens raced his little thumbnail stable first at Garden City Raceway, then at Greenwood, although he had trouble getting stalls. “I didn’t have too much stock,” he said.
But Megens was about to discover that he had far, far more luck with horses than with properties.
“I always had cheap horses,” he said. “But I always worked hard. I put lots of miles on them.” Before long, Megens found himself among the top three in trainer standings at Greenwood, when, on the final day of the meet, Dr. John Findley drove three winners and pushed him back to fourth.
Meanwhile, his excursions to tracks around the province kept him away from his family in Beaverton. “I had trouble getting home to see [Antoinette],” Megens said. “That’s no good. I’ve got to sell the farm.”
His timing was terrible. At first, he tried to sell his milk quota, but nobody wanted it. Finally, George McLaughlin, whose family operated General Motors of Canada in Oshawa, Ont., asked Megens if he still wanted to sell that quota. McLaughlin had a big dairy farm in Beaverton, too.
McLaughlin said he’d give Megens $2,500 for the quota if he’d throw in the stainless steel bulk tank, too. Megens paused: the bulk tank was worth more than the quota. But, lured by the love of the horse, Megens finally agreed to the sale. “I should have had my rear end kicked,” Megens said. “I was young and ambitious and maybe not as bright as I thought I was.”
He sold all of his cows at $225 a piece. He sold his hay to the hay man (who never paid him.)
Three months later, the Milk Marketing Board was created as a supply-management system for milk. McLaughlin was head of the board. Immediately the quota that McLaughlin had just bought from Megens was worth $35,000. Now it costs farmers $25,000 to $35,000 a cow, meaning that anybody who wanted to take over Megens’ herd would need to pay at least $1.4-million for the quota.
The back luck just continued. Megens sold his farm on good productive land for $34,000, and threw in a harvester with it. Five months later, the federal government bought up all the land around his farm for the Pickering airport that was never built. The man who bought Megens’ farm turned down $185,000 cash for it, six months after Megens had sold it to him.
Megens’ oldest son, Robert, had just turned eight.
Megens had to make good on his chosen career. And while he’s had as much bad luck as the average trainer/driver, Megens considers his racing acquisitions luckier than most. “I never had the money to go to the sales and buy the expensive yearlings,” he said. “I always had the breakers and the toe stickers. But the horses were always good to me.”
Megens always liked to have a broodmare or two and breed them to race himself. Megens was racing at Windsor one time, staying with a man called Tony Grodnis, who needed to borrow $1,000 in a hurry to stave off the folks trying to repossess his car. Megens gave him the money.
But Grodnis didn’t have the money to repay Megens so he told him he could have a mare he owned that was in foal to Tompkins, a full brother to trotting Triple Crown winner Ayres. He told Megens he couldn’t have the first foal, but after the mare foaled, he could take her.
Megens wasn’t really keen at the time to take the mare, but he thought it was better than nothing. Tompkins, a big, growthy horse, (Ayres was a trim little fireball that had weighed 900 pounds) had never raced, and neither had the mare in question, Bombs Star Flight, whose dam had earned the princely sum of $2,712.
Megens had plans to breed Bombs Star Flight to Camper, the 1968 Canadian Trotter of the Year, a $300 purchase that went on to win more than $50,000 for Bill Habkirk. (Camper once finished second to the flashy American trotter Nevele Pride.) But when Megens went to see the mare in the spring after she had foaled, Grodnis had already bred her back to Tompkins. ARGGHH, Megens thought. Worse still, the man decided to back out of the agreement.
But up stepped the man’s sister who said in a tone that doesn’t bear crossing: “Tony, if you don’t give Mr. Megens this horse, and he takes you to court, I’m going to testify against you.”
Grodnis gave Megens the mare.
The resulting foal changed Megens’ life. It was the first trotter he had ever owned. (And he was to own many.) For the first time, he decided to streamline the naming process by using his own surname and turning it backwards to Snegem. At the time, Canadian harness owners had to send off registration to the United States and it would take three weeks to come back. If the organization said the name was already taken, the process would start all over again. Megens knew he’d never have a problem if he named his horses Snegem.
He named the foal Snegem Flight.
“Somebody up above was looking after me,” Megens said. “I had seven little kids and I needed the money.”
Snegem Flight became champion two-year-old trotter in Canada and champion three-year-old as well. And he was invited to represent Canada in the 1976 Roosevelt International Trot. He earned about $300,000 for Megens.
Snegem Flight was defeated only once as a three-year-old in a race at Dresden that he should have won. Megens was driving. Megens usually sent Snegem Flight right to the top from the gate, but this time, he raced him from behind. Snegem Flight was sitting on the rail turning for home and Megens saw an opening in front of him. But another driver to the outside of him saw Megens make his move and veered in, knocking Snegem Flight over the fence. Megens’ horse planted at least one foot on the wrong side. Understandably, he broke stride. Megens pulled him back off the fence, got him back trotting again, but finished fifth. The aggressor won.
“I should have won that one for fun,” Megens said, recalling the event.
After the race, Megens heard the winner’s groom come running over, yelling: “Don’t get your pictures taken! You’ll get thrown out!” So Megens didn’t bother putting in an objection. He thought the infraction was clear to everybody. And besides, he’d defeated this lot all year.
The judges didn’t throw out the winner, a well known Hall of Fame trainer-driver. The result stood.
Megens plodded on. “Snegem, he was tough,” Megens said.
Racing at Roosevelt Raceway was nothing new for Megens. At one point, he had a strong enough stable – no claimer cheaper than $25,000 – that he got stalls at Yonkers Raceway and The Meadowlands, too. Megens felt no nerves driving Snegem Flight in the Roosevelt International.
But before the race, he had been told that if he wanted to defeat the powerful French horse, Bellino II, it would be best to try to pass him on the tight turns of Roosevelt. “He’s not very good on the turns,” Megens was told. “You get him on the turns. You’ll get by.”
“My horse was good on the turns,” Megens thought.
Megens and Snegem Flight (Standardbred Canada photo)
Snegem Flight got away from the gate not badly and settled into fourth, and early on, Megens decided to pull his horse. They got by Bellino ll, but he was a big, strong horse, and Megens couldn’t get ahead of him enough to safely get over to the rail. He’d get by him on the turns, but on the straightaways, Bellino II would come back on. Megens found himself parked out, first over, most of the race. Snegem Flight just couldn’t overcome that trip in a 1 ¼ mile race.
He did get Bellino ll beaten. The French horse finished second and Snegem Flight was fifth, beaten 2 ¼ lengths for it all. “If I had just sat there, he was tough, he would have been right there,” Megens said. “I shouldn’t have listened. I should have stayed. But that’s hindsight.
“I’ve been kicking my rear end over that race for years.”
During these years, Megens claimed a little four-year-old horse at Windsor Raceway for $15,000. The horse, White Richelieu, turned out to be a smart buy, but Megens had to have the patience to figure him out.
“I did find out how to race him and how to look after him,” Megens said. “You couldn’t set him in a hole. You just had to pull him early and let him go to the outside.”
He found this out when he raced the horse at Roosevelt Raceway, and got parked with White Richelieu to a half in 58 seconds, quite fast in those days. He finally got around the horse in front, but along came a challenger on the outside. Megens didn’t figure his horse could withstand yet another battle after that tough trip, so he said to himself: “Ahh. I blew it anyways. I’ll drive on.”
White Richelieu won for fun.
“So that’s how you like to be driven, eh?” Megens thought.
Megens raced White Richelieu at Flamboro and Greenwood and discovered it was just wise not to train the horse at all before a race. Once, he had trained him a little bit before a race, in only 2:07, then sent him home to rest for three days. But there were some mares in the field, and he was a stud. White Richelieu spent his time running up and down the place, roaring. When Megens tried to race him, White Richelieu grabbed the bit and took off, first quarter in 28, half in 58. He finished fifth.
“I knew where I made my mistake,” Megens said. For the next week, he only walked the horse and entered him back in the same class. Track handicapper Hans Grottke wrote that White Richelieu was a nice little horse, but not quite good enough to defeat the invitation horses.
When Megens showed up the following week, Grottke looked at Megens and said: “You’re back!”
“I came back to make a liar out of you,” Megens said with a grin.
“What do you mean?” Grottke said.
“I’m going to beat those horses,” Megens replied. “and I’m going to go the first quarter in 28 and the half in 58 and I’m going to beat those horses.”
White Richelieu won by three or four lengths. “I knew the horse,” Megens said.
He ended up losing White Richelieu in a $50,000 claimer at The Meadowlands. But Megens was satisfied. He had cleared $100,000 while owning White Richelieu — and that was back in the 1970s.
Later on, Ted Wing, a top driver from The Meadowlands, ended up driving and training White Richelieu and he told Megens that he should get him to drive him. Wing was an aggressive driver. “He was always on the top or trying to get there,” Megens said.
Megens told him he was the perfect driver for White Richelieu.
Then Wing said: “I should get you to train him.”
“No,” Megens replied. “Don’t train him. Keep Greg [the assistant trainer] out of that stall for a couple of days before the race. Don’t give him nothing, no vitamins, nothing. Go see the racing secretary and put him in an easy race to brave him up a little.”
“You’re going to claim him off me,” Wing said, now skittish.
Megens promised him he wouldn’t. “You go get a win,” Megens said.
And Wing did. “He win for fun,” Megens said.
Afterwards, three guys came up and offered Wing $25,000 to $30,000 for the horse. Megens never heard of the horse again. The new owners didn’t make a cent out of him.
“I never had a horse I knew as well as him,” Megens said. “I’ve had some that I couldn’t figure out.”
Luck? Yes, Megens had some, thankfully, in strange ways. He bought a yearling by Armbro Jet for $25,000 on the advice of his brother, who said “he was all right.” When Megens bought him, he was given documents saying he was eligible for the Ontario Sires Stake program. Megens renamed the colt Snegem Telstar.
He was a trotter. Megens was discovering that he liked trotters. They were such a challenge. And he could handle the challenge. Long ago, he started shoeing his own horses. And he did some interesting things to straighten some trotters out: he had a filly called Arland Wanda that couldn’t beat 2:35 either pacing or trotting as a two-year-old. Megens changed her stroke by putting a shoe on backwards on her forefeet so that she would stop interfering with herself. It worked. She became a trotter.
Another, Kawartha Quickstep, kept hitting his knees, so Megens welded a piece of iron to one side of a shoe to make it wide. Then nailed it on the foot so that it hung out the right side. The horse looked like a kid who hadn’t pulled up one sock. Once some of his grooms came running to him when they saw the shoe, telling him it was falling off. But it wasn’t. Megens squeezed some good money out of his efforts.
Snegem Telstar had no such problems. Megens made all of his sustaining payments and entered the colt in a Sires Stake at Leamington, Ont., for his first start. Snegem Telstar won by 10 ½ lengths.
But Megens got a phone call the next day from the Ontario Racing Commission, questioning the eligibility of the horse.
Megens was baffled.
After the race, the previous owner’s cousin had blurted: “That horse shouldn’t even have been eligible because they sent that $10 [nominating fee] too late.” Tracks have big ears. Somebody phoned the ORC to complain.
As it turns out, the previous owner had missed the deadline for the nomination payment. Somebody figured out that they could take advantage of a postal strike at the time. They put the payment in the mail and backdated it to a time that made the horse eligible. The payment was accepted because the mail had been delayed. But suddenly, through no fault of his own, Megens found that Snegem Telstar was eligible to nothing.
Megens raced him in a few late closers. And one day, at Blue Bonnets, in a Grand Circuit race, he tackled the continent’s best, including Noble Art, trained and driven by Del Miller.
Noble Art ended up being the leading money-winning two-year-old trotter that season, in 1977. Up against this juggernaut, Snegem Telstar was dubbed “the people’s horse.” Snegem Telstar finished in a dead heat for first with Noble Art in track and Canadian record time of 2:04.
Miller thought he’d won, but admitted he had misjudged the finish line by a few feet. Megens knew he hadn’t lost.
The following week, Megens brought his young trotter home to race at Greenwood, where he was asked: “Are you going to set a new mark?” Megens was looking only to win. The night of this late closer at Greenwood was cold, windy, blowing, horrid. New marks don’t happen on nights like that.
Megens had the rail and while behind the gate, Snegem Telstar’s check popped off. “I should have pulled him up,” Megens said. “But I sat down on the horse the whole mile, afraid he was going to run.”
Snegem Telstar won by nine lengths, and finished only 1/5 off the track record. “If I had chirped to him once, he would have set a new track record,” Megens said. The horse that finished second had earned more than $150,000 in the Sires Stake program in which ‘Telstar’ couldn’t race.
The stardust kept falling, albeit in humble ways, with cheap horses. In the fall of 1978, Megens took a big chance on claiming a 12-year-old pacer called Miami Beach, nearing the end of his career. But Megens had always liked the classy pacer, who responded to Megens’ care. Miami Beach won 10 consecutive races with Megens driving and training him. The horse became such a folk hero, that the attendance at Greenwood would increase by 5,000 to 10,000 people whenever he raced.
“He’d sleep all day,” Megens said. “You go to train him, and if you could get a mile in 2:25 out of him, you’d be real lucky. He wouldn’t train. But you get him in a race, and he was the smartest horse ever. I was just a passenger.
“He’d just go, and even if they go by him on the backstretch, it don’t matter. In the stretch, he’d come up and just stick his head out. He’d win in 2:05. The next week, he’s in with a horse that went in 2:02. And he just win. He might be beaten half way down the stretch. As soon as you passed the wire, he’d pull right up. He’d never win by more than a length. But he never got beat. He knew where the wire was. He reminded me a bit of Cam Fella.”
When he retired because of a broken bone, Greenwood staged a special ceremony for him. People had their pictures taken with him.
During some rough times that Megens had, Peconi had always been a major help. At one point, when Peconi wanted to get out of the business, Megens bought three cheap horses from him for $8,500 with a cheque that was post-dated for six months down the road. Yes, times were tough.
The week before the cheque came due, Megens started to worry about paying it. That week, Megens was racing a very fast horse called Gaylord Grattan, that really needed a trip to do well. Nobody could beat him off the gate, but afterwards, it was a challenge.
That night, Gaylord Grattan left the gate like a bullet, fortunately. Behind him, the entire field went down in a mass of flying sulkies and drivers. Gaylord Grattan was the only horse to miss the mixup. Two horses got back up and continued racing, one of them, Dr. John Frost, driven by Ross Curran.
“Instead of rating him, I let him go,” Megens said. While Gaylord Grattan was flying past the three-quarter mile mark, Curran was still a speck on the horizon, at the half. As Megens went by the backstretch, he heard someone yell: “Bill, you got that one won!”
But Megens started to worry. He knew he hadn’t. Suddenly, Gaylord Grattan slowed to a snail’s pace. Megens doesn’t know if he bled, or what. He paced his final quarter in 45 seconds. Curran caught him and won.
“He walked home,” Megens said of his horse. “Everybody had already been cashing their tickets [in their minds]. But I could have jumped off and beaten him. I could have won myself. Unbelievable.”
The best thing was, someone claimed Megens’ horse. “I was never so happy in all my life,” Megens said. “And this cheque was coming due. Talk about good luck. I don’t know what happened.” Several years later, Megens saw Gaylord Grattan racing in a $1,000 claimer at Vernon Downs. “Was I ever lucky,” Megens said.
However, Megens’ property woes didn’t stop. It was as if he was born under a rain cloud when it came to owning property. His timing was always way off. He bought a property on rolling hills near Puslinch, Ont., in 1976 and got a mortgage at half a percent over prime. But before long, the rate had climbed to 9 ½ per cent. And then to 22 per cent. It left Megens gasping for air. He had bought it for $365,000 and all told, figures he gave the bank $500,000 over the years he had it — and he still didn’t own it outright.
Bill Megens (Beverley Smith photo)
In the meantime, Megens suffered an unusual streak of bad luck with the horses, too. He got rid of some good horses, just to pay the mortgage. He had all of his horses insured, or so he thought. While racing at The Meadowlands, he had a horse that had just finished second, beaten a nose, but one morning oldest son Robert found him unconscious in his stall. They found a wound behind an ear, and figure a horse walking by may have kicked him and knocked him out. The horse never came around, so Megens had him put down. Trouble is, the part-owner of the horse had cancelled the insurance after the horse had been claimed. When Megens claimed him back as few weeks later, the insurance wasn’t reinstated. He got nothing.
He lost five more over the next six months. Some of them belonged totally to Megens. With the financial crunch, Megens cancelled the insurance in favour of making his steep mortgage payments.
He had a filly that had finished second to Annie Ivy in Ontario Sires Stakes in her first start. Looked promising. But she had suffered a tiny chip at the top of a sesamoid after that first start. Veterinarians made a microscopic incision and took the chip out. A week later, she was dead. A report from Guelph said: “There is one in 50,000 chances that a horse is allergic to anesthetic.”
Another two-year-old filly had just won in 2:04 at Flamboro, and three weeks later fell ill. Megens sent her to Guelph, but she died. He had given all of his horses a virus shot that year. Back came the report: “There is one in 50,000 that is allergic to the virus shot.” Megens didn’t give his horses virus shots for years.
He bought another horse for $29,000 and won in 2:00, racing first over at Greenwood. “He looked like he was going to be all right,” Megens said. But one day, when the horse was being jogged, he stumbled and broke his pelvis. Megens had to put him down.
Another time, while a groom was jogging one of Megens’ homebreds, he fell off the cart. The horse ran loose, hit the corner of the barn and shattered a shoulder. Megens had to put him down.
In 1984, Megens figured he had to sell the farm, or the bank would take it anyway. As soon as he sold it, the interest rate dropped to 10 per cent. “I still remember that bank manager,” Megens said. “He sure cost me a lot of money.”
And life changed. Megens’ wife, Antoinette, died of a brain aneurism on Dec. 23, 1995. He now lives alone in an apartment built on the farm he used to own, their wedding picture still on a table. In return, he takes care of the stonedust track that he originally built. He has Willyorwonthe and also a two-year-old, Alexis Diamond (price $1,000), that he likes, especially after he straightened out her habit of dog trotting with his shoeing magic. And he just bought another one.
At 82, he still drives in races, and has won and finished second with Willyorwonthe at Western Fair Raceway and Flamboro. But he notes that he’s still in the game to make a living. He doesn’t need to drive. He’ll let others drive, those who do it every day. With a new driver, Chris Christoforou, Willyorwonthe won his third race at Woodbine on a bone-chilling March night. In his little apartment, Megens is surrounded by 40 trophies (not the entire collection) in a cabinet. He can’t imagine sitting around and watching his old television. He needs a few horses to keep and tinker with and straighten out, the Megens way.
Will he do this forever? “When I get old,” he said with a smile, “I might retire.”