You listen to the chatter of all those who have known him and you get the idea that Doug McNair was born on a race bike, with a whip curled over his arm. It’s not far from the truth.
He comes from that Canadian nest that spawned some of the best harness racing drivers in the world: Herve Filion, John Campbell, Bill O’Donnell, Ron Waples, and let’s not forget Keith Waples, too. For years, an endless crowd of Canadian drivers clogged up the top 10 list in North America, putting everybody else in their rear-view mirrors., driving so fast they’d disappear in the dust on the way to the finish line.
At 28, McNair has stepped into this stained glass window with his own record list: youngest driver in history to win 1,000 races (in 2010 at Western Fair Raceway, just before he turned 21), and youngest driver in history to record a $1-million season (2008, when he was 19). He won the Confederation Cup at Flamboro Downs when he was only 20.
And the wins have been swelling up like a riptide. He blew to his 3,000th win just last month, at age 28. And did it in style, flying three-wide around the field on the final turn and nabbing the win at the wire with a 26 to 1 shot on the final race of the night at Mohawk Park. He put an exclamation point on the feat, indeed.
He was only 18 when he won the $300,000 Battle of Waterloo at Grand River Raceway with Trail Boss, a family horse. And take note: He couldn’t get his driver’s licence until he was 18.
Lest you think he just got lucky, passed under the star-dust sprinkler, or caught the best tidal wave to wreak all of this magic, think again. It’s in his bones. “It was always horse racing,” he said.
Within less than 10 years, McNair has become Canada’s leading driver, winning more than $5.9-million in purses ($6.5-million if you count his exploits south of the border) and 325 races last year. And he won his first O’Brien Award as Canada’s 2017 driver of the year. (Joseph Cyril O’Brien, who died in 1984, was considered one of the best drivers in history, and scored 4,288 wins in his entire career, starting out in small-town Prince Edward Island, the son of a farmer.)
Small town beginnings
Like O’Brien, McNair was nurtured by a racing culture in a small town. His father, Gregg McNair, grew up in Walkerton, Ont., and won his first race as a trainer with GG Black Fella at little Hanover Raceway, back in 1979. Since then, he has become a powerful force at Woodbine Entertainment tracks and beyond, with continent champion Precocious Beauty, Aracache Hanover – one of the top 3-year-olds in North America – OK Commander, which won an elimination of the $1-million Meadowlands Pace in 1:47.4 /5 (that’s sizzling) before injury intervened.
Young Doug watched all of this with big eyes.
He was keen about this sport from the get-go.
“You’d have to sneak out of the house like a burglar, because as soon as he’d hear you leave, and he heard the feet hit the ground, then he would run,” Gregg said. “He wanted to come with you every morning.”
He was five or six. Every day, he wanted to follow his father to the track. Sleep wasn’t important back then. He didn’t want to miss it all.
Riding the broom handle
Doug remembers when he was about six years old, he started to jog horses around the farm track, but his feet couldn’t reach the stirrups on either side of the training bike. Father Gregg ran a broom stick through the stirrups and fastened it to the bike with baler’s twine. And off Doug went.
As small as he was, he jogged George Scooter and Run to the Bank. “They both needed lots of jogging and they were fairly lazy,” Gregg said. “He used to try to wake them up, so it was pretty good for him. He drove them a long ways and they got to be pretty good horses.”
Wake them up? “He was always going with the whip, or something,” Gregg said. “He made lots of noise.”
George Scooter eventually ended up winning a heat of the Little Brown Jug – the race Doug would most like to win someday. Run to the Bank was third in the 1998 North America Cup for the McNair barn.
For a couple of summers, Doug helped over at the Brussels stock yards with cattle, but everyone knew Doug like the horses best.
He played hockey too at Fergus and Mount Forest, and was decent, but when he was 15 or 16, he just wasn’t that big. But just right to be a driver.
And that’s what he wanted.
His older sister Amy was always interested in the racing game and worked around the barn a lot. Younger brother Scott could take the horses or leave them. “He was good help when he was around,” Gregg said. “But he was out one winter and driving quite a few. One day, he froze his fingers out there and he wasn’t around much after that.”
Dress for success
But nothing was going to stop Doug. On race nights, he would dress up in drivers’ colours and head to the winner’s circle. It didn’t matter whose colours, either Gregg’s maroon-white-black, a hint of his days with Canadian Hall of Famer Bud Fritz, who won the North America Cup with Apaches Fame from his Walkerton base. People would donate things to Doug and he didn’t let them sit on a shelf. He’d wear them. His grandmother would refashion the colours to make them fit.
“He’d walk around with a helmet and a whip all night,” Gregg said.
The kid was always around. Ron Waples spotted him and had an idea.
“One time, he was not getting along that good in school,” he said. “It was understandable, I think.
“But then, all of a sudden, he got better. I had a pair of brand new driving boots in the trunk of my car. I have no idea where I got them and why they were there, but they wouldn’t fit me. They were too small for me.”
So one night Waples spotted the father-son duo walking out of the paddock.
“Dougie, come here,” Waples said. “I’ve got to see you at my car. I’ve got something for you.”
Gregg let him follow the Hall of Famer out into the parking lot, where Waples gave him the boots.
“Here, when you start to drive, you use those boots,” Waples told him. “Maybe you’ll have some luck.”
Doug kept them in the windowsill of his bedroom. Every week, he’d shine them up. And whenever he went anywhere, racing, he’d slip them on.
“They were still too long for him,” said Waples, indicating three or four inches. When he walked, the shoes would flip-flop across the floor. Gregg said he’d stuff the toes with tissue. The horsemen watched, amused.
Driver Mike Saftic, who drove a few for Gregg, remembers Doug at age seven or eight, striding into the drivers’ room at the track. He would sit on a bench with his driving suit on, and helmet too, with Waples’ boots. Driver Trevor Ritchie had given him a pair of pant clips, and he put those on, too.
“He’d walk down and watch his dad and come back to the room and change,” Saftic said. “He wouldn’t talk much. [Now he says too much.] Some guys would bug him a little bit. But you could tell right then, that that kid wanted to be a driver. He put on his glasses and his gloves. You knew at an early age.
A record-setter from the start
By the time Doug was 12, he was driving at the local fairs. Gregg sent him over to the fair at Dundalk with an easy horse to drive. He couldn’t go himself; He had some Ontario Sires Stakes horses going at Woodstock. Doug won both heats, and set a track record. Think somewhere in the neighbour of 1:57, a real dust-up at a fair track. People knew he was there.
Doug learned a lot from his father, also because Gregg had good horsemen working with him, people like Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Famer Bill Gale, and Jim McClure, too, the driving king of Orangeville Raceway. He’d ask all sorts of questions of the best of them. “He’d sit with them and ask questions all night: how to make a horse go, stuff like that,” Gregg said. “They’d answer him, too. They were always good to him.”
When Doug finally did get his driver’s licence, he knew what he was supposed to do out on the track.
“A lot of guys get their licence and don’t really understand how a race goes,” Gregg said. “He knew how a race went long before he ever started.”
Doug started humble, driving at B tracks like Hanover and Clinton, the perfect feeder systems for future stars. (Kill them at the sport’s peril.) He’d run into another future star, Scott Zeron (later a Hambletonian winner), in those little places. “They’d bother all the guys up there,” Gregg said. “The guys didn’t have to put up with them too long, because both were through there and stepped up to different places pretty quick.”
While Zeron headed off to Flamborough Downs, Doug’s first port of call at a major track was Western Fair Raceway in London, Ont., It’s where he earned his first win, aboard Eagle K. As it happened, Gregg took a rare holiday at the time in Mexico, but he watched a simulcast on his computer.
Doug got the drive at the last minute. His father had listed his assistant trainer, Chris Matthews to drive the horse. He couldn’t list Doug at time of entry because he didn’t have his driver’s licence yet. “Luckily for Doug, Chris turned up sick that night,” Gregg said, with a twinkle.
Doug had his licence by then. He’d had it for only about a day. And he won his very first start.
“I had a second-over trip and won by a neck,” Doug said. “I thought it was easy after that.”
It took him 10 starts to win another.
Learning at the racetrack university
Doug started at Western Fair in a tough driver colony that sported Trevor Henry and Brad Forward. Before long, Doug was the leading driver at London, where he learned a lot of valuable lessons.
“I used to watch all the races from London when he would be driving, and I used to get a kick out of him,” said his father. “He got to winning quite a few over there and a few guys were putting him down. He was doing a good job. Once in a while, you’d see him do something.
“Trevor was the boss over there. You’d see something happen between him and Trevor. And within the next week, Trevor would straighten him out on the track, just to kind of show him. It wouldn’t be that night. But it would be sometime in the next week. It was kind of neat. I’d be thinking: ‘Oh, he had that coming to him.’”
He’s had the breaks, for sure. Gregg notes that his owners were good to Doug, and let him driver their horses. “He wasn’t very old when he was driving them in stakes races. Nobody minded him driving. There were probably better guys at the time. But they gave him a chance. And he did a good job at the time, but it was pretty good of those owners to let him.”
Saftic isn’t surprised by Doug’s success. “It’s quite an accomplishment,” said the veteran driver. “The kids is good. That’s why he put up good numbers. But he also had a dad that would support him. It helped him learn the business and to get started. But you still have to have talent.”
A lot of other trainers like the easy-going Gregg. And they’d use his son to drive their horses too. Doug describes his father as someone who never seems to get ruffled about anything. And he’s one of the best horsemen he’s ever seen. “He usually knows how to solve problems,” Doug said. “Best thing: he doesn’t get upset. And he doesn’t’ get very excited.
“I’d like to get more like that.”
“I get rattled up, but I don’t like to show it as much,” Gregg said. “Maybe once a year in the barn, I might lose my temper. I try not to too much.”
Winning and how
Doug? Another story. He wants to win. With his father on the road as a youngster, when he thought a horse should win – and didn’t – he start kicking up stones. He’d disappear. “You could tell he was mad,” Gregg said. “He’d have his lip down.”
Don’t let people know, Gregg suggested.
“You want me to be happy about finishing last?” Doug replied.
Well, no. “You have to be a little mean out there with one another,” Gregg said. “Then they go upstairs [to the drivers’ room] and let on nothing happened. And maybe you’ll get it back next time.”
The night of the North America Cup, with Doug driving a co-favourite, Stay Hungry in only his third start in the $1-million race, he finished fourth. Another hungry youngster, Montell Teague won with Lather Up, erasing his own disappointment of the past when he missed the win with favoured Wiggle It Jiggle It. It took him three years, but he got his win.
Teague said afterwards, all of the other drivers in the race congratulated him. That meant a lot.
Still, the way it is, Doug wants to break the chandelier with every note. And he will. He’ll get his chance. He was born to it.