Scott Forward has the calm, composed demeanor one would expect from a lifetime spent around horses.
Inside the unofficial Forward Racing Lounge, a small room on the second floor of one of the old barns at St. John’s Racing and Entertainment Centre (SJREC) in the Goulds, he speaks softly as he shares stories about the track, which has been a second home for most of his 42 years.
But there’s an underlying passion in his voice when he gets talking about horses and the sport.
“Newfoundland horsemen get a little more out of their horses. I can only assume it’s because of our nature, that we treat them as pets,” says Forward, whose grandfather, Patrick ‘Pop’ McDonald, was one of the track’s founders in 1961.
“We spend a little more time with our horses and therefore certain horses seem to race a little better because they’re happier.”
He should know. After all, Forward keeps 16 animals on site — 10 of which are his own — with another mare on her way. On any given race day, with the help of a team of family and friends, more than half of those horses find themselves on the race card with various drivers in the sulky, the two-wheeled cart used in harness racing, sometimes called the bike.
“It’s an awful lot of work. I’m here at eight in the morning and I don’t often leave till half past eight or nine at night,” he says. “You have to love it, and I really do.”
In a lot of ways, Forward didn’t have much choice but to embrace the sport. It’s in his blood. And once there, “It’s extremely difficult to walk away from it.”
Bob Forward was pulled into the harness racing family when he met his wife-to-be, Marge McDonald. So too were their children, Rod, Bobby, Karen, Brad and Scott.
“It was an every day thing for me,” Scott recalls. “In the evenings, when Dad got off work, we all fought to jump aboard the van with him to come to the track.”
Forward’s father quickly became engrossed in the sport and would often attend Prince Edward Island’s Old Home Week, seeking out, “some horses that were slower, but sound, not fast enough for those tracks but ideal for here.
“He’d gobble up eight or 10 horses and bring them here and eventually sell them off.”
In the meantime, Forward and his siblings would be responsible for grooming, training and racing the horses.
As his parents got older and began slowly reducing their number of horses — which at its peak was over 20 — Forward and his brothers and sister began purchasing their own. It was then that Forward fell in love with the training side of things.
“I used to enjoy watching my brothers race and I’d do most of the barn work. I didn’t mind. But there came a time when I had no other choice but to start driving because we were each after buying up a couple of horses and you can’t drive two in one race.”
Forward drove for a number of years, even picking up some catch drives from other horse owners, but when his son, Shane, and his friend, Frankie Joyce, started driving, he went back to doing what he loves most: training horses.
“I like training the yearlings more so than the aged horses,” Forward says of two types of standardbred (a horse of a breed able to attain a specified speed, in this case pacing) horses owners at SJREC generally obtain. “You don’t know how good or bad they’re going to be, whether they’re going to be the next Secretariat or the next Donkey from Shrek.”
Breaking a filly or colt starts with getting the animal — which, until this point, has lived its life in a field free from human contact — accustomed to human interaction. Once a level of trust is attained, little by little Forward will start trying to harness the animal.
“With young race horses, it’s all about repetition,” he says, adding that it’s sometimes like trying to harness a cat.
Once harness broken, the process of getting the horse used to being steered with a bit in their mouth begins. This begins by doing what they call line driving, where the you walk behind the horse pulling the reins left to teach them to turn left, right for right and pulling back to stop them. Generally a horse will respond in a day or two.
“You do that in October for a couple of weeks and that’s it,” he said. “You can’t push them any more than that because a young horse will lose patience with you very quickly. Once you temporarily break them, and they become somewhat familiar with you and what you’re doing, that’s it for Newfoundland. You put them away for the winter.”
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But you still have to work with the horses and groom them every day.
“You can’t say, ‘I don’t feel like going to the track today.’ If you’re sick, you still get up and go to the track. The animals have to be tended to,” says Forward, who has trained somewhere in the neighborhood of 320 horses over the years.
There is an overwhelming sense of community at SJREC, with every horse owner only happy to help a friend in need. When the annual spring flood arrives, for example, there’s no squabbling over the care for the horses.
“It’s a family affair. There’s no, ‘How much is it going to cost to ship this horse out of here?’ or ‘How much money is going to take to fill your truck?’ The horses are taken out of the water and shipped wherever we can find a spot for them.
“It’s an unwritten rule here that we all look after each other.”
There’s very little breeding happening at SJREC so most of the horses at the track, and those which are trucked in from around the island on a weekly basis, were purchased throughout Atlantic Canada for anywhere for next to nothing to upwards of $5,000 or $6,000.
The cost doesn’t end there. Forward says the average horse in his barn costs $6,000 a year to maintain between licensing, feed, vet bills, and shoeing.
“The average horse here made $1,800 last year, so as you could well imagine, we’re not in this for the money,” says Forward, who is averaging 35 to 40 wins a year in recent seasons.
“It’s always been for the enjoyment of racing, the camaraderie. We are a different breed.”