Me and the Major: one reporter’s harness racing experience

Kenn Oliver
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Six-year-old stallion Major Venue takes Telegram sports reporter Kenn Oliver for a ride in a jog cart around the half-mile oval at St. John’s Racing and Entertainment Centre in Goulds. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Scott Forward never wakes up well rested on a Monday morning.

After a full day of racing at St. John’s Sports and Entertainment Centre Sunday, it takes him a long time to settle down at night.

“I can’t actually go to bed until 1:30 in the morning because my adrenaline is going all day long, even when I don’t drive,” says the lifelong horseman. “My son, Shane, is the same way. Everybody here is the same way.”

Kilbride’s Paul McDonald, a horse owner and harness racing driver of 12 years, says there’s nothing quite like the thrill of waiting for the gate car to drive off and let the horses open up along the half-mile oval in Goulds.

“For those two and a half minutes you’re on the track, you’re not thinking about anything else. Whatever you’ve got on your mind is gone,” explains McDonald.

To better understand where the horsemen were coming from, I tried my hand at harness racing earlier this week.

The result? Well let’s just say I’m scheduled to meet with my banker about an extension to my line of credit. Horses aren’t cheap, you know.

Before actually hopping in the cart, I thought it best to get a crash course in some of the common do’s and don’ts of harness racing. Pull on the left rein, the horse will turn left, pull right he’ll go right. Pull back and he’ll stop, Forward tells me. Keep pulling back and the horse will back up.

Seems simple enough.

“There are guys here who are no more than 130 pounds and they take some of the biggest horses we have here, one we categorize as pullers, and they can pretty well drive them with two fingers and the horse is nice and relaxed,” Forward says.

His biggest piece of advice? Relax. A horse, much like a dog, will know it if you’re not at ease.

“If you’re a nervous kind of guy, they’ll pick up on it and they’ll just run away with you. But if you’re cool and calm, these guys are like pussy cats.”

Easily-spooked, half-ton pussy cats.

At first, Forward’s plan was to take me out on one of the slower mares in his stable of horses using a two-seat jog-cart, a clunkier version of the sulkies or race bikes they use in competition. After a couple of laps, his intention was to hand the reins over to me.

But with a busy paving company to run, Forward was slightly delayed arriving at the track so the task of taking this admittedly-anxious sports reporter out for his first ride fell to his son, Shane.

See MAJOR, page B2

Rather than follow the old man’s plan, Shane figured it would be best for he and I to take out Major Venue, a six-year-old Stallion, one of the fastest horses in their stable and one with a mild, even temperament. After getting the horse cleaned up and harnessed, Shane and I hit the track.

Almost immediately, he’s offering me the reins. I take them, but I’m uncomfortable and Major notices. Before I can say pari-mutuel betting, the three of us are veering off the track towards the infield.

Shane takes the reins back and straightens us out. After some quick tips, he hands the reins back to me and Major starts to pick up the pace.

As we get ready to round the second corner at the far end of the track, Shane says, “I forgot Thomas Amusements were here. He might get a little spooked.”

Almost as if he understood what Shane said, the horse begins to veer towards the centre of the track, away from the noise of the rides and the squealing children. He also picks up speed and I feel like I’m losing control.

Again, Shane has to take the reins and settle things down.

Determined to get the hang of this, I take the reins once again. This time I make it around the track without having to relinquish control to Shane and after another spin around the oval, he hops off leaving me in full control of Major.

Before we set out, Shane had said that Major is accustomed to getting jogged every day, that he would take me for a nice slow jog around the track. Not on this day, not with a fancy pants sports reporter sitting in his jog cart to impress.

Major and I make it around the first turn without any issue. But he’s picking up speed. As we come past Shane, the horse seems to jog a little faster and we are nowhere near the outside of the track where we’re supposed to stay during a training jog. I’m starting to feel the burn in my arm and chest muscles (what little there is) as I pull back on the reins to slow Major down.

It’s not working.

As we come past Shane for a second time, he tells me to pull back a little harder. Harder? I don’t know if that’s possible and I start thinking about the story Forward told me about a guy who nearly put his horse and cart in Third Pond.

Quickly shaking that thought free from my mind was an altogether unpleasant odor. Forward had warned me about sweat and saliva flying back in my face, and about clay being kicked up from the horses’ hooves. He didn’t warn me about the hazardous fumes emanating from Major’s business end.

Not wanting to inhale too deeply or eat any dirt, I start breathing through gritted teeth and decide it’s time to bring our jaunt to an end. Now if I can only convince Major it’s time to stop.

After one more trip around, I manage to slow him down enough for Shane to quickly grab the reins and start leading us back to the barn.

After I hop off the cart, I begin to understand what Forward and McDonald were talking about. My heart is racing, my adrenaline is pumping and I’m sporting a mile-wide grin.

Shane asks if I’d like to take another horse out. “Not today,” I tell him, “but I’ll be back again.”

But next time, I’ll bring a gas mask.

koliver@thetelegram.com

Twitter@telykenn

Geographic location: Goulds

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