Magic Man Returns

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

Bill O’Donnell is one of harness racing’s most successful drivers and will be making his seventh straight appearance at the Central Huron oval’s biggest event of the racing season this Sunday, August 18.

 

 The native of Springhill, Nova Scotia formed one half of racing’s dynamic duo (the other being John Campbell) that terrorized race tracks across North America through the 1980's and is considered one of the sport’s first true ‘catch drivers’.

 

 "As a youngster growing up in the business I didn’t really think about becoming a driver," he recalls. "It was just something that evolved and I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time really with the opening of The Meadowlands in the late 70's. That really changed everything in harness racing and for me personally."

 

 O’Donnell remembers getting hooked on racing early, at the age of 8, while helping his uncle Art Porter at the former Maritime racing mecca of Sackville Downs near Halifax. From that point on he knew that there was nothing else he wanted to do.

 

 That path took him to Ontario at the age of 17 where he went to work for the late Ron Feagan before returning the next summer and working for the iconic Bill Wellwood.

 

 It wasn’t long before O’Donnell headed south of the border to Massachusetts where he landed a job working for fellow Maritimer Jim Doherty in the late 1970's. It was around that time that a new one-mile track was opening in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and little did he know at the time what an important role it would play in his career.

 

 "I remember Joe Defrank (Meadowlands’ Race Secretary at the time) coming to Rockingham and scouting some of the top local guys like Jim (Doherty) and Teddy Wing," he explains. "There was no one happier than me to see those guys go because I vaulted from about sixth in the driver’s colony to first that next season," he jokes.

 

 After honing his skills for the next couple of seasons at other venues like Rosecroft and Saratoga, O’Donnell finally made his first foray to The Meadowlands. By the time that second year rolled around, he was becoming more and more in demand and finally decided to try and make that his new home.

 

By 1984, he had become well established in the New York/New Jersey area and it was that year that fortune really smiled down on him. The legendary Billy Haughton was pointing a rookie phenom named Nihilator towards the $2 million Woodrow Wilson and made the fateful decision to pull himself off the colt in favour of the younger O’Donnell.

"I couldn’t believe it and I actually said ‘Bill are you crazy’?" he remembers vividly. "He said candidly that his eyesight wasn’t as good then and that he felt he was just a step behind the younger guys at that point in his career. It was pivotal for me and was probably a catalyst for the catch-driving movement at that time."

 

 Nihilator obliterated the field in the Wilson and went on to a career record of 35 wins from 38 starts and more than $3.2 million in earnings while winning everything in the sport along the way.

 

 By then, O’Donnell was at the top of his game and in huge demand in all of the sport’s biggest races. He would have the chance to sit behind some of the greats including Genghis Khan, Staying Together, Prakas, Napoletano, Troublemaker and Camtastic.

 

 He is just a few dollars shy of $100 million in career purse winnings and has steered the winners of more than 5,700 winners during his distinguished career. These days he splits his time between the horses and serving as President of the Central Ontario Standardbred Association (COSA).

 

 On Sunday, he will get a chance to renew acquaintances with several old friends (and rivals on the racetrack) including Campbell, Doherty, Ray Remmen and Ron Waples.

 

 "Getting to see all those guys again is much fun for me as anything. We were all very competitive when we raced each other but great friends off the track," he says. "This sport has given me much more than I’ve given it, so I always like to make time for events like this. The enthusiasm of the fans on this day is always fantastic and I can’t wait for it."

 

 The $15,000 Legends Day Trot and Ontario Sires Stakes action for two-year-olds will be the highlight races of the afternoon.

Fans will have an opportunity to meet this year’s legends and receive autographs starting at 2:30 p.m. There will also be live entertainment and pony rides and face painting for the kids.

The Pineridge Barbecue Chicken dinner is scheduled from 4 p.m. – 6 p.m. (tickets $15 each) and Legends T-shirts will be on sale for just $2. All proceeds, along with those from the silent auction that day, will go to the Clinton Public Hospital Foundation.

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