Harness: Profile of driver/trainer Anthony MacDonald

Derick GiwnerMar 03, 2022

Derick GiwnerAnthony MacDonald has well over 3,000 wins as a driver and 420 training victories.

Anthony MacDonald has been a trainer and is currently a driver but his major impact in the Standardbred industry has been as the founder of The Stable fractional ownership group. With over 925 owners involved with at least 1% in over a hundred horses, MacDonald feels The Stable is a model for the future of the sport.

MacDonald, who has been involved in harness racing since he was a kid, lives in Ontario and often commutes to Ohio to visit his Buckeye operation. While his schedule can be hectic, he took the time to sit down and discuss not only his journey in the sport and The Stable but also racing in general.

How did you get started in harness racing?

I’m from a small island called Prince Edward Island and the local race track we went to every week was Charlottetown Driving Park. My mother took the pictures at both tracks on PEI. My father was a college professor but he also wrote the sports section in the newspapers. PEI most Saturdays and certainly every Saturday during the winters had a very strong following of harness racing because other than hockey there wasn’t much else going on. My brother Mark and I found ourselves at the track most Saturdays, my father was there and my mother was working there. My father also had a broodmare, he loved horses and we were always around them. So the opportunity to work with horses — we were both about 13 or 14 years old — when we didn’t have school or during the weekends, was interesting.

Was there ever a chance you wouldn’t be involved in the sport?

Not looking back on it. When I was in politics someone asked me the same thing and it really never dawned on me to do anything else. A lot of the kids who come to help us part time, they don’t know what they want to do. They are just killing time more or less. My brother James came into harness racing the same way. He was exploring marketing and accounting in University and was just killing time here with us while trying to figure his life out. I always thought it was kind of cool that Mark and I always knew what we wanted to do. I don’t know if it was because we didn’t open our eyes or we just loved it that much.

You have strong family ties in the sport with brothers James and Mark as drivers. Can you talk a moment about family in harness racing?

Most people in the past fell in love with horse racing because they were grandfathered in. That is the underpinning of most of the problems that horse racing has. The people who loved the sport came about it in the most traditional way. We never focused on marketing and advertising to bring new people into the sport because it never dawned on us. It wasn’t until a much later date that we realized the rest of the world moved on without us that there was a problem. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were a lot of sons who had fathers involved in the sport. I think when you look now, especially at the breeding farms, so and so passed away and the son or family sold the farm. They didn’t have the same love for the sport as the generation before them. Maybe they just woke up and realized it is a lot of [expletive] work. Some of us decide we’d rather not have our kids involved in it that way. I find myself thinking that way sometimes also. I think there are a lot of aspects in horse racing that are really bad for the sport, whether it is not bringing up our kids to love the sport the same way that we did or not helping them foster that love into an occupation. I just don’t think you see that same family atmosphere anymore. Where I saw a lot of that was in New Zealand when I spoke there. I didn’t realize how little there is of it in North America until I saw it over there.

James just won an O’Brien as Driver of the Year for 2021. What did that mean to you?

It meant a lot to me because I’m very proud of all of my brothers. They all work hard and do pretty well. James touched on it in his video the other day. A lot of people think I played a big role in James being James, but I don’t think I did. I think I pushed him to be the best he could, but I think any brother would do that for any other brother. I gave him the opportunity to do something that I loved if he loved it. For him to be able to pick it up and turn into the best driver in his country, and frankly a world-class driver, is really special. But that falls on him. I certainly didn’t teach James MacDoanld how to drive.

Can you settle the argument over which MacDonald brother is the best?

That’s a funny question, but it is a loaded question. I see a lot of Mark in James, but truth be told, James got an opportunity to do well from the start. He had to work his ass off, there is no doubt about that, but Mark and I came from nothing. We grew up and got our license in a place where we were English kids surrounded by French people, and you can only imagine the horses we got to drive. Driving and earning a living driving meant two completely different things, at least to us back then. That’s not to take anything away from James. He’s the best driver in Canada right now and Mark was the best here for quite a while. I think they are very similar and approach races very similar. For Mark to overcome what he has is a totally different and interesting story, but both are fantastic drivers.

What kind of car do you drive?

Cadillac ST4.

Favorite dinner meal? Snack?

Pizza or Steak; Chips.

What is your favorite track to race at? Why?

There are a number of tracks I like to race at. Everyone always asks me why I like to drive at the fairs all the time. It is because I like that small-town feel. I grew up in a small town and we always search for what we liked when we were kids. At the same time, there was a point where I would’ve cut off any one of my fingers or toes to drive at The Meadowlands or Woodbine full-time. So I guess I like both types.

What is your favorite big event in racing? Why?

I’m supposed to say the Gold Cup and Saucer because I’m an islander but I’ve been beaten in it so many times it has me beat down (laughing). I would say the atmosphere around the Gold Cup, Hambletonian or North America Cup is all the same. There is something in the air. There are four or five big races in North America that get you out of your seat. If I had to pick one, the Gold Cup.

How often are horses or racing on your mind?

Every waking second of the day. I’m always in go mode until my eyes are closed for the day. I’m always sending emails or talking to people.

What is your favorite thing to do outside of harness racing?

I love going to the movie theater. There was a time when Amy and I were still dating or freshly married, there wouldn’t be a movie in the theater that I hadn’t seen already. Stepping back and looking at my life, maybe it is one of the rare ways when I can turn things off and not have to worry about the things around me.

What is your favorite sport to watch? Team?

Baseball (Toronto Blue Jays) and Football (Minnesota Vikings) . I didn’t play hockey as a kid but I’ll watch it if it is on.

What is one thing about you most fans/bettors don’t know?

I don’t think there is a piece of my life that anyone hasn’t seen. I’m rarely stumped but I think you got me here.

What is one word that describes harness racing for you?

Exciting.

You founded TheStable.ca as a fractional ownership group to bring new people into the sport. Do you feel it has been successful?

I don’t think it has been nearly as successful as it should be at the moment. I think the premise of the stable is new to the industry. The idea of what it can be is different to everybody. I couldn’t be more sure of anything on this planet then that fractional ownership is something that can save this industry.

You sell The Stable as an entry point for new people. Do you find that many are increasing their interests outside of the fractional umbrella?

Sometimes. We try to have a big umbrella, but at the same time, it is not for everyone. The idea that I’m telling someone they won’t make money is not really interesting to some people. The entertainment value factor of horse racing is plenty, but at the same time maybe someone is after a little more. Some people like claimers and we race them, but we don’t really cater to that crowd. The biggest thing I’m proud of is that our stable is a massive gateway and bridge from society to horse racing. Even if you don’t like what we do, hopefully you still like racing and there is someone in this industry that can provide that for you.

You often fly from location to location to drive The Stable horses. Why not just save the costs for the participants and use a catch-driver?

We do use catch-drivers sometimes. In most instances it involves 2-year-olds and I know everything about them. When the horses are in a position that I believe anyone can blindly jump on and drive them, they will, but when it comes to the horses being a little quirky, I think I have something to offer. I think it is important that 2-year-olds have stability. Also, if we were to use a catch-driver, I don’t think we have the clout to nab a top driver all the time. We haven’t had a world champion that someone would want to be glued to so we’d have to jump around from person to person.

What’s your airline of choice?

I find myself flying with American Airlines most of the time. Then I flew United the other day and it was good too. Like with horses, I look for value.

Right now you have two major bases of Ohio and Ontario but also have horses from many other states. How do you keep up with all of it?

The backend of our site is pretty complex and we have good people who work for us. I’m back and forth right now getting horses in Ohio ready, trying to figure out where the horses sit on the totem pole and whether we will keep them or they will move on. I’m very lucky to have my brother James here [in Canada], Johnny McKinnon has done a great job, Harry Poulton, Jason McGinnis, Mario [Baillargeon], and obviously my wife is stationed here. She plays a pivotal role when it comes to the babies. I also just hired a good friend of mine who is going to play a pivotal role. If you ask anyone in the business they’ll tell you that success comes from the people around you not just yourself.

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How many horses do you currently have in The Stable and how many are you personally working with?

We have 122 horses. My job this time of year is mostly to work with the youngsters who aren’t doing it right or are struggling getting through some of the hurdles. Today I went to school at Mohawk because James couldn’t get over there. If there is a problem in the barn, I’ll be there addressing it, but for the most part the people we’ve hired have more than enough ability to handle most everything.

Of those, how many are 2-year-olds?

61.

Do you school all of the 2-year-olds yourself?

Yes. Obviously, again, some James will go with, or someone else. Our goal is to get them to the point where anyone can go with them, but some are a bit quirky and those are the ones I end up working with for a while.

It looks like you have 10 horses with shares currently available. If you had to recommend one to those reading, which would it be?

There are two that catch my eye. There is a Donato Hanover colt named Fashion Presidente that I don’t ever go with. He is doing things very well. Another horse I don’t go with and James does is an Illinois-bred colt named GJS Atm. Illinois is obviously in a rebuild and currently it is mostly a jurisdictional program, meaning you won’t see many of them stepping on to the national stage, but it takes time. This colt trains in some of our better sets some days and doesn’t look out of place. He has caught my eye from the periphery. When I watch the videos, he’s one that I always ask myself ‘who is that?’

Do you feel like the horse quality in The Stable has risen since you started?

I think that goes without saying. I think our goals and operating model has changed quite a bit; it has to be fluid. When we started it was do the best we can to get some affordable horses in the barn and see what we can do. The following year it was a little better and a little better. I think horses like Lawmaker, Cruising In Style and White Tiger have really helped us move forward, and last year at the end, Threepointbluechip. Every horseman wants the opportunity to train good horses and see if they can do on the world stage. We have proven that 1) we get most of our horses to the races; 2) we work really hard; 3) they show up pretty good on the track. We have better horses now with better pedigrees, a bigger client pool, people that are looking to do more in the best way. The most important takeaway from The Stable is that almost all of the money involved is discretionary funds. We constantly council our clients not to take money out of their 401k, not to take their kids’ education or retirement fund to invest. That is a terrible idea. But if you want to have the most fun you’ve had, we might be the place for you. At the end of the day, this is the rarest stable on earth completely built with people who want to be involved for the right reasons.

Where do you see The Stable going from here?

Up! I think people are going to start to have to pay attention more closely. More trainers are going to try to do it. I hope they do and I’d be happy to help them. It will help more people from the general public be involved in racing. I think our game has a real chance to start growing again. You can’t look at what we’ve accomplished, how we accomplished it and the scale we did and not think the sport can’t grow. It is a model that fits our industry in the year 2022 and beyond.

You have 3,232 wins as a driver and 420 as a trainer. What do those numbers mean to you?

Not really a lot. There are hundreds of people with better records than I have. I’m managing a giant stable with lots of trainers under us and I want to see them all do good. As far as driving, my catch-driving days are over, they might’ve been over before they started (laughing). There is always somebody who will rewrite the record books. We all start out thinking we are going to be John Campbell or Bill O’Donnell and we figure out very quickly we’re not. If you are really lucky, sometime along the way you fool yourself into thinking you are. Driving horses for me was everything when I was young. It was my livelihood, it put food on the table. It gave me a sense of belonging, but it doesn’t play that role anymore. Now it is about trying to help that horse and our clients, but when the race is over I’m going to eat with my family.

Are you a better driver or trainer?

I think I was a decent driver and a decent trainer. I don’t think I ever woke up thinking I was a great driver or trainer, which is step one to continuing to be a good driver or good trainer. If I was a hockey player, I was the guy on the third line who maybe a kid had my hockey card when he was younger. Nobody is going to remember Anthony MacDonald for driving or training horse, but hopefully they remember The Stable and the impact it has had for the industry.

What is the best advice you’ve ever gotten or given about harness racing?

An old guy would say this to me all the time: ‘You have to know when the race is over.’ Obviously what he meant by that is you have to be able to move on and turn the page quickly because you are going to lose more than you win. Knowing that both in your personal life and racing goes a long way.

What was your best moment in harness racing?

I think my best moment was when I had to make a choice what I was going to do in 2012 when the Slots at Racetracks program collapsed. I knew if I got elected that my racing career was over, but I knew what would happen if I didn’t try. Looking back, I said it in a speech one time, ‘what do I say to my kids if when they get old we talk about harness racing and ask me what I did to save the industry and I can’t answer them with a straight face.’ I think the proudest I ever was is the day I made the decision that I loved horse racing more than racing horses.

Which is the best horse you’ve ever trained or driven?

The greatest horse I ever trained is hopefully in my future but the one we trained last year had a lot of talent. I haven’t been fortunate to spend a lot of time on the world stage, but winning the Matron with my brother driving Threepointbluechip was a real eye-opening moment for a lot of people. It showed how good of a driver James MacDonald is and that our model works and you can get a good horse.

What is the plan for Threepointbluechip this year?

Blue Chip Farms always had a stake in Threepointbluechip and they bought a bigger stake of the colt. He is training with Julie and Andy Miller right now and hopes are high for him. We will continue to manage him the best we can. He’s proven he can go with some of the best colts in the country. Does that mean he will grow up and be one of the best colts in North America? We certainly hope so. But my focus is on the 122 horses we have in our care and most definitely the 61 babies.

If you had the power to change one thing in the sport, what would it be?

I can tell you the thing the industry needs to move fluidly is to change the licensing practices of every jurisdiction in North America. It costs me $0 to be an owner in Australia. This is very important. The reason out of 122 horses only three of them are New York breds is because New York makes it exceedingly difficult to become an owner in its state. That will eventually be everyone’s undoing. If you give anybody a reason not to be an owner, many of them simply won’t. We need to open the eyes of the people in the industry so they see that we have significant hurdles that keep people from becoming willing and happy participants in our industry.

How do you view the future of harness racing?

I view it as bright, but I’m an eternal optimist. I see an industry full of hardworking wholesome people. Once they figure out that there is a better way forward for our industry, it will explode. Sure, we’ll have our hurdles and points of contention, but at the end of the day the product is exciting. From an entertainment standpoint, dollar for dollar, you can’t be entertained anywhere more affordably than harness racing, and once we start marketing this industry for what it is, people will start seeing that.

If you weren’t involved in harness racing, what would you be doing?

I guess I’d be in politics.

Time for the stretch drive…

Best Horse you ever saw: Obviously this is a generational question. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more gifted animal in my life than Somebeachsomewhere.I wasn’t here for Albatross, Nihilator, and so on.

Lasix — Yes or No?: Absolutely, yes.

Favorite TV Show?: I like Blue Blood and drama TV, but at the same time I’m a Star Trek guy also.

Trotters or Pacers?: Trotters. I want to believe that horsemanship plays a bigger role in trotters. At least in my mind if you can do well with trotters it’s an added feather in your cap.