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Duncan MacTavish: An Appreciation
Thursday, April 10, 2014 - by Andrew Cohen

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“He was just a true horseman” -- John Campbell

There have been better drivers and trainers in harness racing and surely there have been those who were more successful for longer stretches. But appreciate him or not, remember him or not in his glory, Duncan Delbert MacTavish was a unique and unforgettable figure in the history of the sport. He died Monday in Ottawa, after a brief illness, at the age of 74, just before the Masters golf tournament he surely would have enjoyed watching; too young, it seems to me, for a man who, in the immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson, “stomped on the terra” of the only world he knew.

He was born into harness racing royalty -- the son of Del MacTavish, Sr., one of the ablest horsemen and sternest men anyone might ever meet. Duncan’s brother, Del, Jr., also was a horseman. In Quebec, in Ontario, at Saratoga, the family raced all over North America from their yearling base in Florida. But Duncan would always be associated with Blue Bonnets Raceway, on Decarie Boulevard in the heart of Montreal, where for decades he had a barn right near the jogging track at the edge of the backstretch. I can still see Daniel Jean, and Rae, and Edgar all there sweeping the straw from the stalls.

In 1966, at the age of 27, Duncan was named the Canadian Horseman of the Year. Never mind the horses, and there were scores of them worth remembering over the years, names like Fiddlers Fun and Knight Whiz and Duke Of Halifax and Rooster. During the course of his long career Duncan trained for owners like Irving and Herbie Liverman, Conrad Leber and Bill Cook, Hugh Proudfoot and Mel Astroff, Barrie Murray and Jack Kopas, Fred Laxer and Bob and Conrad Shapiro. I am quite sure I am omitting people from this list who deserve to be there.

He bought his best horse, Safe Arrival, as a yearling and never fully got the credit he deserved for that horse’s brave performances. A few years earlier, from the Lexington sale, he had wanted to buy Abercrombie but chose not to for reasons that today still make my mind want to melt. Duncan loved Lexington in the fall -- who doesn’t? And one of the fondest memories of my father’s life in harness racing was a trip there with Duncan one year to watch the fall trots. From Duncan my father learned the immutable truth that horses can race well and still not win.

Duncan could be a sonofabitch, there is no use denying that, and he got into his fair share of fights. Some were real and some were apocryphal. But he also had a heart of gold and was particularly wonderful around children. He had a long and wonderful marriage to an amazing woman, Frances, and it was obvious to me, both as a boy and later as a man, that they were truly in love. And as an established trainer, in a sport where envy sometimes plays a role, Duncan was particularly charitable to the young men around the track who were looking to make their way in the game.

Fred Grant, who now has his own stable, who trains and drives in Kentucky and elsewhere, told me Wednesday night how grateful he was for Duncan’s help at the start of his own career.

"Duncan gave me a chance to drive a few horses at Blue Bonnets when I stopped being a groom in the fall of 1974. He was such a great horseman. He was never known as a top driver and he never let on that he was a top driver. His father was where it all came from. I would just sit back and watch him and learn from him, at the gin rummy table and at the racetrack. He had a great eye for a horse. He and Benoit Cote were always the first choices that outside trainers and owners had when they wanted to ship their horses to Montreal."

Clay Horner, the prominent Canadian harness owner and breeder who is a few years older than me, and who grew up in the shadow of the MacTavish clan, also revered Duncan.

“The stories could fill a book,” Horner told me Wednesday. “One of my favorites was standing in line at Scioto Downs to get my Ohio license and being asked who my trainer was. With my reply of ‘Duncan MacTavish’ Mike Lachance stepped forward from about 15 feet behind me and said: ‘Nothing pleases me more than hearing that Duncan is back on the road with good horses.’"

Speaking of the Hall of Famer, Lachance, he told me one story after another late Wednesday after he learned of Duncan’s death.

"All my life I got along with him. He was a wonderful friend. He had a good heart. When I started to drive in the late sixties, he put me down at horses at Richelieu Raceway, some of the best horses he ever had. He always was ready to help.

"One year he did something for me that I’ll never forget. He had a good trotter, Silvern Hanover, and I claimed him for $40,000 which was a lot of money in those days. I told him before I did it, that if he put the horse in again at that price I would claim him. 'He’s not worth that money,' Duncan said, and for a while he was right.

"I couldn’t do anything with him. I couldn’t even qualify him. I qualified him and I made a break. I was on the list. So I had to try again. ‘Why are you qualifying him again?’ Duncan asked me in the paddock. ‘You need to race him at night.’ I told him that I was on the list so Duncan walked over to the horse and said 'You have to check him so high that you might think he is going to drown if it rains.' I qualified him that day. He was a different horse. I used that the rest of my life with trotters."

When I reached John Campbell late Wednesday night he was eloquent.

"The MacTavish family was Canadian racing when I grew up. From my family, my grandfather and my dad, we were friends and also competitors. But they were just such a big part of Canadian racing. That’s the first thought that I have. Before I even knew Duncan I knew from my family how important his family was to the sport. They were the fabric of Canadian harness racing in the fifties, sixties and seventies.

"And Duncan was such a good horseman. People didn’t always associate Safe Arrival with Duncan but that was his horse. I am not sure everyone realizes that. What a good horse he was.

"One of the funniest stories I can share is this. He had sent some horses down to Peter Seaman to race at the Meadowlands. They were decent horses. I qualified two or three of them. Duncan put them in to race and put me down on them. I picked against him and he didn’t know it. He called me up the day of the race, and he had no idea that I didn’t pick his horse, and he tells me all about the horse.

"And I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wasn’t on his horse, plus I didn’t want to hear him bitch about not taking his horse. And after the race he called up irate. He said 'I don’t mind that you didn’t take the horse but you let me go on and on telling you all about this horse and you weren't even driving him!' I laughed. We were close enough friends that I knew he would be pissed off but I also knew it would never come between us.

"We stayed in touch. He called me every time I got hurt. I never lost track of the fact that he was more concerned with how I was doing physically than how I was doing on the racetrack. He was just a true horseman."

Gerry Bloch, the longtime harness owner and bloodstock agent, who has been around the sport for over half a century, fondly remembers Duncan training and driving Bloch’s horse Nevele Dell to the first sub-2:00 trotting mile in Canadian history on August 25, 1967.

One of Bloch’s early partners in the business, Hall of Famer Murray Brown, who helped guide sales at Hanover Shoe Farms for decades and is one of the sport’s most beloved ambassadors, told me that a chance encounter with Duncan that helped launch his own life in harness racing.

"He was the very first horseman I ever met. Even though it was well over half a century ago, I recall the encounter vividly. I lived in Cote St Luc. I walked (illegally) through the Canadian Pacific Railway yards from there to Blue Bonnets. I found myself at the Del MacTavish stable. Duncan was there. I had no idea who he was, but we began talking. He told me he was a trainer-driver working with his father. Duncan was a very nice guy. He told me that he was racing a horse that night named The Monarch C. He felt the horse was good and he thought he could win with him. I had all of $2.50 in my pocket. I bet $2.00 on the horse to win. He won and paid something like $10.00. From that point forward I was hooked."

Finally, here’s my best story about the man who had such a profound influence on my life -- and my life with horses. In the spring of 1978 Duncan and I conspired to hatch a bold plan. He had a card full of horses one night at Blue Bonnets, including several good-looking 2-year-olds poised to make their debuts at the baby races, which in those days went off immediately before the pari-mutuel card. And he knew that I wanted to go to the races that night to catch the action with my dad. But it was a school night, and it was going to be a tough sell with Ma Cohen and Pa Cohen, so Duncan thought I might help my chances if I studied the program before making the pitch to my parents.

In those days -- and today, I guess -- you could get the next day’s program in advance. So Duncan arranged to smuggle the program to me, without my parents knowing about it, with instructions I’ll never forget: 'Take it to school, and study it, so that when your dad comes home from work tomorrow you’ll be able to explain to him why you want to go.' And I did exactly that. I think I even folded the program and put it into the back pocket of my jeans, the way I saw real horseman do it on the backstretch. And I took it out in class, and at recess, and I read it and showed it to my friends. And naturally it wasn’t too long before one of my teachers noticed that I was walking around school with a Blue Bonnets program telling anyone who would listen about racelines.

I got in trouble that day. And I never got to go to the races that night. And I don’t think most of Duncan’s horses did well anyway. But until I was a well grown man I don’t think I was ever more proud of myself than I was that April day walking around that elementary school with that program in my pocket. I was 11 years old. I was in grade six. And I was in the horse racing business. What could possibly have been better?

That is why Duncan MacTavish will always be a hero to me. And why I hope he’ll be remembered today and forever as one of the finest horsemen Canada ever produced.

Andrew Cohen, a journalist, is a Standardbred owner and breeder, who just got back from Lexington with his son.

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