Wednesday, 21 December 2016 17:39

Harness racing has always boiled in Dave Kelly’s blood

Written by Curtis Stock
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Harness racing has always boiled in Dave Kelly’s blood Creative Images by Tanya Romeo

His two grandfathers raced harness horses, his dad, Dave Sr., trained and drove harness horses. So did three uncles and later two cousins and his younger brother, Colin. And yet it is almost pure happenstance that Kelly, who was born and raised in Cape Breton Nova Scotia, finds himself as a successful full-time trainer and driver at Northlands.

“Things just fell into place. I came to Alberta with the intention of making a pile of money when oil was going strong,” said Kelly, who first came to this province in the spring of 2009 and went to work at Fort McMurray. “I wanted to make enough to pay for my tuition at Cape Breton University where I graduated with a business degree while majoring in accounting. “At that time there was never any intention of racing harness horses full-time.” But piece by piece one opportunity after another would present itself and fall like dominos.

After going back and forth between Fort McMurray from May to August and then home for school from September to April, Kelly got a job in Edmonton in the fall of 2014 as a pipe fitter for WorleyParsons. Never getting too far away from harness racing, Kelly would regularly go to Northlands on the weekends especially considering one of his cousins, Ryan Campbell, was racing there. Through Campbell, Kelly became fast friends with Philip Giesbrecht, who is currently tied for the lead atop the driver standings at the current Northlands winter meeting.

“I would help out Phil on the weekends and sometimes after work. “I bought my first horse from Phil in May of 2015,” he said of Carra Hoodoo, who he purchased for just $1,400 - the sale price also including a race bike. Like many of the horses he’s had under his care Carra Hoodoo took a new lifetime mark with Kelly at the controls. “It was just as a hobby more than anything else. It was something to do on the weekends and after work. Once you are involved with horse racing it doesn’t leave you. It’s like an obsession.”

But when the project Kelly was working on for WorleyParsons ended and the price of oil began to plummet even further he got laid off in July of 2015 and went back home to Cape Breton. In September, however, he came back to Edmonton “so in the event I did get a call for work I could be right there.” That’s when another big domino fell.

The call for more work didn’t come but a call from Greg Manning, another trainer at Northlands he had met through Giesbrecht did. “In October of 2015 Greg phoned me to tell me about a job opening training horses for Cathy Reid and Riverside Stables.” Kelly interviewed and got the job looking after their string of 10 horses. “I was out of work so I thought why not take the chance?

“At first I didn’t drive much for them. But then the second time I sat behind one of their horses it won a long odds. That’s when they started putting me on more and more of their horses.” Kelly had a very successful 13-month stint with Riverside - the horses he trained almost immediately climbing the class ladder. Then just a month and a half ago yet another domino hit the table. “As well as the horses for Riverside I was also training one of my own as well as a couple for Mike Dicks.

“Then Rick McAllister called me and asked if I would take over three of his horses. “That gave me six horses and that was the motivation to go out on my own. It was something I wanted to do so I took the shot,” said Kelly, who was chosen for a spot in this summer’s Western Regional Driving Championship at Century Downs and was also nominated for both a Rising Star Award and Driver of the Year.

With Kelly at the helm, one of the horses he trains for Dicks - Somewhereinmexico - has gone from a $7,500 claimer to winning a conditioned race in 1:54 and then jumping all the way up and winning an Open pace last month at Balzac’s Century Downs. But that shouldn’t be a surprise.  After all, Kelly, who drove in his first race when he was 19, has been auditioning for this spot for a long time.

“When I was about seven years old, my brother Colin and my older cousin Ryan would pretend we were drivers. “After our barn jobs were finished we would set up jog carts in front of the barn. Two of us would get in the carts and the other would take an old program, climb up to the hay loft and pretend to be the announcer.” Kelly could never get enough of harness racing. Another time - this time when he was about 12 - he and Colin and Ryan, who had the driver’s license, spent a week driving across Nova Scotia trying to get in all the harness racing they could.

“On Sunday we went to the Inverness track which was about an hour and a half drive. After the races were over we went back home and on Monday we drove to Truro which was about a three-hour drive. “We came back home, took Tuesday off, and on Wednesday we went to Inverness. Thursday it was back to Truro. Thursday they raced at Northside so we went there. Friday we went back to Truro. Saturday it was Northside and then on Sunday we really went at it. There was a 1:30 post at Inverness. And when the races ended there we jumped back in the car and drove all the way to Truro and made it in time for the 7:30 first post.

“We made a little money paddocking horses and that paid for the gas,” said the affable horseman. “If there was a race going some place and we could get to it we were going. “We were all horse crazy; we just couldn’t get enough of it.”

He still can’t.

“It’s in the blood. It’s something I just love doing. It’s not like work at all. Even if I was working somewhere else full time I would still want to go to the barn in the morning,” said Kelly, 27, who started jogging horses for his dad when he was just seven years old. “It’s not often you find a job that you like doing every day.” Kelly has been driving harness horses since he was 19 - mostly in Nova Scotia when he would return for the summer from University or for a few weeks when he wasn’t working at Fort McMurray.

“It was a hobby more than anything.” Not anymore. Now it’s his job.

As well as training his small stable, Kelly has become a much sought after catch driver. This year he drove 367 horses at Century Downs and came home the winner in 49 of them. He has added another six wins from 43 starts at Northlands.” With Gerry Hudon injured in a spill a couple of weeks ago at Northlands he’ll be getting even more drives as Hudon has pencilled Kelly as his replacement driver.

“I’ve driven in more races this year than I have in the previous five years combined.” One of those wins at Century was an eye-popper when at odds of 146-1 he steered Outlawburntpopcorn to a mammoth upset win in the Oct. 15 $56,000 final of the Marquis stakes final paying a record $295.10 for a $2 ticket. “It was the first time I had ever driven the filly for Rod Starkewski. I was just hoping to pick up a few stragglers at the end but she just kept on pacing,” Kelly said of the three-year-old who races for the Fun For Fans charity stable which raises money for a number of different charities.

“I just kept following the helmet of Phil Giesbrecht who was driving Glamorgal,” said Kelly. “He went two wide and I followed him. He went three wide and I kept following him. Then at the top of the lane I swung four wide. Everyone else was tired but she just kept digging in.” It was Kelly’s first stakes victory but the way he’s going it won’t be his last.

“Driving in Alberta is a lot different than driving in the Maritimes. They’re all half-mile ovals out there so the five-eighths mile tracks at Century and Northlands allow you to be more patient. “It’s pretty much run and gun in the Maritimes. I saw some stats one time that showed that horses that were on top after half a mile would win 68 per cent of the races at Northside and Inverness. You’ve got more choices out here. Every horse is different and every race is different,” said Kelly, who also shoes all of his own horses.

“And of course the money is a lot better out here. You cant make a career out of it back home because there just isn’t enough money to race for. My grandfather, Hartigan Campbell, once owned a horse called Presidential Rage that was voted Cape Breton’s horse of the year. He won six races, paced in 1:56 3/5 and only won $5,600 for the entire year.”

By comparison, Outlawburntpopcorn won $28,000 in her upset victory. Born, as he says, in a barn, Kelly once raced in a dash at Northside that had six of his relatives competing. “I was in it. My brother and my dad, who is a full-time carpenter, were in it, my cousin Ryan and two of my uncles - Rod Hurley and Bobby Campbell - were also in it. “Colin, who now races at Flamboro Downs in Ontario, got the bragging rights because he won it.”

Kelly said while it was a very circuitous path that brought him to Edmonton and to being a full-time trainer and driver, he’s in it to stay now. “I’d like to maybe get one or two more horses. This is my livelihood now. “It wasn’t expected. It was just going to be a hobby at first. Getting my university degree was always my first priority. But through meeting different people like Phil Giesbrecht and Greg Manning things just fell into place. The opportunities just happened.

“I wanted to have one or two horses race on the side. But it’s my career for at least the foreseeable future now. “It’s been a good ride.” A ride, one might add, that is really just beginning.

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