As the 2019 Ontario Sires Stakes season shifted into high gear last summer, trainer Gregg McNair would not have predicted that a fourth Johnston Cup title was in his future.
“There were quite a few disappointments last year. I had a bunch of them qualify kind of good and then they leveled out pretty good early in the year, so we had some ups and downs last year,” recalled McNair. “It wasn’t very well balanced — our stable — last year. But the ones that showed up for us, really showed up good for us.”
Among the horses that did deliver in the provincial program were two-year-old pacing colt Grassroots Champion Mayhem Hanover, two-year-old pacing filly Karma Seelster and two-year-old trotting colt Blue Cupertino, both Gold Series winners, and three-year-old pacing fillies Kylie Seelster, Sports Flix and Swift Ally, who finished second through fourth in the Grassroots Championship and won eight Grassroots legs between them. In total McNair and his team would send out 93 Ontario Sires Stakes starters, recording 15 wins, 18 seconds, 12 thirds, seven fourths and six fifths for provincial earnings of $640,376 and 231 Johnston Cup points.
“Our three-year-olds were as good as they could be really, I thought. They were strong at the end of the year,” said McNair, who also captured the Johnston Cup title as the Ontario Sires Stakes program’s leading trainer in 2012, 2013 and 2014. “Mayhem Hanover, he was a good horse all the way through for us, and Karma Seelster and Blue Cupertino, those horses were pretty steady all the way through for us.”
Mayhem Hanover, Karma Seelster and Blue Cupertino are slated to return to the Ontario Sires Stakes stage as three-year-olds, but McNair said worrying about their stakes season ranks well behind his concerns for the health and well-being of his family, friends and fellow horse people as North America deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had some ups and downs last year. But the ones that showed up for us, really showed up good for us.” — Gregg McNair
“We’ve got other things to worry about more than the horses right now,” said McNair, who is currently training 35 horses at his winter base just north of Okeechobee, FL, while his staff cares for 15 more in Ontario. “It’s nice if they train good, but geez, sometimes you’re even going along there and you’re not even thinking about what you’re doing; there’s so many other things to think about. And we’re all down here and away from parts of our family.”
McNair is not sure when he will shift the operation back to Ontario, but the resident of rural Guelph is hopeful that racing is among the earliest sports to resume once government and health officials feel it is safe to lift the restrictions on public gatherings.
“I kind of think the horse guys, they were almost one of the last, the tail end, to shut down in Ontario and I think, if everything is healthy and stuff up there with people, I imagine it will be one of the earlier businesses to start back,” said McNair. “I think if things half straighten around we’ll probably get up and running pretty quick, but there’s just so many unknowns about things.”
While the Ontario Sires Stakes is scheduled to open its 47th season on May 17 at Flamboro Downs with the first Grassroots leg for the three-year-old pacing colts and geldings, that date will depend on the province’s success at containing the COVID-19 outbreak. Without a firm date to aim for McNair has continued to jog and train his young horses on the same schedule they have followed all winter, but has eased up on their progression toward race readiness.
“We’ve just kind of got them held right the same speed they’ve been going,” he explained. “Normally they’d be down at maybe a bigger track right now and starting to school or qualify, anyways, they’re just at home here. It will be the same for everybody.”
Whenever the season gets underway McNair and his team will be ready to send out their Ontario Sired contingent, eager to celebrate all of the ups and downs the two and three-year-olds will face once the starting gate swings open.
Feature Photo: Doug McNair steers Mayhem Hanover to the 2019 two-year-old pacing colt Grassroots Championship (New Image Media)