It’s the last day of March 2023 and while there have been hints of spring, on this morning wet snow is falling on the Woodbine backstretch. But inside barn 35, Don MacRae and his dedicated staff at D-Mac Racing are prepping some two dozen Thoroughbreds for the upcoming season, set to begin April 22.
Don, who has been training since he was a teenager, is excited to begin his 29th year as a trainer. A husband – wife Leigh Anne is an integral part of the stable – and father, Don will finish the morning training and head off to play in one of his weekly house league hockey games.
We caught up with Don at the end of his morning training duties:
Where were you born and when did horses come into your life?
DM: I was born in Hamilton. Horses have been a part of my entire life, it’s in my blood. My dad owned a few Standardbreds. I still have a photo here of me at the age of two sitting in the back of a sulky. I have always loved animals and loved being around horses. From Grade 10 and on, working with horses was going to be a given for me.
When did you decide you wanted to train Thoroughbreds?
DM: My dad bought a piece of a Thoroughbred and when I was 16 through to 18, we had five horses of our own with other trainers helping us. I think we had something like 18 top three finishes from 22 starts. I had always thought I would go to college or university but when my OSAP (Ontario Assistant Student Program) cheque came in, I ripped it up. I took my trainer’s test at 18 and the rest is history.
In your first two years as a licensed trainer, at Fort Erie in 1995 and ’96, you did not win a race from 31 starts. Did that discourage you?
DM: I got drilled! My dad and I had done so well but as soon as I got my license, I got humbled like you can’t imagine. But it was good for me. It set me back on my heels, but I am a confident person.
Don won eight races in 1997 and his first winner was the filly Dawlish, who won at Fort Erie for owner James Alessi. The young trainer was on his way. Through the next decade Don was prominent on the leading trainers’ standings at Fort Erie and also kept busy in the winter months, racing at Mountaineer or Charles Town. He also had horses make occasional starts at Woodbine and by 2009, he was ready to permanently set up shop at the country’s biggest track.
One of Don’s specialties was seeking out improving horses to claim and one of his first big success stories was plucking the filly Acting Naughty from a $40,000 maiden claiming race in 2011 for owner John Hillier. Acting Naughty went on to win the Grade 3 Whimsical Stakes and earn some $400,000. Another sharp claim was Puntrooskie, also taken for $40,000, who won the Grade 3 Bold Venture stakes in 2016 for his D Mac Racing Stable, Michael Lay and Michael Loughry. The two Michaels have been long-time clients for Don. One of his newer owners is La Huerta of the father-son team of Jim and Graeme Bruce. It was with La Huerta’s Avoman, a yearling purchase in 2019, that Don won his biggest race in 2021.
What are your favourite moments from the last couple of years?
DM: The birth of my daughter Blake Olivia was number one. And Avoman’s Plate Trial win in 2021. That was a pretty big deal. Any time you can win any race at Woodbine is great; this is a very tough business.
You claimed quite a few horses in 2022, was that by design?
DM: Graeme Bruce called me and said that he and his Dad had a lot of fun claiming horses in the past and that we should do more of it. So, we went on a little spree. Between La Huerta, Michael Lay and myself I think we claimed 12 horses and 11 of them won.
You own shares in most of the horses in your barn. Why is that?
DM: Michael Lay instilled that in me. It gives confidence to my owners. I’m nowhere near wealthy so when I put up a little bit of money, I need my horses to produce. The big thing for us is having a lot of top-three finishes. And we are pretty consistent over the years. I have a great staff and I am always pretty happy at the end of the season.
You have had success with drawing new owners into the Ontario racing industry. And our industry certainly needs more owners. How can we do that?
DM: I think the industry is on the way back up and with the building of the expanded casino at Woodbine, that is sure to bring more people to the property and draw interest.
I do think we do not market the game properly, however. Things like dragging out post times of races; no one wants to sit and wait 35 minutes between races. We need a bit more of a rush or people get bored.
You seem to have a lot of fun being a trainer and owner in horse racing. Do you want to get bigger?
DM: Being a successful trainer is about what you have in your stalls. It’s a tough game. I enjoy having happy banter with other trainers. We always chirp to each other, but you have to be mindful too, this game can humble you. I will have 24 horses this year and that is enough. I see my best friend, Kevin Attard, and all the horses he has and it’s tough. That isn’t for me.
Don MacRae has 48 stakes wins, 563 wins from 2,556 starters for a career 22 percent win average. It’s a good bet his horses will be ready to roll when the season opens.