As Scott Horner enters the paddock, the start of the Ontario Sires Stakes Super Finals is just minutes away, and the packed stable is a stew of sweat and anticipation. At most of the stalls, clutches of onlookers gaze up at towering standardbreds whose heads rise above the spectators like carved prows on great ships. But near the end of the row, where Horner's horse is tethered, the scene is noticeably different: A dozen men and women stand transfixed before a stall that initially appears to be empty. As Horner arrives, the wall of people separates, revealing, first, a pair of perky ears, then a tiny, deer-sized colt, his head barely cresting the stall's 1.5-metre walls.
"Is he sound?" Horner asks a nearby groom, bending to stroke the horse's hind leg.
"Yes, and he's sharp," is the reply. "He wants to race."
A few stalls away, Scott's brother Clay swaps stories with other owners and investors. There's Jim Bullock, former chief of Laidlaw Inc., and John Fielding, who made a fortune in cosmetics packaging. Clay introduces Fielding as the owner of 100 horses, but Fielding is quick to correct him: "200." Veteran Bay Street lawyers at Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, the brothers are used to dealing with the corporate elite. Of the two, M&A specialist Clay is the dealmaker, having advised Placer Dome and Inco during their recent takeovers. Tonight, however, no one is talking business. Tonight is about racing. The Sires Stakes Super Finals is one of the last harness events of the fall, 2006, season-eight races with a total purse of $2.4 million. And for many of the people here at Toronto's Woodbine Racetrack, the buzz is about the Horners' horse, an improbably diminutive champion named Doonbeg (Gaelic for "small fort").
Though the three-year-old colt stands a few hands shorter than the competition and suffers from an accountant's frailties-asthma and ulcers-Doonbeg has by this evening competed in 15 races in 2006, winning eight and placing in another six. With each victory, the legend of the little horse that could has grown.
This evening, the track is packed for a confrontation between the Horners' champ and his nemesis, Mr. Feelgood, a towering ebony colt that outdistanced Doonbeg weeks earlier at an Ohio fairground to take the Little Brown Jug, the Stanley Cup of harness racing. If Doonbeg wins tonight, he'll cross the finish line with nearly $600,000 in winnings for the year.
The pint-sized Doonbeg is the third horse the Horners have qualified for the Sires Stakes Super Finals, an impressive feat for the brothers, who started racing at a small club their father co-founded in Shawville, Quebec, back in the 1960s. Brent Horner was the advertising manager for the local paper, The Equity, but his first love was horses. If he wasn't training at the club or hauling his family to races in Ottawa or Montreal, he was swapping horse tales with friends at a local tavern-soirées that sometimes ended with Brent and his pals exchanging barstools for sulky carts, turning Shawville's sleepy streets into a scene from Ben Hur. Clay says his father dreamed of entering the big races, but "he couldn't afford to buy horses that were good enough to compete."
The brothers left Shawville and horses in the early '80s to pursue careers as lawyers. Clay, 47, the elder of the two, rose to become co-chairman of Osler and is renowned for his negotiating finesse. Scott, 44, operates more as a backroom lawyer, overseeing the legal minutiae of complicated banking and financing transactions.
During the late '80s, they decided they had enough money to seriously indulge their passion. Of the two, Scott spends more time at the track; he also has the most horse sense, with experience as a trainer and an eye for future racers. Clay approaches the sport more like a portfolio manager, studying bloodlines to target undervalued potential champions. "We thought if we could figure out these bloodlines we could be at the races we heard everyone talking about when we were growing up," Clay says.
Combining Clay's charts with Scott's horse smarts, the two picked their first horse at a Kentucky auction in 1989 for $10,000 (U.S.). Alas, the filly proved to be a racetrack dud. Undeterred, the pair kept buying, hitting the jackpot in 1995 with a one-year-old colt named His Mattjesty. By then, the Horners were handing their horses over to legendary Ontario trainer Stew Firlotte, who turned His Mattjesty into one of the sport's leading moneymakers in 1996, earning more than $1 million.
The brothers bought more young horses in the colt's family, eventually acquiring a tiny filly named St Mattrick's Way. She proved sluggish on the track, but the Horners were "in love with her family," says Clay, and bred her with Canada's most famous sire, Camluck. The result-in Clay's words-"this total midget." The midget, however, proved to have a heart as big as Shawville. Trained by Firlotte's right hand, James (Friday) Dean, Doonbeg stunned his owners and harness-racing fans, outpacing others nearly twice his size.
Tonight, even as Doonbeg makes his way onto the track for another round with Mr. Feelgood, the Horners are enjoying one of the most successful runs of their 18-year adventure. Earlier in the evening, Doonbeg's sister, a two-year-old filly named Rosapenna, placed third, and another relative, Domitian Hanover, also seized a win. Despite these victories, it's clear that if their prize entry doesn't win this last race, they'll leave the track disappointed. The brothers may own 10 horses, but only one horse owns them.
As the race begins, Scott, Clay, Brent and their extended family squeeze onto a windblown observation deck. Not long after the start, they watch Doonbeg disappear into the pack. As the horses narrow into a long line, he re-emerges near the rear, the seventh of 10. At the lead is Mr. Feelgood, who holds the position for more than half a mile.
Eyes trained on his trailing champion, Clay rocks back and forth on his feet, hissing, "Come on, come on, Doon!" Next to him, Scott doesn't appear to be breathing.
At the three-quarter-mile post, Doonbeg's driver makes his move. Doonbeg cuts to the right, and when he hits the final stretch, tears past horses that seem to be going backward. His short legs blur, taking him past taller, labouring competitors. As Doonbeg surges ahead, Clay and Scott abandon their lawyerly reserve, hurling raw, guttural roars in the direction of the track below. "Doon! Doon! DOON!"
Doonbeg, meanwhile, is eating up the track, pulling his sulky and driver past horse after horse until, finally, he charges past the spent Mr. Feelgood, finishing almost a full length ahead of the defeated pack.
On the deck, the Horner clan hug and bounce up and down, remaining entwined as they make their way down to the winners' circle. Track reporters pepper Clay and Scott with questions about the next event of the season, the prestigious Breeders Crown. Will Doonbeg vie for the title?
There will be no official answer this night, but the Horners have already decided. Doonbeg will not race again until next season. "I want to savour this victory all winter, " Clay says.
Clay and Scott Horner What was your first job? Clay: Bagging groceries at W.A. Hodgins Store in Shawville, Quebec. Scott: Prepping two yearlings, Pontiac Ada and Pontiac Addie, for sale by their owner. What's your current bedtime reading? Clay: Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land and David Nasaw's Andrew Carnegie. Scott: Robert Parker, Jr.: The World's Greatest Wine Estates. Favourite movie? Clay: Seabiscuit. Scott: Seabiscuit. Biggest regret? Clay: Not taking a year off after university to travel. Scott: Not following my heart and becoming a horse vet.