Anticipation is building for this year's O’Brien Awards, to be held on Saturday, January 28 at the Hilton Mississauga / Meadowvale Hotel. The black-tie gala, presented by Standardbred Canada, will honour the best in Canadian harness racing from the 2016 season. It is the night that fans and industry participants will learn who takes home the prestigious hardware.
The O'Brien Awards annually celebrate the best in the sport. Harness racing media from across the country, race secretaries, track publicists, track announcers and simulcast hosts have voted for the winners, with two finalists in each category invited to attend the event, where envelopes will be opened and the winners will be revealed.
"We have won several O'Brien Awards and always look forward to a great evening as it's, in our opinion, the best awards program in the industry," said Jeffrey Snyder, co-owner of Beyond Delight, who is a finalist along with Sports Column in the two-year-old pacing colt category.
"Actually we were expecting to be nominated due to the horse's performance,” continued Snyder, 71, of New York, N.Y., “but it's always exciting to hear from Kathy (Standardbred Canada Industry Marketing Manager, Kathy Wade Vlaar) that we were nominated."
After a dream season in which her three-year-old trotting colt Marion Marauder won the Trotting Triple Crown, co-owner Jean Wellwood raved about the O’Brien Awards when asked earlier this month.
"I look forward to the evening,” said Wellwood, 78, of Stratford, Ont. “It is a spectacular event each year. My personal thank you to all the people who do all the work to make it such a spectacular evening!"
Wellwood stated that she was very pleased to get the call on ‘Marauder's nomination. "It [would be] an honour to receive an O'Brien Award for me, as Joe and Ilene (Joe O'Brien, the legendary Canadian horseman who the awards are named after, and his wife, Ilene) were very dear friends for many years.”
Bob McClure, who is a finalist for Canada’s top driver of 2016, said that he is planning on making the O’Briens a family affair.
“We don’t know yet if my son, Ryder, is coming, but my grandparents are buying a table, and I’m going to have a table with some friends, so there’s no shortage of room at the O’Briens for family,” said McClure, 26, who is a resident of Elora, Ont. “I don’t have a tux ready, though. I’ll have to go rent one.”
Walter Parkinson, the assistant farm manager for breeder of the year finalist Seelster Farms, has characterized the O’Brien Awards Gala as a regal pause during what is a very busy time of year.
"It is always an enjoyable evening," said Parkinson, who is a 38-year-old resident of Lucan, Ont. "It is great being able to catch up with so many people in one place. As we approach the start of breeding season and with the first foals starting to hit the ground, it is nice to be able to get away from the farm and celebrate the best in Canadian harness racing before life gets hectic."
Parkinson explained that Seelster being an O’Brien nominee is quite humbling for the entire operation. "It's certainly an honour to be a finalist for the O'Brien Award for Armstrong Breeder of the Year," said Parkinson. "We take a lot of pride in the horses that we breed and raise, and to be recognized as one of two finalists for this award is a great way to cap off a successful season."
Mel Hartman, who is part of the ownership team behind two-year-old trotting filly of the year finalist Magic Presto, also offered his praise.
"I read it (about the nomination) on the internet, to be honest with you,” said Hartman, 73, from Ottawa, Ont. “And I got a phone call from [Standardbred Canada] to let us know...We're very happy that she's one of the finalists."
A finalist with U.S. Two-Year-Old Trotting Filly of the Year Ariana G, Hartman went on to add, "We may not have the highest of expectations, but we're still honoured that she was nominated."
Conditioner Casie Coleman is no stranger to the O’Brien Awards Gala, as she has walked away with the trainer of the year award on five different occasions. Still, the night doesn’t get old to the 36-year-old Cambridge, Ont. resident.
"O'Briens is always an awesome night!” said Coleman, who is again a trainer of the year finalist, and also conditioner of Betting Line, another O’Brien finalist. “Whenever I get nominated I buy tickets for my whole staff to join me, as they deserve to be there as much as I do. Everyone's all dressed up and happy, the meal is always great, it's just a real good night to get to relax and reflect on all the awesome horses we got to race and watch race that past season.”
There will also be a pair of younger faces in the crowd at the gala, as Future Star finalists Brett MacDonald, 20, and Louis-Phillipe Roy, 27, will be taking in the evening as well.
“Some people go their whole career without being nominated for an O’Brien, I couldn’t believe it when [Kathy Wade Vlaar] called and told me I got the nomination,” said MacDonald, of Embrun, Ont. “It is still early on in my career, so the call was really exciting for me.”
Roy, a resident of Mont-Joli, Quebec, echoed the same sentiments, but he also stated that he has come to learn just how much of an honour an O’Brien nomination is.
“When I first got the call I didn't realize how big it was,” said Roy, “but then with all the people congratulating me and talking about the O'Briens, I realized how big it is. I’m thrilled to be going to the O'Brien Awards!”
A small number of tickets still remain for the 2016 O'Brien Awards. As a result, Standardbred Canada has extended the deadline to 12 noon (ET) on Monday, January 23.
To order your tickets, contact the Standardbred Canada Industry Marketing Department at 905-858-3060 (Ext. 207, 243 or 213).