The word that best describes what's left of today's full time trainers in the Maritimes is:
"survivor". The definition of survivor in the dictionary states: to continue to function or
prosper despite; to remain alive after the death of; to continue to exist or live after.
With the closure of Sackville Downs in the 1980's and the competition for the gambling dollar,
keeping your head above water and surviving in Maritime Harness Racing for the past 20 years and in 2003 is not an easy task. Despite all the gloom and doom, Albert Bernard has remained a dedicated fixture in Maritime Harness Racing, and wears a few more hats besides his trainer's helmet to try and keep the sport alive.
As Albert states "Its become so tough to be a trainer in this day and age with rising costs for
everything, it's hard to charge the owners a higher fee because they have a hard time recovering
costs. When the lotto came in with scratch tickets, VLT's and the "Corner Store Gambling"
thing, we basically sat and watched on the fence as they took over the gambling dollar. I guess we were not organized properly to fight it at the time, we just let them take over and were basically left with nothing. The live wager at the tracks gradually dwindled. 20 to 25 years ago we were the only place to gamble and the live wager looked after the purses".
Times have certainly changed in Island Harness Racing. In it's hey day, the harness races on PEI were a community event where everyone converged. Putting the gambling dollar in the corner stores has not been a great bonus to society and gambling addiction has increased from this.
When Albert started into the business in the late 1950's - early 60's, working in his father
Emmett's stable, things were much better. "There were so many more big stables back
then, people like Joe Hennessey, Don MacNeill and H.B.Willis always had huge stables. My Dad and I always had a stable of 18 to 20 horses. There were a lot more people involved, more owners
around. Horseowners back then who would buy three horses nowadays will buy only one, because its hard for a race horse in the Maritimes to pay their way".
Albert was born in the harness racing hot bed known as Hunter River
in 1943, about the same time Emmett opened a public stable. He says
as long as he can remember his father always had race horses and so
did the neighbors and their families! Hunter River probably had the
most harness racing people per capita in Canada at that time. Top horsemen
like Jack Bernard, Cyril Smith and sons Elmer & Clarkie Smith, Allan
Smith and son Earl, Boyd Tremere and numerous part time horseman were
in the community. Albert got his drivers license in 1961 at the age
of 18. He spent the previous 5 or 6 years learning the ropes and warming
up the quiet horses on race days. He immediately showed his driving
talent winning his first two drives. A straight heat 1-1 summary with
the free-legged pacer Lea Cyclonic. Emmett told him before hand "Just
get him around if you can" as the horse had a habit of making breaks,
and he got him around twice without any problem.
Legendary harness racing personality Colonel Dan McKinnon had horses
in the Bernard Stable at that time and Albert said having Emmett and
the Colonel around were great mentors for a young guy. "The
Colonel was so competitive and very strict, he always stressed to me
- ‘do your best', and Dad, well ...he never lacked any confidence and
always thought he could win every race"!
After spending basically his whole young life around horses he decided to try something
different. So in 1963 Albert decided to move to Ontario. He married his high school sweetheart
Joan and spent 10 years in Hamilton raising two boys and working in a chemical factory. He became tired of the shift work life and with the horse bug biting hard in 1973, he moved back to PEI permanently. He did however keep in touch with the sport during those 10 years in Hamilton,
driving on PEI during the summer months on vacation and doing some training at the Ancaster fairgrounds in Ontario on the weekends.
Albert commented, "I sometimes feel I was born 20 years too soon, with Flamboro opening in the
70's and going strong now. If I stayed around a few more years I might have been part of the
current Harness Racing boom in Ontario".
On his return home he worked briefly for his father again, then opened his own public stable.
With eventually two barns full of horses, Albert won numerous driving awards at the Charlottetown Driving Park for both percentage and wins. He also won the Maritime Driving Championship on one occasion. The championship used to be an annual event back then. It was probably around this time that he also picked up the nickname "The Bandit". Albert explains "I used to go to the front a lot and try and get a breather in the middle part of the mile, I won a lot of races like that, so i guess someone said - "Your father was called ‘The Cowboy' so you must be ‘The Bandit', because you keep stealing races."
He had a string of nice young horses for Arnold MacLennan during these early years on his own,
including Beauty Greenwood - a mare that was never beaten on PEI soil. She won 11 straight races as a 4 year old on the Island, before moving to Blue Bonnets under the care of Benoit Cote.
Albert - "She often felt like she was all done around the final turn, but would find another gear
in the stretch drive".
The early 80's saw a boost in stakes events around the region so Albert's
focus switched to stakes colts from his stable of race horses. He had
a string of top stake horses during this time including the tough 3
year old pacing filly Enersave who Albert says "Was a real pain in the
ass, she kicked jog carts apart and I couldn't steer her or hold her,
but man was she tough. The Stanfield race that year was a good example
of how tough she was, I moved her three wide going to the half and she
spent most of the last half still out there three deep, but she just
keep on trying and won". This top filly won thirteen races that year
and beat the colts twice, winning the race off for the Duck Acorn and
winning the Battle of the Sexes race at Moncton - which matched the
top 4 fillies vs the top 4 colts. Spin N Dandy was the Atlantic Sires
Champion for two year old pacing colts in 1981, and gave Albert a great
sense of accomplishment when "Spin" raced in the Gold Cup and Saucer
as an aged horse. Being a Maritime bred in the classic race was a rare
occurrence in those days and even more rare today with the invasion
of Upper Canada's Free For Allers every year for the event. Speaking
of rare occurrences, it was also around this time that Albert had a
Moldau filly named Kilmuir Jewell, who won Atlantic Sires Stakes on
both the Pace and Trot as a 2 year old. Albert - "She won a stake on
the pace first, but one training day I had a thought. She always jogged
on the trot and began to trot more all the time, so I just turned her
and went the first trip on the trot. She went a mile around 2:40 pretty
easy, so I came in and told my assistants to put another set of bell
boots on her up front and a set of brace bandages behind, I'm going
the last trip on the trot. They both looked at me pretty strange that
day and along with the owner must have thought I'd gone crazy
when I came off the track and told him to send for her trot papers.
She went on to win a Trot stake and became a nice race horse in Montreal.
Probably Albert's greatest two year span in the sport would have to be 1986/87.
1986 was the year he had maybe his greatest performer outside the Maritime
circuit. Captain Jamie, a royally bred son by Speedy Crown, came to
Albert after 4 lifetime starts and numerous qualifiers in Quebec. Albert
was patient with him and felt all he needed was to get a bit of confidence
in himself. After a few starts he finally broke his maiden and from
there on reeled off 13 straight wins in the Invitational Trots around
the Maritimes. He broke the Sackville Downs track record that year and
raced himself out of competition. In fact, his last race in the Maritimes
was against a good class of pacers during the end of Old Home Week and
he surprisingly kept his win streak alive with a victory. Captain Jamie
went to Garden State Park after that race and eventually broke the track
record there for 4 year old trotters with a win in 1:57.2. His career
earnings ended up over $168,000 and he was a regular in the Invitational
Trot on the Meadowlands/Garden State circuit. In 1987, Ron Kennedy's
Dandy Gal won the first purse over $50,000 in the Maritimes. The daughter
of A C's Dandy won the Rothmans championship for 2 year old pacing fillies
that year for Albert in wire to wire fashion and set a new Maritime
standard for freshman fillies of 2:03.1. The 1980's also produced a
string of top trotters from the Bernard Stable: Mor Mac Amelia, Island
Kaptain, Luctows Flame and Rustico Sunset come to mind.
Although he had some good colts, Albert states that most of his luck has come with fillies.
The 90's produced two back to back PEI Horses of the year for Bernard, in Island Paragon and Island Ribbon. Albert - "Paragon was a great 3 year old, who was eventually sold at Harrisburg for over 40,000 American dollars".
Two year old pacing filly Island Ribbon would go on to be Atlantic Canada's
Horse of the Year in 1996, winning 12 of 14 starts and earning $55,737. She broke numerous track records that year (five to be exact) and became the first sub two minute two year old filly with her victory in the Maritime Breeders final. That race was one of the most gutsy displays by any Standardbred that I've seen. She had soundness problems throughout the year despite her success and it was getting worse by the time the $50,000 Final went to post. Despite her trouble getting around the turns that day and being three wide for part of the mile, she won the big race by seven lengths and established a new Maritime record of 1:59.3.
Unfortunately her soundness problems increased in her 3 year old campaign and she never regained the superstar status she had as a 2 year old.
Last but not least of Albert's top horses to mention is Stetson Any Size, who Albert says " Was
the nicest horse you could ever wish for, He was a gentle, sound, easy going sort who was
purchased in Ontario by Lowell Stead and Bob Craswell. He made the purchase money back pretty quick and went on to make over $200,000".
The son of Run The Table raced in three straight Gold Cup & Saucers and gave Albert and son Shane victories in some of the major Invitational races around the region. It was a sad day this spring when the veteran pacer suffered a freak brain aneurysm and died. He's the type of horse that can't be replaced.
As we mentioned earlier, Albert has worn many hats besides being a trainer/driver. He's been
involved with the Horseowners Association and been a director at the Driving Park for a number of years. His busiest involvement in the sport was definitely the year he spent as track president. I asked him to comment on this tenure: "Well, I had to look at things from a different perspective, you know ... what is best
for the racetrack, I had to make decisions in a different manner".
It demanded a lot of his time and he thinks it took away from his stable at the time, but states that it was an enjoyable experience despite the headaches and he got to see the industry from a different perspective. He feels he did a good job and noted that the track had their best year financially in a long, long time during his tenure.
In closing with our interview I asked him these questions: What's the state of the game today?
What does the future hold? and What advice would you give a new owner or young person getting into the sport today?
Albert - "At the present time the racing industry is in dire need of more stake money and
overnight purses for owners, trainers and breeders to keep it alive. If we don't we will end up
with only a few hobby horsemen on the Island, which is the trend of today's game. We have no young people coming into the sport today. As you know when you were growing up, there were all kinds of young people around the track and it was a lot easier to find help too. The overnight purses need to be at least 3 times higher than what they are today and the only way I foresee this happening is getting a structure similar to what the Ontario Government set up for the industry with slot machines. This new structure has moved the industry in Ontario to the top of the Harness Racing World".
"New Owners and young people getting into the sport? ...Keep buying lotto tickets,... ha, ha" Albert said with a laugh. "Seriously, if you want to become an owner the best way is to form a small syndicate. It doesn't cost as much with multiple ownership and you still get all the fun. Doug MacGregor and The Maritimers Stable are a great example. They are a group of friends who bought Bramalea Road and are having a great time being new owners, there should be more stables like that around".
At age 60, "The Bandit" today still keeps a busy schedule. He somehow finds time to train his stable, travel the Maritime circuit in the summer, spend time with his family and 4 young grandchildren, and still volunteer his free time for the betterment of the sport. Probably the greatest compliment about my father came during a tough family time - my grandfather's death. Although my mothers statement was about life in general, it certainly pertains to Albert's involvement in Harness Racing. She said "When the going gets tough, the tough get going, and your father always comes through".
- Shane Bernard
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