As the end of the 2022 harness racing season was approaching, driver Doug McNair already had a list of achievements worthy of an O'Brien Award nomination, but there was no letting up as the Guelph, Ont. reinsman pushed right to the wire to reach new heights.
Throughout the year, McNair checked off many significant accomplishments that contributed to him being voted an O'Brien Award finalist in the Keith Waples Driver of the Year category. But entering the final stretch of the season, he noticed a new goal was within reach and his competitive nature kicked in when he saw that he was closing in on the $7 million mark in seasonal earnings.
"I've never made seven million before,” McNair told Trot Insider. “So, I kind of worked out a little bit, made sure I didn't miss too many days and I ended up getting that just before the end of the season.”
McNair hit the mark in late December on the penultimate program of his 2022 campaign and ended with a career-best $7,045,371 in purse earnings.
"When you're kind hovering around [a milestone] – whether it's five million or one million or two million – when you're kind of there, it's nice to chase it a little bit. It gives you something to look forward to.
"Some guys don't care about stats... It would’ve just drove me nuts if I’d just seen 6.950 [million] or something," said McNair, who is fuelled by the competition he faces racing against the sport's leading driving colony at Woodbine Mohawk Park. "I'm always checking – and not just mine, everybody's – I like to keep an eye on everything and it just kind of makes you want to get to the races and win races, that's for sure."
McNair certainly won his fair share of races – 305 to be exact – including a victory in a race that was instrumental in launching his career. The 33-year-old reinsman teamed up with Ontario-sired pacing gelding Sounds Good, trained by his dad Gregg, to win the $204,000 Battle of Waterloo on Industry Day, Aug. 1 at Grand River Raceway. The special moment sparked a flashback to when he first won the race 15 years ago.
"That's one of my favourite races to win; it’s kind of my home track and that's kind of where I grew up, around Fergus," said McNair, who has now won the Battle of Waterloo five times. "My first year, I was only 18. So, I’ve always liked that race. Probably because I have a lot of luck in it, too.”
McNair’s success in the provincial stakes program also included 11 Ontario Sires Stakes Gold events and was capped off by a $225,000 Super Final score with O’Brien Award finalist Silver Label in mid-October. McNair picked up the catch-drive midway through the year as the Nick Gallucci-trained sophomore filly stepped out of the shadow of her award-winning stablemate Prohibition Legal.
“She was a nice pickup,” said McNair. “She was the best three-year-old pacing filly of the year last year in Canada, that's for sure. She had the nine-hole in the Breeders Crown and she finished fourth, beat less than a length. She was no slouch.”
The Super Final was one of McNair’s highlights in part because he was able to deliver a big win for owner/breeder George Millar.
“We go way back; he had horses with my dad when I was like three years old or four years old. I remember he used to come out and train the horses all the time and I'd sit in the car with his dad, George Millar Sr. I mean, that was kind of special. We finally get out to the winner’s circle, and I was talking to George and said, ‘This one is for your dad.’ ...I was always around those guys, I won races for them, but never big races. It was fun to win a big race.”
Another big thrill for McNair followed a couple weeks later in the $540,000 Breeders Crown when pacing mare Grace Hill defeated divisional heavyweights Test Of Faith and So Much More in a stakes-record 1:48.4 mile.
"Those are tough races to get in, let alone win," he noted, acknowledging another long-standing relationship that led to his Grand Circuit highlight. "I have a lot of history with [owner] Tom Hill. I drove a lot of horses for him over the last 10 years. When the pandemic was on, he let me drive Party Girl Hill. She’s the best filly ever, maybe, and I was fortunate enough to drive her... But, again, you're in the right place, the right time. They sent her up for the Milton [and] didn't send a driver with her because it was an elimination and she ended up winning."
Topping off his highlights, McNair turned in a dominating performance in the National Driving Championship, held at Century Mile in November. The achievement, which was widely viewed across Canada and landed him an invitation to this summer’s World Driving Championship in Europe, is one that he feels set him apart from his competition and helped clinch the O’Brien nomination.
"It was a great season. Anytime you’re recognized for Driver of the Year is obviously a good thing. There's a lot of good drivers out there and the stakes are real big here to be nominated. I just was fortunate enough to drive a lot of good horses this year for all the top trainers – that's the main part of it, getting all the power.”
Despite his personal-best achievement and all of his stakes success, McNair, who was named Canada's Driver of the Year in 2017, is not expecting to take home another trophy at the O’Brien Awards Black Tie Gala on Feb. 4, recognizing defending champion James MacDonald's season-leading stats.
"James’s numbers are obviously a lot better than mine, but it was funny, he never won a Super Final or Breeders Crown [this year]. They're all up here. And he still made $9 million. He had a huge year so I'm not really going to the O'Brien Awards expecting to win."
Win or lose, McNair is looking forward to attending Canadian harness racing's most prestigious event honouring the stars of the season.
"It's a fun night. And I don't know, how many drivers have driven in races in Canada for many years that didn't get nominated? So, it's an honour just to be nominated, that's for sure. They're tough awards to win and they're tough to even be nominated for. It was a nice long year and you just kind of get excited for it.
“And hopefully it’s not my last one.”