If your end goal is to track down some of the more colourful characters of local sports, there are a lot worst places to start than with a gathering of local horsemen.
From the grand opening of Sudbury Downs in 1974 (and even before), to the closing of racing at the facility less than a decade ago, many were the folks who could spin a yarn that could captivate a room.
Few, however, do it better than one Sandy Best.
"On the old tracks, we never went more than four wide leaving the gate, and if there was a five, a six or a seven horse, they trailed the front group out," recalled the 68 year-old, who along with his wife (Marsha), still calls Azilda home. "That always made for great accidents, you know."
"You couldn't see for the dust and somebody would have a yahoo horse - it made for quite a show."
Yep, few in Northern Ontario are more linked to the tradition of harness racing than the Gore Bay native who followed in the footsteps of both his father (Borden) and his uncle (George).
"My dad was 45 (years old) when I was born - I was a late foal," said Best. "I didn't have the early years with him, but in the later years, he had more time, so I got dragged around a lot. I started going to the races fairly young."
For those who can only relate to the Sudbury harness racing scene based on the arrival of the Downs, smack dab in downtown Boninville, there is a rich if somewhat eclectic history to be missed.
"If it hadn't been for the racing in the late fifties and through the sixties, Sudbury Downs would never have happened," Best opined. "There were never enough horses in any one place to have racing just in that one place. When they raced in Sault Ste Marie, there weren't enough horses in the Sault to start a good fight, but there were horses from Manitoulin, horses from Sudbury, probably North Bay."
"There were even horses that would come down from Thunder Bay to race in the Sault."
Of course, in their little neck of the woods, in various pockets of the island, Best and his racing brethren were finding ways to keep busy. "They raced on Manitoulin into the fifties, but then they stopped," he said. "Until 1962, when it was the Centennial of Manitoulin being a district, or something, so Gore Bay hosted races on the last Wednesday of July."
"It was a rip-roaring success, so they raced on the last week of July, well into the seventies - and same for Manitowaning, with racing from 1963 through to the eighties. The first track that I ever raced on there had about five corners on it - and all of them were sharp."
As much as anything, the venues of the era became the lore that easily withstood the test of time; drivers from across the north could share stories that one and all could relate to.
"At one time, only the big tracks had hub rails," said Best. "If there were no rails, somebody would sneak up through the inside, driving through the grass. The judging wasn't quite as severe as it is now. A good track back then, these days, you wouldn't even trot your horse on it."
It wasn't as though the local vestiges were much better. Long before the advent of Sudbury Downs, the Rayside-Balfour region was still a hot bed of racing. In 1902, it was said, 600 people would come from local towns and villages to attend a horse race on what is now Errington Street.
Civic events, including the horses, were often organized by the local clergy. In 1952, the racing disappeared, for a bit, resurfacing in 1961 with the advent of the track that Come Trottier and his sons would create.
"If it rained for three minutes, you couldn't race on the Trottier track - it was a quagmire," said Best with a laugh. Not that this was all bad for the youngster who was just cutting his teeth in the sulky. "The first race I ever won was in Bruce Mines."
"It had rained all night and so the next day, they were out there with trucks and cars, driving around and around, trying to dry the track out. In those days, I really wasn't driving my horse a whole lot smart. I was parked the whole mile, sitting on the outside. I had a big tough colt that year."
"I just sat out there, like a dummy, and the horse somehow overcame my driving and won."
Do not, however, misinterpret Best's willingness to poke fun at himself as a testament to his driving. The truth is that along with the likes of Mike Noble, Gerry Lamoureux, Al Horner and others, Sandy Best would win far more than his fair share of races at the Downs, even holding his own against the provincial elite.
"In the twilight of my career, I went to Flamborough and spent winters there," said Best. "I kind of proved to myself that I could follow these guys around and I could beat them, on occasion, especially if I had better horses."
June 2nd, 1974 – Opening Day – Sudbury Downs
"When it was new, it was a beautiful facility," said Best. "You couldn't go any place and get any nicer. That day, there were cars parked on both sides of the laneway into the track, cars lined as far over as you could see from Montee Principale. I could remember the crowd. Mike Noble won a race with Cheyenne Charm, and to get to the fence, he almost had to have an armed guard, the tarmac was so full."
The debate regarding the long-term viability of harness racing at the Downs is the topic of another column altogether. For his part, Best lands somewhere in the middle of this discussion.
"Walt Disney himself would have had trouble making Sudbury Downs work," he said. "To be fair, Sudbury isn't a racing town. But it also wasn't well run, almost from day one. J.C. MacIsaac was great for the horsemen - he did a lot of people favours, and I am one of them. But they struggled to hire a manager and then let him manage the place."
Thankfully, Best landed comfortably on his feet, transitioning to a equestrian business involving magnetic bandage products, with Martha Best drawing upon her expertise as an acupuncturist and with laser therapy to create an alternative that garnered support on the harness racing circuit.
"My last winter at Flamborough, I told anyone that would listen that we would be coming out with the complete magnetic bandage," said Best. "I just made sure to give complementary pairs to good trainers who would talk it up a bit."
Talking, it seems, is nearly as an important part of this scene as is racing. And no one would share the ear of Sandy Best as much as Mike Noble. "We grew up together; he was a good driver," said Best.
"He held his part of the track and I held mine. Sometimes I would crowd him and sometimes he would crowd me - and we both knew why."
Perhaps a tale for another day.