Whenever Bill Megens wins a race at Flamboro Downs, he sets a track record.
The Guelph man piloted Opas Faith to a gate-to-wire victory early this month, the first victory for Opas Faith and the first win for Megens as a driver in more than two years.
While the time wasn’t a track record, Megens became the oldest driver to win at the track. He’ll turn 88 next month.
“They gave me a lot of credit for winning, but I almost blew it,” Megens said in a phone interview. “I over-revved. I had my plan and it worked. I went to the top and backed it off, saved my gas, and then I let him go at the half. It was a little bit too early and I damned near got caught.”
Opas Faith and Megens were the second-longest longshot in the field of five. The next race featured a field of nine, and Megens was in the bike behind Denise, another longshot.
“I had another horse that hadn't been doing too good and I was back a bit in the next race and I finished second,” Megens said. “Nobody says nothing. I was much prouder of that race.
“I was one of the longshots and, you know, I finished second. If I hadn't (had) some road problem, I might have won. If you don't win, second doesn't count. But it does count for me because two seconds for me is the same as one won.”
Megens doesn’t drive his horses much now as he figures it’s better to get regular drivers in the bike. But he did take each of his three horses out for races as they hadn’t been getting the results he figured they should.
Sometimes it’s better to take them out yourself, he figured, just to see what was going wrong. He recorded a top-four finish with each – a win, a second and a fourth.
Megens was born in the Netherlands, but came to Canada in 1950 at the age of 16 when his family emigrated here.
“My dad got a farm up Beaverton way and I used to work on the farm in the summertime and in the wintertime he'd send us down to Toronto to try to make some money,” he said. “The first year, I worked in a furniture store. The next year I said 'I want to go with the horses.' At the time, even at 17, I was kind of too big to ride a thoroughbred so I ended up getting a job at Dufferin Park.
“I only started at $30 a week, which wasn't that bad, but the old Dutch tradition was the you helped out your parents,” Megens said. “My brother, who was a year younger, got a job at construction and he was making $45 dollars a week and sending $25 a week home. So I told them I'd work with the horses and I'd send $25 a week home. I cheated a little bit, I sent them $100 a month.”
That meant eating little else other than cereal and milk at each meal until he just couldn’t eat it anymore.
“I guess my system said that was enough,” he said. “I just couldn't get it down. I tried to feed it to the horses. I was a cheap old Dutchman, I guess, and the horses wouldn't eat it. I had to throw it out.”
After another summer working on the family farm, Megens returned to Dufferin Park and started training horses. He stayed with the same owner year-round for a while and that included trips to Quebec City and Montreal to race in the fall.
“I stayed with them until 1954 when I kind of realized that, hey, there's no money in this business,” Megens said. “I like the horses, but I could see other people struggling and staying away from home and I said 'No, that's not my life.' I went back and you name it, I've done everything.”
That included working on tobacco farms and in butcher shops and he then he bought a dairy farm. But then tracks started installing lights and running races at night.
“I wondered if I could've made it if I'd stayed with the horses,” Megens said.
“At that time I'm 33 and I'm getting a little older and I'd never drove horses before. When I was younger, I just trained them because in them days if you weren't 40, they didn't think you had enough experience to be driving horses. Today, a lot of them retire when they get 40 or 50. It's different times.”
He decided to give harness racing another shot.
“I just got my license and I had a neighbour up in Beaverton and he got me to drive this little mare up at the fairs in Port Perry, I think it was,” Megens said. “I finished third with it both times. My second drive was up in Beaverton Fairgrounds. I drove a couple of horses and the week after I raced up in Lindsay. I won my first race at that time up in Lindsay with a horse named Stepalong.”
It’s thought that Megens has 1,188 wins as a driver, but that total could be higher as tracks weren’t too vigilante at keeping stats when he first started driving.
While Megens has been fortunate on the track, the same can’t be said of his real estate dealings. He always seems to sell his properties just a little too soon.
“Boy oh boy, I was never lucky with land or property, but the horses always helped me through,” he said. “I always kind of got lucky with the horses. I managed it anyway, but I had some tough times and some good times.”
Before returning to harness racing, he sold his dairy farm and his $1,000 milk quota from the marketing board for $25,000. Three months later it was worth $10,000 more and it’s “probably worth a million and a half today.”
He sold another farm in the Beaverton area where his family – his wife and seven children under the age of nine – were living while he was racing and living in Toronto.
“I should have had my rear-end kicked instead of going in the horse business,” he said. “Anyway, I thought I'd better sell the farm and move the family closer, which I did.”
He sold the 200-acre farm for $35,000. Beaverton’s north of Pickering and at that time “the government bought all the farmland up in Pickering to build an airport that was never built, of course. I was just north of that and all the farmers moved north. The fellow I sold my farm to turned down $160,000 after I sold it just six months before that for $35,000.”
And then there’s a more recent example as he had a 105-acre farm in the Cambridge area.
“I raised my family there, right on Puslinch Lake. They liked it there,” he said. “Anyway, I ended up selling it and I sold it for not much more than I bought it.
“I ran it for the guy and I had my horses there for years and he sold it to Justin Bieber. He's got the place there now. I sold it for $360,000 and it just got sold for $4.9 million. Of course, the last guy did build a big house on the lake there.”
Has Megens met Bieber?
“My son did,” he said. “I saw him drive in. I trained my horses there, they gave me a couple extra months there. I saw him drive by and waved at him, but I never got to meet him, but my son Mark did.”
But Megens still has his horses.
“I've slowed down quite a bit. I'm training six and I've only got three race horses,” he said. “I'd like to get them in once a week, but it doesn't always work. With COVID-19, we were shut down quite a bit. Last year wasn't a very good year for me. The year before was, but not last year.
“I've still got three race horses and I've got three yearlings coming on for next year and I've got three good mares with foals.”
That means he could be even busier next year.
“I'm going to have to slow down sooner or later, I guess,” he said.