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Guelph-based harness driver James MacDonald joins rare company

Driver James MacDonald is nominated for the Standardbred Canada Driver of the Year award after a strong 2022 at Mohawk that saw him win 404 races

Guelph's James MacDonald is cementing his legacy as one of the best to ever compete in the sport of harness racing.

MacDonald, the youngest of five brothers, is up for his second straight Canadian Driver of the Year award after a strong 2022 at Woodbine Mohawk Park.

The native of Prince Edward Island became just the fifth driver in Woodbine's near 60-year history to record 400 wins in a calendar year, and the first since his older brother Mark recorded 404 victories in 2006.

The 400-win milestone wasn't thought to be possible until the last few weeks of the year for MacDonald, whose winnings topped $8.8 million in 2022.

MacDonald said he also wasn't aware of the exclusive club he was entering.

"It wasn't really a chase. Just try and show up every night and do the best you can," he said. "My goal is just (to) be consistent, try and show up with a good attitude and do the best you can."

The sport comes with its own set of challenges. For one, as MacDonald says, it's "risky business."

From bumps to bruises, to a broken ankle, broken collarbone, a dislocated shoulder, and concussions, MacDonald has spent plenty of time on the injured list over the years as a result of on-track spills.

"You pretty much take your life into your hands every time you go behind the gate," he said. "I always tell people it's kind of like that saying when you hear bullfighting. It's not like if you're going to get hurt, it's when and how bad. Unfortunately it happens."

But worrying about it, he said, is just a waste of time, adding you have to focus on the task at hand.

On race day, he's spending time getting as much intel as possible on the horses he's driving. This past Monday, MacDonald said he had 11 different horses to drive.

"A lot of them are (the) first time I've driven them," he said. "But a lot of them, I've driven them prior or drive almost every week."

With that, the team environment of horse racing becomes crucial, learning as much about the horse as quickly as possible before races.

"You try and take what the trainer tells you, and then figure more out on your own as you're out there because they're completely different training than they are racing," MacDonald said.

Getting to pick the brains of two brothers who race also helps.

Mark is still racing in the United States, based in New York. But he keeps a watchful eye on his younger brother.

"We've always helped," Mark says over the phone about his brother. "Any time I can throw my two cents, or James would bounce things off me when he first started driving, a good sounding board for him."

Brother Anthony, also a longtime driver, owns and operates with his wife Amy, a company that allows people to own a percentage of a racehorse.

His other two brothers, Lloyd and Curtis, are also involved in the sport, but work on the media side of things. Curtis operates the Guelph-based photography and videography company Cujo Entertainment.

James, the youngest of the bunch, is in the spotlight on the track after a successful 14th year.

"The numbers are great, and it's great to have that 400 wins at Mohawk and it's great to have high earnings and purse earnings," he said. "But you want the trophies, you want the big ones and it just starts with staying consistent and working hard every night."

He'll find out next month if the numbers have paid off with a second straight O'Brien Awards win from Standardbred Canada as the Keith Waples Driver of the Year. A black tie gala will be held in Mississauga Feb. 4.

James isn't counting his chickens just yet. 

But for older brother Mark, who won back-to-back driver of the year awards in 2005 and 2006, he said he'd be shocked if James didn't repeat the feat.

"No one cheers harder for James than I do," Mark said. "What he's been able to do the last few years, I always tell anybody James is the best athlete in the family, by far."