NORM MCKNIGHT: A CAREER SEASON JUST WHEN THINGS LOOKED BLEAK
Written by: Jennifer Morrison
What a year it was in 2016 for Thoroughbred trainer Norm McKnight who, in his 18th season since stepping away from Standardbred racing set a personal record for wins.
Norm McKnight’s 59 Woodbine victories placed him second to the massive Mark Casse operation and his 29% win rate was tops in Ontario, third in Canada.
McKnight is no stranger to winning a lot of races, he had nearly 1,500 of them as a driver, but it was only a few years ago, that the Streetsville, Ontario resident thought his training career could be at an end.
In 2013, McKnight was staring out at only a handful of horses with no clients on the horizon.
“I was actually scared,” said McKnight, who grew up in a horse family headed by his father Norm, Sr. He calls that 2013 season, with 16 wins, one of his worst years when “so many things didn’t go right”.
In a business where you are only as good as your most recent horse, McKnight, who had developed horses such as champion Dawson’s Legacy, Plate Trial winner Brite Adam and speedy stakes winner Drunken Love, was not certain where that next good one would come from.
A fateful phone call followed by a claimed horse in the summer of 2013 began the turnaround for McKnight, however, leading to his smashing 2016 season. In November, McKnight won his 400th career Thoroughbred race when the 2-year-old filly Eye on Berlin won her maiden for Trinity Racing Stable and Racer’s Edge.
“Pinch me,” said McKnight. “We never expected that season in a million years.”
Norm McKnight Jr. was riding show horses as a child and drove his first Standardbred when he was just 12-years-old. He began driving professionally in London, Ontario before branching out to Mohawk and Flamboro. It was through a few owners of Standardbreds that McKnight tested the Thoroughbred waters in the late 1990s. One of the first horses he had a hand in developing was Joe Stritzl’s Dawson’s Legacy, who took McKnight and trainer Rita Schnitzer to the 1997 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Grade 1). He finished a gritty second to the unbeaten Favorite Trick.
McKnight’s first full season as a Thoroughbred trainer was in 1999 when he won 23 races and over $700,000 in purses.
Other than a short stint when he returned to the sulky in 2004 and attempted to juggle both breeds with the help of his sons Bobby and Brad, McKnight is firmly established as one of Canada’s top Thoroughbred trainers.
However, the transition did not come as easy as a three-furlong breeze.
“When I first got into Thoroughbreds I didn’t know how to classify horses, I didn’t know what made a turf horse. Or a horse that preferred six furlongs or 1 1/16 miles. Everything was foreign to me.”
The learning curve was not a long one as McKnight’s aggressive approach to placing his horses helped him rack up victories. Clients such as Syd Cooper’s RMC Stables, Lou Donato. Joe Stritzl and others have watch their horses ride up the claiming ranks and win many races.
Much like many other horsepeople, when the slots-at-racetracks program between Ontario horse racing and the government was cancelled and race dates slashed from 168 to 133, the smaller horse, and owner, population took a toll in McKnight’s stable.
It was then, in 2013, when owner and breeder Bruno Schickedanz called McKnight and asked him to claim a horse. That horse, Urban Forester, was taken for $20,000 and went on to win nine races and become stakes placed.
“He was kind of a lifesaver for me, “ said McKnight. “We claimed Urban Forester, he had picked him out, we started to do well and the following year we had some more horses together.”
In 2014, Schickedanz sent more horses to McKnight and the team grew into a powerful force. Last year, Schickedanz won 38 races to lead all Woodbine owners with a 26% win rate. One of the most successful stories for McKnight and Schickedanz was that of Touch of Disney, a 6-year-old Mr. Scotty gelding bred by Schickedanz who came to McKnight off a loss for $8,000 claiming the previous season.
Touch of Disney, so-named because of the “Mickey Mouse ears” black marking on his pink snout, went on to win the Overskate Stakes last October.
McKnight prides himself on putting together a meticulous and hard working team at the barn. His staff usually numbers about nine or 10 for anywhere from 25 to 32 horses including his “lifeline”, Brad.
He also believes that having a client base of owners who agree to his system of training is the difference between being successful or not.
“For my stable it is very, very important that I tell whoever comes on board as an owner if you are in love with your horse and you never want to lose the horse (in a claiming race), then I am the wrong guy for you.
“I am very aggressive, I like to win races with the horses I have. If you are okay with that I will work with you. I am not going to give their horses away; I will assess them and try put the proper value on them but at the end of the day I still like to take an edge too. If they are worth $20,000 I might run them for $10,000.”
McKnight, who says he wants to see his horses as the favourite every time he goes to the races, enjoys claiming horses and trying to improve them and he mentions Colleen’s Sailor as one of his most treasured runners.
“He has a great personality, I like him a lot,” said McKnight. “We claimed him for $19,000, lost him for $60,000 and made $150,000 with him.”
Throughout his career season, as the wins accumulated and his winning percentage remained among the best in the land, there came the usual doubts from some parts of the racing industry.
“It goes with the game when you win races,” said McKnight. “You start to win at a 30 percent rate and people are always wonder what you are doing. It bothers you for sure. Everybody starts talking, watching you. I had people from various organizations following me around, showing up at the paddock or the barn. It’s creepy.”
It got the point late last year, said McKnight, that he was only half joking when he said he didn’t want to win races anymore.
“We work hard and I have a very good staff and we start at 4 in the morning. I am aggressive I like to win races, put them in races where they are going to win, not finish fourth or fifth. I believe I am a good horseman.”
Once McKnight’s horses are racing fit, you won’t see many of them doing a lot of long galloping in the mornings. He tends to jog his horses mostly. He may even walk them the day before a race.
“Once racing season starts, I am not a person that trains hard.”
He cites his favourite movie, Phar Lap, as a good example of how hard training does not work on all or most horses. “Phar Lap’s trainer, he trained every horse the same way he trained Phar Lap and he never had another one of those.”
McKnight would love to get more young horses in his barn, saying he enjoys developing 2-year-olds. He has also bought a handul of yearlings at auction over the years and all of them raced and some of them, such as Tyzach, named for his two grandsons, are still racing.”
One of his main projects in 2016 was the filly Gertie T, a yearling purchase who trained “better than any horse I have ever had” but could not put it together on the track in the afternoon. McKnight read up about offspring of Gertie T’s sire, Midnight Lute, and discovered that many of them do not thrive on synthetic dirt, the surface offered at Woodbine. He hopes to race Gertie T on the dirt this season.
The bottom line for McKnight is, however, winning races and in order to maintain a stable in the very expensive career of horse trainer, the wins must come frequently.
“Expenses keep going up. You must pay staff and feed and then there are all sorts of other expenses you end up absorbing, such as barn equipment.
“You wouldn’t believe how many shanks, rakes and hoof picks you go through every year,” chuckled McKnight. “I have no idea what happened to half the rakes I bought last year.”
Good staff and an aggressive approach to training certainly has been a winning formula for McKnight and his team as they get ready for the 2017 Woodbine season that begins Saturday. Make no mistake, though, McKnight is realistic about what makes a successful trainer.
“It’s the horse. If you have a good horse then they make you look good.”