There was never any doubt Norm McKnight was going to have a career with horses and racing. The Thoroughbred trainer, who is based at Woodbine, is spending his first winter in Aiken at the Aiken Training Track. The horseman has enjoyed success in multiple disciplines, winning nearly 1,500 races as a Standardbred driver, but it was an untoward event that would lead to his entrance into the world of Thoroughbred racing.
A fire at Mohawk Raceway in Campbellville, Ont., Canada would claim McKnight’s stable, and he would find himself making an unlikely transition as a result of the incident.
“I lost everything, and I found myself kicking around the Thoroughbred track,” he said.
McKnight, who had made his living in the sulky, all of a sudden found himself involved in a discipline he knew very little about. The horseman began helping another Thoroughbred trainer, and what drew his interest to the sport was a filly named Steady Blonde. The horse had questionable form, but after McKnight came into the picture Steady Blonde seemed to improve in each successive start.
It was during this time, when Steady Blonde’s form began to improve, a Standardbred owner by the name of Lou Donato would enter the scene, watching the Thoroughbreds, having noticed Steady Blonde’s marked improvement. when someone remarked it was the Standardbred guy who was largely responsible.
Donato’s curiosity got the best of him, and he would inquire who the Standardbred horseman was, the one that seemed to have the magic touch in turning around the fortunes of Steady Blonde. When he found out that it was McKnight, Donato wanted to be introduced to the trainer. Donato was interested in claiming a Thoroughbred. The two men would eventually get together and discuss things over lunch.
However, McKnight found himself making a series of adjustments, having to find his way through another discipline.
“I told him, ‘Thoroughbreds are foreign to me, dirt, turf, long, short, I didn’t understand any of it,”’ said McKnight, who didn’t have a Thoroughbred license at the time. However, the woman he had been assisting did have a license. The two would form a partnership, and incroporate Thorough-Stand Stable.
“So, Lou Donato and I claimed a horse,” said McKnight. “It just so happens on the same day that we claimed the horse, he had a business meeting with Gino Molinaro, a big food distributor in Canada.”
Donato informed Molinaro he had claimed a horse, and Molinaro intimated to Donato he had always wanted to become involved in the horse business, but didn’t know how to go about doing so, said McKnight.
“Lou said, ‘Fine, buy half this horse, and you’re in,’” said McKnight.
And, within less than a five month span, the partnership had accumulated about 15 horses, and McKnight began spending more time with Thoroughbreds and less time with Standardbreds. The horseman was faced with the challenge of having to decide what direction he would devote his energies to, and eventually the Thoroughbreds would win out.
But, McKnight enjoyed formidable success as a Standardbred driver, starting out at the Western Fair in London, Ont., driving against Dave Wall, Ken Hardy and Andy Hardy. He would move on to Windsor, where his competition included Bill Gale, John Campbell, and Greg Wright. He would eventually shift his tack to Toronto to The Ontario Jockey Club. The horseman was stabled at Flamboro Downs, and the size of his barn would continue to grow as he was now conditioning 35-40 head of horses.
“I couldn’t get the stabling accommodations at Mohawk, so I based out of Flamboro, and I raced at Flamboro and Woobine Entertainment,” said McKnight.” We were very popular then, the Ontario Sire Program was very big, and I drove a lot of Ontario sired stakes horses. We were busy driving in the Province of Ontario during the summer when the Ontario Sire Stakes were going on, but I drove at many racetracks.”
Tom Artandi was among the owners McKnight drove for, and he would also drive for his friend William Wellwood. The horseman would do his share of traveling, and would find himself driving at the Meadowlands, in New York and at Freehold.
McKnight’s Thoroughbred career includes its own series of highlights, and the conditioner has had his share of good horses. One of those was a multiple graded stakes winning, track record setting and Sovereign Award winning gelding named Dawson’s Legacy.
“We purchased him privately from the late Gordon Huntley for $30,000,” said McKnight. “I think he may have bought him for $8,000. We were stabled in the same barn, and he kind of caught my eye. I approached him, he said that he would sell him, and we gave $30,000 for the horse, and I think he made just under a half-million dollars.”
Dawson’s Legacy’s 2-year-old odyssey found him entered in the 1997 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and the chestnut gelding would be sent off at a long price in the race for two-year-olds at Hollywood Park, finishing second to the eventual Horse of the Year Favorite Trick. Mcknight conditioned the son of Roanoke for J.M. Stritzl Stable.
“He went out of the gate with Time Limit, head-to-head, setting suicidal fractions. My heart and belly thought he was just going to fold up. Time Limit started to fade, and this horse just kept coming. Half way through the stretch. I thought maybe we had a big shot to win, but unfortunately, we ran into Favorite Trick. He was undefeated and he had a pretty nice trip, sitting third or fourth the whole way, and then went right up the rail. He had a text book trip in the race.”
Dawson’s Legacy would go onto win the Grade 3 Sky Classic Handicap and Grade 3 Play the King Handicap during his 4-year-old campaign.
“He set a track record the day he beat Buck’s Boy in the Sky Classic Handicap.” said McKnight.
Good things come to those who wait, and McKnight’s patience paid off when he claimed the filly Slightlymorelikely. She would go onto to win the 2003 Ontario Debutante Stakes.
“She was a horse that Mark Casse had, and I was outshook by another trainer Vito Armata for $32,000,” said McKnight. “I went back and claimed her for $40,000. She won a stakes for us. She turned out to be a nice filly, but unfortunately she became a bad bleeder. We retired her and she became a broodmare.
A yearling purchase who would outrun his expectations was also among the horses McKnight has trained over the years. R.M.C. Stable’s Brite Adam was a true Cinderella story. The $30,000 sale purchase would go onto make nearly $500,000. The chestnut horse would become a multiple stakes winner, winning the Grade 3 Seagram Cup Stakes as a 4-year-old, but it was during his sophomore campaign that Brite Adam really made some noise.
“He won the Plate Trial in Toronto, and was second in the Queen’s Plate,” said McKnight. “We thought we had a big shot to win the Queen’s Plate, but Archer’s Bay turned the table on us. We ended up being a bride’s maid.”
Drunken Love provided McKnight with consecutive Daryl Wells Sr. Memorial Stakes victories at Fort Erie in 2009-2010. The conditioner claimed the diminutive, versatile, consistent gelding by Whiskey Wisdom from Charles Bud Malette, for Tallyho Racing, Ltd. Drunken Love ran equally well on the turf, Polytrack and dirt. The dark brown gelding also captured the Shepperton Stakes in 2009.
“He was only about 15 hands, but he was gutsy,” said McKnight. “He was all racehorse. Every time he went out there, he would give his all. We claimed him for $62,500, he made around $200,000, and then lost him back through the claiming box for $62,000. “
Aunt Els is among the horses McKnight has with him this winter in Aiken. The homebred is getting ready for her sophomore campaign, and has turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The daughter of Consolidator has won her last three starts including the Ontario Lassie Stakes at Woodbine in her final call to post as a juvenile.
“I first got her last May, and she was just a peanut,” said McKnight. “I didn’t pay her much mind, she was small and a homebred.”
However, after a fourth place finish in her debut, McKnight made some adjustments. Aunt Els raced on Lasix, and with blinkers on for the first time, and would end up breaking her maiden. She would go onto win an allowance race before jumping up to win a stakes race at the end of he year.
“She’s a little peanut, but she’s a tiger,” said McKnight.
The opportunity to be based this winter at the Aiken Training Track has proven to beneficial for the horseman.
“This is my first season here, and I absolutely love it,” said McKnight. “I think for young horses, this is an unbelievable environment, it’s so laid back and quiet, and you get to spend time with the young horses. This is just ideal. We’re accomplishing something by being here.”