Veteran driver, owner and trainer Ray Gemmill, a legend of the Cloverdale Raceway in Surrey’s historic heart, is calling it a day, stepping away from a career in harness racing that spans six decades.
On Sunday, after the races, a retirement pot luck celebration is planned in the backstretch kitchen for a man who was instrumental in building the landmark racetrack.
Gemmil’s career was already well underway when he came out west from Orangeville, ON, with Jim Keeling Sr. and other investors to found the Cloverdale Raceway, now known as Fraser Downs Racetrack and Casino, his base for 38 years.
On opening day, on Jan. 1, 1976, Gemmil drove the racetrack’s first winner – a horse named Guy Dominion owned by nine members of the Vancouver Canucks.
“I don’t remember a whole lot about the race, but I remember the celebration later,” he told Standardbred Canada in 2010 about the group of NHLers.
“Those boys sure knew how to party.”
He retired as a driver in 1991, but he’s continued to own and train horses in the subsequent decades, earning a solid reputation as a respected and well-liked horseman.
Gemmill once told racing columnist and former jockey Tom Wolski (who has just been inducted into B.C’s Horse Racing Hall of Fame) he realized he wasn’t going to be a superstar, but, “I made a living. I was a better trainer than a driver, put it that way.”
When asked by Wolski’s SportOfKingsTV how it was possible to last so long in the business, Gemmill smiled and laughed. “I don’t know,” he shrugged.
Gemmill’s passion for horses has always come first, according to Harness Racing B.C. executive director Jackson Wittup, who says Gemmill bought his first horse at 27. His favourite was a pony named Innocent Bob, bred by his father, and who raced until the age of 15.
A family friend encouraged Gemmill to keep doing something he loved.
“Not many people truly love their jobs,” Gemmill said.
Remarkably, at 84, Gemmill isn’t the only octogenarian drawing on years of experience to hone a new generation of champions at Fraser Downs.
He’s one of eight men in their 80s at the Cloverdale racetrack who are still active in the sport.
There’s Bill Young, 87, Marcel Bouvier, 82, Dan Ingram, 84, Leo Laballe, 88, Vianney Archambault, 86, Richard Craig, and Magne Ness, 82 – all involved in live racing this season as trainers and owners.
It’s a punishing schedule – cleaning stalls, exercising and training the horses as much as six times a week – then there are two days of live racing, Friday nights and Sunday afternoons during the season.
The lure of the next big win might explain their commitment; on Nov. 28, one of Ingram’s horses won a race. And, two weeks earlier, horses trained by Bouvier (Secret Identity) and Young (Lisvinnie) had wins.
When asked what has contributed to their longevity in the sport, Wittup, who helms the association that represents owners, trainers, drivers and breeders, said they’d all told him, “‘The passion of the horse’ had kept them in the game so long. These particular eight also indicated that they needed a reason to get off the couch and to keep their minds active.”
Then there’s the breed.
“The Standardbred horse in general is so easy to work with, so I’m sure that makes a big difference.”
Wittup suspects the cold weather is the biggest reason behind Gemmill’s retirement this December. “I think he would have hung in there a little longer if we raced in the summer.”