by Perry Lefko
There was a time in his life when John Fielding aspired to become a National Hockey League player. It didn’t happen, although he did play professionally for four years in Europe, but he’s been able to play at the highest levels of harness racing ownership through business acumen, luck, great advisors and a genuine passion for the sport that was nurtured at a young age.
Fielding, voted the United States Harness Writers Association’s Owner of the Year twice in the last four years, is second on the list of Breeders Crown-winning owners, and is a partner in such current standout stars as Father Patrick, Pinkman, Shake It Cerry, Wild Honey, French Laundry, Uncle Lasse and Maven.
The Canadian businessman becomes nostalgic when he recalls going to the track for the first time as a 12- or 13-year-old with a hockey-playing friend and his father. That kindled an interest, and about five or so years later it became more profound when John’s father, Dave, along with three others at his golf club became horse owners with trainer John Burns.
“I got the bug and so did my brother Jimmy and that’s what got us started off,” John recalls.
His father’s group had several horses, but the best was Cashmere Bay N, a hardknocking gelding who raced against the top older male pacers in Toronto.
“I used to babysit my brother Jimmy, who is younger than me, and he was about 13 at the time and I was 17, and we used to take the streetcar down to old Greenwood Racetrack (which has long since ceased operating), and had a lot of fun doing that,” John says.
When asked if his parents knew about it, John says with a laugh: “Probably not.”
But that gives you a hint of what John means when he talks about harness racing and its impact.
“Once it is in your blood, it stays. I just love it.”
John bought his 1st Standardbred horse at age 16 a mare named Bye Bye Hope for $7,500, with Burns.
He played Major Junior hockey in Kingston, Ontario, about three hours west of Toronto, and did decently as a forward, scoring 20 goals in his rookie season, including recording the first hat trick in franchise history. Some of his teammates went on to playing in the NHL, including Mike O’Connell, Ken Linseman and Tony McKegney. John enjoyed going to the local racetrack, Frontenac Downs, with a couple of school buddies, including one, the late Ted Huntbach, who became a trainer, and another Danny Gibson, whose father, owned horses.
When he finished his junior career, John pursued a professional career playing four years in Hanover, Germany.
After reaching the furthest he could go in the game – “I didn’t keep many things from my hockey career because it wasn’t that illustrious” – John returned home to Canada in 1981 and began to focus on a new career, specifically one in business. He and his brother, Bill, founded IDMD Design and Manufacturing, an award-winning retail merchandising company. In 2000, the Fielding Brothers sold IDMD, although John remained as a consultant and shareholder with what is now known as Array. He also expanded into other businesses, founding Ethoca Technologies, a successful e-commerce fraud solutions provider, and is a principal in StudentHouses.ca, which is a large provider of student residences. He is also involved in Amsterdam Brewing, a microbrewery based in Toronto, and NovaCore Communities, which is a full-service contaminated land remediation company and home builder.
Along the way he began buying and standardbred racehorses, and in 1999 entered the thoroughbred breeding business with Fred Hertrich III, who also breeds harness horses under the commercial name All American Harnessbreds. Fielding says he own some 75 broodmares with Hertrich. One horse, Shamardal, which John bred with Hertrich and the late Dr. Phillip McCarthy, was voted Europe’s Champion Two-Year-Old in 2004. John also owns thoroughbred racehorses.
“I wanted to own one, and I had money from working construction in the summers,” he says. “I played around with the sport, and my brother, Jimmy, trained for a few years. We didn’t do that well, and I was building my business, so basically I didn’t own any horses through my 20s and early part of my 30s. I always followed it, but building the business and having kids…I never dreamed about owning a horse again. But we got very lucky and the business started to really thrive. So I swore when I’d got back into owning horses, I’d do it the right way with a little more ammunition. I was at the track one night in 1992-93 and met (trainer) Ted Jacobs and I bought pieces of four horses. All turned out to be very good horses.”
One of them, Eager Seelster, won the 1994 Breeders Crown Two-Year-Old Colt Trot race and overall that season won five of 10 starts and about $300,000.
“It happened right away when I got back into the business, and then I really had the bug after that,” he said.
Ball And Chain, a horse he had with trainer Joe Stutzman, won the 1995 Canadian Pacing Derby and recorded the first Canadian sub 1:50 mile.
Along the way, he met Swedish trainer Jimmy Takter, who was about to start building a stable that would be among the best in North America. “I’ve had horses with him for over 20 years,” John says. “I always knew he was a great horseman and he became a very, very close friend and still is obviously – he and his wife Christina.
“I have a great team with Bryan Montgomery and his wife, Lella, and Ray Johnston. Without Ray I’d be screwed because he runs most aspects of the equine portfolio. And I’ve got Perry Soderberg and Jimmy Takter. With that group, it’s hard to lose. You’ve got really good people. I’d like to say there is a magic formula, but the only formula I have is I have the best people doing it and have arguably the best trainer I think that ever trained a standardbred. So I’m very fortunate. I’m strictly a passenger.
“My advice to prospective new owners is to find somebody that’s honest. The greatest thing about Jimmy Takter is when you’ve got horses with him, his wife does all the accounting and the books and as Ray Johnston will tell you every month there’s not one thing out of place. It’s very honest and all accounted for. With Jimmy Takter, every stone is lifted up, cleaned, turned over – there’s just nothing left to chance. As an owner, you can go to bed at night knowing the horse has been fed properly, the proper vet work has been done, the accounting’s right, the horses are going to be entered properly.”
“So the number one thing I would say for a new owner is to find somebody honest to help them with their selections when they are going into the yearling sale. There’s some great guys out there that are very honest, know the pedigrees and have been in it all their lives. They might not even be trainers. They may be agents of some kind. If someone wants to get into the game, I would suggest they get some help and someone who is very realistic.
“Getting into the claiming part of owning horses gives you instant satisfaction. You can claim one and get right back into the races the next week. The claiming part is also fair because that’s the marketable price.
“To go into it thinking you’re going to make a whole bunch of money is an unrealistic goal I think. I wouldn’t go into the standardbred game, particularly the yearling game, with scared money. Like any other investment, I would make sure you do your homework and you have the right people, but I wouldn’t go into it with unrealistic goals. The highs and the lows are devastatingly far apart. There’s so many high points that I’ve been privileged and lucky enough to experience. But you have to take the low points as well. It’s all part of the experience.
“We are trying to attract new owners to the sport, and I would urge any people who have an interest to give it a try. Don’t take the last money you have or the rent money to give it a try, but give it a try if you can afford to. When you do get that lovely thrill it’s fantastic.”
He thinks of the many Breeders Crown winners he’s had with his brother and the Takters, and all have particular meaning and memories. Like in 2008, when 15-1 long shot In Focus, a $20,000 yearling purchase picked out by Montgomery, won the Three-Year-Old Colt Trot, beating out 11-1 stablemate Holiday Credit. The exactor paid huge, so John cashed huge. Deweycheatumnhowe, the 4-5 favorite, placed third.
Father Patrick’s Breeders Crown win last year was redemption after the classy colt broke stride early in the Hambletonian in which he was heavily favored and finished last. AllAmerican Nadia, who won the 2002 Three-Year-Old Filly Pace, paid $99.90 on a $2 ticket. She was trained by Burns, and the Fieldings owned the filly with their father and father-in-law, who was ill and in the hospital and pleaded to being allowed to leave to watch the race. He passed away three months later. Uncle Peter was named after the Fielding brothers’ late brother, who died a few years earlier of leukemia only 10 days after the diagnosis. Another horse, See You At Peelers, named after a striptease bar, won the 2010 Two-Year-Old Pace and had a 22-race win streak.
“I’ve been very blessed and very lucky, and I owe all that to the people I’ve associated with, and that’s why my number one thing is the honesty and integrity in that business,” John says. “It’s a hobby and you try to make it a business because you’re not fooling around.”