by Neil Milbert
The accomplishments of Dave Briggs as a harness writer can best be compared to the feats of Babe Ruth as a baseball player.
During a harness writing career that began at The Canadian Sportsman in 1995 Briggs, likewise, towers head and shoulders above his closest competitors. At last count he has won 24 national and international awards, an accomplishment unparalleled in both Standardbred and Thoroughbred journalism.
Eleven have been Hervey Awards. Also included in his ever-growing harness writing collection are five American Horse Publications Awards, three Standardbred Canada O’Brien Media Excellence Awards, two World Trotting Conference Media Awards, an Ontario Equestrian Publication Award, and a Dan Patch Media Award.
In the Hervey Awards writing competition, he is in a class by himself with seven awards for features and four for news commentary. USTA photographer Mark Hall is a distant second in career Hervey Awards with six, followed by the late Phil Pines, long-time curator of the Harness Racing Museum and Harness Hall of Fame, with five—four in the radio category and one in writing.
“Simply put, Dave Briggs is one of the most respected and honored writers in harness racing history,” said Ken Weingartner, media relations manager for the USTA.
Members of the U.S. Harness Writers Association were of the same mind when they selected Briggs for inclusion in the Communicators Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y., on July 1.
During the course of his career, Briggs has played on many teams, most notably The Canadian Sportsman for 19 years before it ceased publication after its December 2013 issue. He relaunched Harness Racing Update as the online publication’s editor in 2015, and has been co-editor of Canadian Thoroughbred magazine since 2014.
“His resume is embellished by prize-winning articles during his 19 years with The Canadian Sportsman; as a columnist for the Guelph (Ontario) Mercury newspaper; and as a contributor to Hoof Beats and Harness Racing Weekend Preview, an affiliate of Horseman and Fair World,” said Weingartner.
Ironically, although he hoped to become a sportswriter, harness racing was an alien sport to Briggs when he was an honors student at the University of Windsor, majoring in communication studies, and when he earned his Master of Arts degree at the University of Western Ontario as a journalism major.
“I grew up just down the road from Windsor Raceway,” Briggs said. “That’s kind of the odd part of the tale. It was five minutes from where we lived and my dad still lives. My dad was a political science professor at the University of Windsor and when I did my undergraduate work there I passed by Windsor Raceway every day. But my racing experience was very limited. In high school I had friends whose parents had horses and a handful of times I went to the races with them.
“I always loved to write. Back in high school I started writing about the high school football team. I was not a particularly gifted athlete. I played house league hockey but never was a travel hockey kid. I loved being around sports and athletes. My goal when I went off to college was to be a sportswriter of some kind.”
Briggs’ introduction to harness writing came when he was doing his graduate work at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. The Raceway at Western Fair District is located 10 blocks from downtown London and one of his journalism assignments was “go to the raceway and find a story.”
“I went out and enjoyed it,” Briggs said. “I talked to the fans in the stands and I went up to the booth and talked to the raceway announcer.”
The story on Western Fair was the extent of Briggs’ harness writing for a while.
“I covered football and track and all those things at the university, and straight out of journalism school I worked at the sports department of the Windsor Free Press for a year and a half,” he continued. “The contract came to an end. They weren’t hiring any of us (journalism graduates). Newspapers were starting to shrivel. Even in the mid-1990s, it was tough.”
Seeking guidance, Briggs went to the woman who taught the magazine class in which he had received the assignment to go to Western Fair.
“It’s interesting that you wrote about the racetrack,” she told him. “Come to think of it, there are some people who have a print shop in a small town near here and they are looking for someone to work at their horse racing magazine. Give them a call.”
Briggs made the call. The magazine was The Canadian Sportsman, which at the time was the longest-running publication of any genre in Canadian history, and he was asked to come for an interview.
“I went and really liked the people,” he said. “Their logic was they had hired horse people as writers and that didn’t seem to work out. They decided ‘Why not try somebody who has a little background in print journalism and teach them the sport?’ They hired me. It’s pretty amazing that they just let me loose to do the kind of things I had learned in journalism school. I became the editor fairly quickly, within a year and a half. The guy who owned the magazine, Gary Foerster, wanted to focus on the printing side of the business and he said: ‘You run this thing.’”
There was one drawback to the job: Briggs discovered he was allergic to horses, but that didn’t stop him from immersing himself in harness racing.
“I had a ton to learn and, bit by bit by bit, I learned,” he recalled. “The thing that struck me early on is how great the people in this business are. I didn’t try to be an expert. When I’d ask a dumb question, they never made me feel like I was dumb and the next time I didn’t ask that dumb question. I don’t think I ever intended to stay in the business. They just made it so hard for me to leave.” Briggs made a lasting impression on John Campbell when he traveled to New Jersey during his early years at the magazine to interview the Hall of Fame driver.
“I remember it well,” said Campbell, president and CEO of the Hambletonian Society and the winningest driver of all time. “He was very polite and so professional and detail-oriented. I think back to when he was new to harness racing and everything was foreign to him.
“Now, I consider him an expert on harness racing. I value his opinion. Very rarely do I disagree with what he puts out there, but even if I do I can see he’s got a point. He’s very perceptive and he’s good at looking at both sides of an issue. He doesn’t put his slant on whatever quote he uses. Every article that Dave has done on me, I’ve been quoted verbatim.”
Not only is Briggs an insightful writer, he’s also a gifted storyteller. He chronicled the rise to superstardom of Somebeachsomewhere, the Ontario-bred pacer that unheralded trainer Brent MacGrath and five others from the Maritime Provinces bought for $40,000 at the Lexington Selected Yearling Sale and “against all conventional wisdom” brought back to Nova Scotia to train in the dead of winter.
“I always enjoyed his interviews,” MacGrath said. “He’s just a terrific, upfront guy. When he gets a story that needs some digging he does that. He’s a great student of the game. There couldn’t be a more worthy Hall of Fame inductee.”
When Foerster announced that The Canadian Sportsman was ending its 143- year run—because of diminishing advertising revenue and a decline in subscriptions, part of a ripple effect from the woes plaguing Ontario breeders— he praised Briggs’ body of work over a span of nearly two decades and cited the magazine’s “17 awards for editorial excellence in the past three years.”
Not surprisingly, Briggs didn’t have any trouble finding work.
“After leaving The Canadian Sportsman, he had five new jobs appear on his resume in two years,” pointed out Jerry Connors, long-time secretary of the U.S. Harness Writers Association. “The front stretch, the backstretch, the legislature, the media process—Dave understands how everything fits together.”
Having turned 49 the month before he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Briggs looks like a lock to win many more awards in the years to come.
Reflecting on his induction, he said, “I’m not a mainstream (publication) guy and I believe I’m just the second Canadian. This means a lot to me because it comes from my peers.”
Neil Milbert is a freelance writer living in Illinois. To comment on this story, email us at email@example.com.