It is a well-lived horse racing life that many are grateful to have taken part in.
Frank Courtney’s career, which reached the finish line on a perfect day in Woodbine, spanned seven decades and spawned a variety of roles, both on and off the track.
His last job, the bookkeeper of the riders, he had for 32 years.
Few, if any, have been able to see the world of thoroughbred separation through such a unique lens, something Courtney is humbly grateful for.
“I’ve been racing all my life. My father trained horses and rode, and my uncles rode too. It has been in my blood since I was born. “
Even before he got there, actually.
“On September 4th, 1952, my mother was running at Dufferin Park and she went into labor and then you went home and had your children. So some of the owners and coaches said, ‘You better go home and have your baby,’ and needless to say I was born around 6pm.
His racetrack life began in the early 1960s when it was hot for coach Andy Smithers.
“I grew up for Andy Smithers and learned to gallop horses. I think he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever worked for, ”said Courtney. “Other notable trainers were Frank Merrill Jr., I went to Florida with him for three years trying to become a jockey, but my body structure was a little big and I couldn’t get down easily enough to ride thoroughbreds, but I did ride Quarter Horses on Sunday evening after the races. We went up there and I drove for John McKenzie, who was being a horse trainer here in Woodbine. “
Unsurprisingly, Courtney, who also spent time as a practice rider, is not lacking in racing stories on horseback and humans.
How he got – and kept – the role of Clerk of Scales at Woodbine is one that stands out.
“When I was working in the jocks room in 1976, then Clerk of Scale Robert Davie was the gentleman who taught me everything in the jocks room. A few years later I became his assistant clerk and when he retired he made sure that the position was given to me even though I was only 27 years old. “
In a way, the odds were against Courtney.
“Even the management was concerned because I was galloping horses with some of my friends like David Clark, Robin Platts, Gary Stahlbaum, all top riders at the time, and they were afraid that I would be intimidated by them, but he said yes me, and I love this quote: ‘Frank, I’m giving you the opportunity to become the Libra clerk, it’s up to you to either keep the job or lose the job.’ I will never forget when he said that. He said, ‘It’s your job, a good job, and you’ll have to do everything I’ve taught you, don’t be intimidated by your friends.’ Fortunately, the ones I worked very closely with were probably the best I could work with. “
Courtney also worked closely with some of the sport’s top trainers and top horses and did not take any of these interactions or lessons for granted.
“One of the best horses I ever galloped for Frank Merrill was a horse named Lord Vancouver. He was a super lawn horse and that was one of Merrill’s horses that they bought from Conn Smythe.
“Another horse that I had the privilege of getting on was One for All, a horse that was trained by Horatio Luro, the Northern Dancer trainer, and sent for the Canadian International Competition. We really had fun with him because they were training him to prepare for l’Arc de Triomphe in France but because they are running in the opposite direction in France we had to go out every morning after the late practice and they closed the lawns so that we could gallop in the wrong direction, and that’s unique because no one else was allowed in. “
For as many stories as Courtney, others have equally fascinating stories about the man himself.
Some speak of his meticulous work as an accountant, others of his life on the Woodbine Backstret.
They all point to the profound influence Courtney had on thoroughbred sport in Canada.
For coach Don MacRae, who began his training career over 25 years ago, the man he met early in his racing life was to become a mentor and a turning point in his career.
MacRae, a lifelong winner of 535 races, continues to be grateful for Courtney’s guidance to this day.
“As a younger coach, I was very cocky in the beginning and thought I knew everything,” said MacRae. “Frank was the type of guy who was always trying to teach me how to be a better person and showing me that that attitude was the wrong one. I have a lot of respect for him. “
Jim Lawson, CEO of Woodbine Entertainment, and Jessica Buckley, SVP of Woodbine Entertainment, Standardbred & Thoroughbred Racing, both praised Courtney.
“Frank is a fixture at Woodbine,” Lawson began. “Like many of our employees, Frank has worked with us for decades and it is people like Frank who have made Woodbine the trusted and caring community it has become. When you walk into Frank’s office to ask him to do a special job for an owner, he has done the job reliably, even though he is usually bombarded with “special requests.” Frank always handled these inquiries calmly and with a smile. I will definitely miss him and our conversations and I wish him all the best for his retirement. “
“Frank’s longstanding tenure at Woodbine is a real testament to his love for racing and the people he interacts with on a daily basis,” said Buckley. “His commitment to excellence in meeting equine people’s accounting needs is deeply missed by everyone.”
Sue Leslie, President of HBPA and board member of Ontario Racing, noted Courtney’s keen eye and attention to detail in his accounting role, skills that were highly respected and valued by the thousands of horse people who relied on his diligent efforts each week.
“Frank kept the accountant’s office meticulously tidy,” noted Leslie. “The Horse People could count on him for accurate information about their accounts. On behalf of all Horsepeople, Frank, we thank you for your over 40 years of dedicated service to HBPA members. We all wish you all the best for your retirement and hope that you will visit us often. “
Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame Trainer Mike Keogh, the man behind Wando’s 2003 Canadian Triple Crown triumph, applauded Courtney not only for his impeccable work over the years, but also for his ability to work with coaches, owners and jockeys in To get in touch.
“Frank is one of the nicest guys you could ever meet, with him it was never a problem. He always made sure that everything was right. Plus he’s a rider so he understands what your needs are. We will all regret seeing him go, but we wish him the best. “
With one of the most unique careers in horse racing now on the books, Courtney looks back fondly on what he has achieved.
“It was a great experience. “I’ve met a lot of great people over the years. I taught Tammy Frost to come in and help Anne McMahon, the general manager of the office. Anne and Tammy were also involved in horse racing and it’s something that a lot of people … I mean, I’ve been giving up a lot of weekends for 47 years because the races are Saturday and Sunday so the weekends are Monday, Tuesday, which a lot of friends could never understand it. They call you to a party Saturday night but I had to work Sunday morning to do my accounting reports so you go to a party but in the back of your mind you have to get up early and go to work.
Many are grateful to him that he did it and that in some way, big or small, they were able to go part of the trip with hm.
“Over the years I’ve realized how much he has helped me become a better coach and a better person in my career,” said MacRae. “I wish him all the best for his future adventures.”
The last word to Courtney is a heartfelt thank you to his family.
“I met my wife Rita in 1972. We have been married for 46 years. I have two lovely daughters, Amy and Lisa, and the whole time I got to work here and work weekends and my daughters did both show jumping and eventing, my wife became the driver and support staff while I was here at work was. Some weekends I would try to go to some events on a Saturday and Sunday, but you didn’t come out too often, but I really want to thank my wife for being there for the kids. “
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