By Chris Lomon
It is a horse racing life well lived, and one that many are grateful to have been part of.
Frank Courtney’s career, one that reached the finish line on a picture-perfect day at Woodbine, spanned seven decades, and spawned a multitude of roles, both on and off the racetrack.
His most recent job, that of Horsemen’s Bookkeeper, was one he held for 32 years.
Few, if any, have been able to view the world of Thoroughbred racing through such a unique lens, something Courtney is humbly grateful to have experienced.
“I’ve been in racing all my life. My father trained horses and rode, my uncles also rode. It’s been in my blood since I was born.”
Actually, even before he arrived.
“On September 4, 1952, my mother was at the races at Dufferin Park and she started having labour pains and then you used to go home and have your children. So a few of the owners and trainers said, ‘You better get home and have your baby,’ and needless to say I was born about 6 p.m. I was actually almost born at Dufferin.”
His racetrack life began in the early 1960s when he walked hots for trainer Andy Smithers.
“Growing up and learning to gallop horses for Andy Smithers, I consider him one of the best trainers I ever worked for,” offered Courtney. “Other notable trainers were Frank Merrill Jr., I went to Florida for three years with him trying to be a jockey, but my body structure was a little too large and I couldn’t get down light enough to ride thoroughbreds, but I rode Quarter Horses on Sunday nights after the races. We’d go up there and I rode for John McKenzie, who ended up being a horse trainer here at Woodbine.”
Not surprisingly, Courtney, who also spent time as an exercise rider, has no shortage of racing tales, horse and human, to share.
How he got – and kept – the Clerk of Scales role at Woodbine is one that stands out.
“When I was working in the jocks’ room in 1976, the Clerk of Scales at the time was Robert Davie and he was the gentleman that taught me everything in the jocks’ room. A couple years later I became his assistant Clerk of Scales and when he retired he made sure the job was given to me, even though I was only about 27 years old.”
In some ways, the odds of success were stacked against Courtney.
“Even senior management was concerned because I had galloped horses with a bunch of my friends like David Clark, Robin Platts, Gary Stahlbaum, all the top riders at the time, and they were worried that I would be intimidated by them, but he had said to me, and I love this quote, ‘Frank, I’m giving you the opportunity to be the Clerk of Scales, it’s up to you to either keep the job or lose the job.’ I’ll never forget when he said that. He said, ‘It’s your job, a good job, and you’re going to have to do everything that I taught you, don’t let your friends intimidate you.’ Luckily, the ones that I had been real close with were probably the best to work with.”
Courtney also worked closely with some of the sport’s top trainers and top horses, never taking any of those interactions or lessons learned for granted.
“One of the best horses I ever galloped for Frank Merrill was a horse called Lord Vancouver. He was a super turf horse and that was one of Merrill’s that they had purchased off Conn Smythe.
“Another horse that I had the privilege of getting on was a horse One for All, a horse that was trained by Horatio Luro, the trainer of Northern Dancer, that was sent up to compete in the Canadian International. We had real fun with him because they were training him to get ready to go to the l’Arc de Triomphe in France, but because they run the opposite way in France, we got to go out every morning after late training and they closed the turf so we could gallop in the wrong direction and that unique because nobody else was allowed on.”
For as many stories as Courtney has, others have equally fascinating stories of the man himself.
Some speak of the meticulous work he did as a bookkeeper, others talk of his life on the Woodbine backstretch.
All of them note the profound impact Courtney has had on Thoroughbred racing in Canada.
For trainer Don MacRae, who began his training career over 25 years ago, the man he met early on in his racetrack life would become a mentor, and a game changer in his career.
A lifetime winner of 535 races, MacRae, to this day, remains grateful for Courtney’s guidance.
“As a younger trainer starting out I was very cocky and thought I knew it all,” said MacRae. “Frank was a guy who would always try and teach me to be a better person and show me that kind of attitude was the wrong one to have. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson, and Jessica Buckley, Woodbine Entertainment SVP, Standardbred & Thoroughbred Racing, shared equally high words of praise for Courtney.
“Frank has been a fixture at Woodbine,” started Lawson. “Like many of our employees, Frank has been working with us for decades and it is people like Frank that have made Woodbine into the familiar and caring community that it has become. When you walk into Frank’s office to ask him to perform a special task for an owner he reliably got the job done, despite usually being overwhelmed with “special requests.” Frank always handled those requests in stride and with a smile. I will certainly miss him and our chats and I wish him the very best in retirement.”
“Frank’s long tenure with Woodbine is a true testament to his love for racing and the people he deals with on a daily basis,” said Buckley. “His commitment to excellence, when serving the bookkeeping needs of horse people, will be greatly missed by all.”
Sue Leslie, President of the HBPA, and board member with Ontario Racing, noted Courtney’s keen eye and attention to detail in his bookkeeping role, skills that were highly respected and appreciated by the thousands of horse people who depended on his diligent efforts each week.
“Frank maintained meticulous order in the bookkeeper’s office,” noted Leslie. “Horsepeople could count on him for accurate information on their accounts. On behalf of all horsepeople, Frank, we thank you for your 40 plus years of committed service to HBPA members. We all wish you well in your retirement and hope you 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 just for his flawless work throughout the years, but also for his ability to connect with trainers, owners and jockeys.
“Frank is one the nicest guys you could ever meet, nothing was ever a problem with him. He always made sure everything was correct. Also, he is a horseman, so he understands what your needs are. We will all be sorry to see him leave, but wish him nothing but the best.”
With one of horse racing’s most one-of-a-kind careers now in the books, Courtney can look back fondly upon what he was able to accomplish.
“It’s been a great experience. “I’ve met a lot of great people over the years. I’ve been teaching Tammy Frost to come in and help with Anne McMahon, as a member of the bookkeeping team. Anne and Tammy were also related with horse racing also and it’s something that a lot of people… I mean for 47 years I’ve given up a lot of weekends because races are Saturday and Sunday, so the weekends are Monday, Tuesday, which a lot of friends could never understand. They call you up for a party Saturday night, but I had to work Sunday morning doing 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 he did, and that in some way, big or small, they were able to go along for part of the ride with hm.
“Over the years, I realized how much he had helped me in my career to become a better trainer and a better person,” said MacRae. “I wish him all the best in his future adventures.”
The last word, which goes to Courtney, is a heartfelt expression of gratitude to his family.
“I met my wife Rita in 1972. We’ve been married 46 years. I have two lovely daughters, Amy and Lisa, and all the times I was allowed to work here and work weekends and my daughters both competed show jumping and eventing, my wife became the van driver and support staff while I was here at work. The odd weekend I would try and go on a Saturday and Sunday to some of the events, but you didn’t get out too often, but I’d really like to thank my wife for being there for the kids.”