By: Jennifer Morrison for WoodbineRacetrack.com
TORONTO, December 8, 2017 – Ten months ago, in a cozy restaurant on a bitterly cold winter’s day, trainer Norm McKnight was reliving his 2016 racing season at Woodbine, a career year for the former Standardbred driver. His 59 wins, in his 18th year as a Thoroughbred trainer, placed him second to the massive Mark Casse stable, which had 97.
When he was asked how many career wins he thought he had, he guessed 450.
“It was actually 408, I was told,” said McKnight. “So, I said, well, if I can win 92 in 2017, I will hit 500. I was joking; no way did I think that I could do that.”
Heading into this season’s final three days of racing, McKnight and his team sit at 91 victories, one shy of his goal and just two wins shy of Casse.
And while the 57-year-old is more concerned with organizing his trip to race a stable of 20 at Oaklawn Park this winter, he admits it would be satisfying to meet a goal that seemed impossible in the spring.
“If I win 92 races, I will be very happy that I matched that goal,” said McKnight. “And if I finish second to Mark by one or two, I won’t be disappointed.”
McKnight may shrug his shoulders when asked (daily) if his barn can pass on Casse by the last race Sunday, you can see a little glint in his eye when he thinks about it.
“Of course, it would be gratifying. We are small potatoes compared to Casse.”
Casse has led all Woodbine trainers for 10 consecutive years and has won the title 11 times in total.
Supplied with horses owned by Woodbine’s leading race-winning owner Bruno Schickedanz, plus Racer’s Edge Stable, Calico Racing, Gary McMaster, and Trinity Racing among others, McKnight’s 91 Woodbine wins have come from 68 starters who have made 290 starts, a 31 percent win rate. Casse’s 93 wins have come from 170 starters who have made 497 starts for a 19 percent win rate (according to Equibase).
The McKnight stable is also less than $22,000 away from its first ever $2 million season in purse earnings, only the third time the barn has cracked seven figures.
“We’ve been bigger this year,” said McKnight, who lives in Streetsville. “Last year we carried about 25 to 30 horses, this year it has been 40 to 48.”
Some of the horses have been with McKnight all season long while others have been in and out through the claim box. His stars this year have been the stakes placed mare Scotty’s Model and some of the most winningest horses on the circuit including Unseen Angels, Singandcryindubai and Villageofvibank.
Ask any of his owners and they will tell you that McKnight and his assistant, his son Brad, are incredibly hard working and have different programs for almost every horse.
Norm, who leaves his house just after 3 a.m. each morning and gets to bed by 8 p.m., is constantly working with his owners to find the next horse to claim and then working out a training program for each one.
“I typically look for horses I can improve on. I look for a sound horse who maybe is not at their peak at the time. Then you find out how that horse likes to train and work out a program. Once a horse is fit, they do a lot of jogging rather than galloping or working.”
The son of accomplished Standardbred driver Norm Sr., a young McKnight was riding show horses and drove his first Standardbred when he was 12 years old. His own career in harness racing saw him win some 1,500 races before he dipped his toe in the Thoroughbred industry.
Admittedly, McKnight says his approach to training and racing is not for every owner and he makes it clear to prospective clients at the outset.
“For my stable it is very, very important that I tell whoever comes on board as an owner if you are in love with your horse and you never want to lose the horse (in a claiming race), then I am the wrong guy for you.
“I am very aggressive, I like to win races with the horses I have. If you are okay with that, I will work with you. I am not going to give their horses away; I will assess them and try put the proper value on them but at the end of the day I still like to take an edge too. If they are worth $20,000, I might run them for $10,000.”
He also gets soft spots for horses too. One of his favourites these days is Constantino, a two-winner this year whom McKnight says has a great personality and is a “nice, nice horse.”
With about a dozen more starters to come in 2017, McKnight’s goal to hit 500 seems a surety and even toppling the mighty Casse stable is a possibility.
McKnight, however, knows that even with the meticulous work that him and his staff do each day, success comes down to one thing.
“It’s the horse. If you have a good horse, then they make you look good.”