A new harness racing series is putting the spotlight on young drivers in the region, giving them the opportunity to race against their peers, and gain valuable experience.
The series is called the Gamester–Pinkney Memorial Cup, in honour of two long-time supporters of youth harness racing, the late Byron Gamester of Glen Valley, P.E.I., and the late Phil Pinkney of Lower Onslow, N.S.
There will be three events: July 12 in Summerside during Lobster Carnival Week, July 19 at Truro Raceway, and August 16 at Red Shores Charlottetown, part of Old Home Week.
Many young drivers on P.E.I. and in Nova Scotia get their start at small matinee tracks in rural communities, getting experience until they can apply for their pari-mutuel licence at the age of 18.
Organizers say this series will help with the transition to larger tracks.
"Sometimes it can be overwhelming when you have your pari-mutuel licence to suddenly be thrown into the fray with the experienced drivers," said Julie Jamieson, executive director for the P.E.I. Harness Racing Industry Association.
"We felt that by offering a program like this, it would be the next logical step for them, to be able to drive amongst their peers in smaller fields."
The Nova Scotia Harness Industry Association helped to plan this inaugural event.
Organizers were hoping for eight participants, but had 12 entries from young drivers in Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and New Brunswick, so they expanded the number of events to allow all of them to compete.
Jamieson said the new series will also give the young drivers the opportunity to drive other horses.
"It gets them out of their comfort zone, driving different types of horses, which is all important when you're getting your pari-mutuel license because no two horses are the same," Jamieson said.
"It's important that you drive as many as possible, so that you can build up lots of experience."
Jamieson said the series also gives the young drivers a chance to compete at different tracks.
'Foot in the door'
Zach Conway, 21, from Bonshaw, P.E.I. is one of the 12 participants, the third generation of his family in harness racing.
"My first drive was actually on June 24th, 2015, in O'Leary. So I was only 14 years old at the time, and I still remember that night I finished fourth. I didn't finish last, so I was pretty happy about that," Conway said.
"I drove for three more seasons on the matinees circuit, and I competed in Summerside at the final. So that was pretty cool to get to be on a bigger track, and all the people watching."
"That's where I started falling in love with the sport, and wanting to become a driver."
Conway has been driving since 2019, mainly horses owned by his family's stable.
"Drivers like myself, I don't get as many drives as I'd like to, and the only ones that I do get are my own horses," Conway said.
"It gives young drivers the opportunity to be able to sit behind a horse they've never sat behind, or just drive for somebody else for a change."
It gives young drivers the opportunity to be able to sit behind a horse they've never sat behind, or just drive for somebody else for a change
— Zach Conway, Gamester–Pinkney Memorial Cup participant
"I'm hoping that it might end up with them saying, well, you know, he did good with my horse this week, so maybe I'll try him again next week," Conway said.
"It's just another kind of foot in the door to being able to further yourself in the industry, and being able to accumulate more drives that way."
Zach's dad, Paul Conway, said he's happy to see the new series for young drivers.
"I think it's a great opportunity for young drivers to showcase their talents, and hopefully it'll bring more young people to the sport," Conway said.
Organizers and competitors said they hope, if the series is successful this year, that it will be back for years to come.
"I really hope so, because I know there are a couple of up and coming drivers on the matinees circuit, guys that just started this year, and a couple that will be graduating," Zach Conway said.
"I think it's a great opportunity for them to be able to get that experience. We have a good response this year, and I think that it should be an annual thing."