For James and Wilma Mackenzie, the Pepsi North America Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime race.
The retired Ennismore couple have been involved in horse racing for more than five decades. Now, for the first time, they’re competing in the prestigious $1 million event, thanks to their three-year-old Ontario-bred colt Ron.
Ron is one of 10 pacers vying for the crown.
Billed as Canada’s richest harness race, the 2022 Pepsi North America Cup, which features the finest three-year-old pacers in Standardbred racing, takes place Saturday night at the Woodbine Mohawk Park in Campbellville, near Milton about 185 kilometres southwest of Peterborough.
“It’s exciting to have a horse that’s good enough to race in (the Pepsi North America Cup),” James told The Examiner.
Ron, one of four horses owned by the Mackenzies, is trained by longtime partner James “Friday” Dean.
Ron has raced in 15 races, winning five of them.
“Ron is smart and he likes to play, but he works hard when he races,” James said.
The colt made it to this year’s Pepsi North America Cup after placing fourth in a qualifying race at Woodbine Mohawk Park last weekend.
“There was a race of nine and a race of eight and the first five from each race got to go to the final,” James said.
Since purchasing their first racehorse in 1969, the Mackenzies have owned more prize-winning pacers than James can keep track of.
“I’ve lost count. It’s in the three digits,” James said. “We’ve had some good horses over the years.” In 2018, James and Wilma’s horse Percy Bluechip won an O’Brien Award in the Two-Year-Old Pacing Fillies category — a top honour in Canadian horse racing.
While James has high hopes for his prized pacer, he knows it will be a challenging race.
“There are about four or five other horses that are really good horses so he’s going to have a tough fight. He’ll be an underdog,” he said.
Ron will be driven by Jody Jamieson.
The Mackenzies aren’t the only local connection to this year’s Pepsi North America Cup.
Long-time trainer and Kawartha Downs regular Tim Gillespie, of Grafton, is sending out his three-year-old pacing colt Kolby Two Step to compete in the race.
Kolby Two Step, purchased by Gillespie and ownership partner Jason Churchill in 2020, qualified for the race after placing fifth at last weekend’s eliminations.
Last year, Kolby won three of six starts, including two Ontario Sires Stakes Gold events.
Gillespie’s son, Jim, was a regular driver at Kawartha Downs for nearly a decade before retiring.
James MacDonald will drive Kolby Two Step.
MacDonald took over driving duties from Doug McNair after McNair was double booked.
“(McNair) did a great job qualifying him and bringing him along, and the horse was just coming into the race in top form and flew home,” MacDonald said.
“Just to come off the track last week and see the raw joy, knowing that they’re going to race in the North America Cup, Canada’s signature race, you don’t get good feelings and good vibes like that very often … There’s a lot of excitement following this horse. I’m a lucky guy. It’s a great job, and I’m just really proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish and get to where I’m at. I’m just thrilled to be in the (Pepsi North America Cup).
“This one is going to be a special one for me. I’m good friends with Tim’s son so it’s going to be a lot of fun. Win, lose or draw, they’re going to be happy. I’m really excited and I can’t wait for (the race).”
Brendan Burke is a staff reporter at the Examiner. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach him at email@example.com.
Brendan Burke, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Peterborough Examiner