• Billyjojimbob

    He was the first gelding and the first - and to date only - Canadian bred horse to win the prestigious Elitlopp. His name was unusual - even in the trotting world. His background captured many hearts. But the gentle giant, Trotter of the Year in both Canada and the US, was at heart just the sweet baby of his owner Lori Ferguson.

    He set a world record for two heats when winning the 1992 Elitlopp, one of three world records he would break in his career. Prior to travelling to Sweden, however, the owner did not have too high expectations, "Honestly, the honour was being invited. I had no expectations other than to race the best he could. He didn't owe us anything and he had brought us this far. I just wanted him to race like he usually did. Going against horses I had only read about in a magazine was a little intimidating (Peace Corps) so anything was fine. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to come home with the win." Not only did Ferguson and her then-husband, trainer Mike Wade, see their star win comfortably, but the way he did it impressed everybody who was watching that day. A second favourite in what was considered a wide open elimination heat, Billyjojimbob cruised to a very impressive 1.11.7/1:55.2f win, easily holding off the female trio of Kit Lobell, Park Avenue Kathy and Nealy Lobell. The final set him up against the strongest of all mares, Peace Corps. Going into the final turn Peace Corps faded after being parked outside while Billyjojimbob looked, according to the Swedish commentator Bosse Rydgren, "disgustingly good" ("äckligt bra"). Although Meadow Prophet challenged him hard toward the finish line, Billyjojimbob held his ground and won by half a length.

    The story of Billyjojimbob began 6 years earlier. Young trainer Mike Wade had been given the mare Ginger Jewel, unstarted after suffering a broken coffin bone in training. Ginger Jewel is described by Ferguson as "a very sweet mare with a good gait. She was easy to get along with and didn't have a mean bone in her body." Ginger Jewel was bred to new stallion Balanced Image because Wade had a yearling, an older brother to Billyjojimbob who he liked as a yearling. An instructor in the Harness Horse Industry Operations course at Seneca College, Ferguson brought Ginger Jewel to the college a couple of weeks before her due date to foal, and as a result the foal was handled from day one with much imprinting and would lead and lift his legs for the students by the time he returned home. From the start the foal never showed any of the meanness or nutcase behaviour so often associated with the paternal line.

    When it came to naming the foal the decision was easy for Lori: "It's not that the Walton's was a favourite show but when I was a kid I would watch it and as I got older we would make fun of the ending where they said "night JimBob, night Mary Ellen etc" so I said if Ginger had a colt his name would be Billyjojimbob!" And sure enough, Ginger Jewel gave birth to a colt who was named Billyjojimbob but was affectionately known as just "BJ".

    BJ proved extremely easy to break and train (presumably from being handled so much that he trusted any activity that was asked of him). After a couple days of line driving he was ready to be hooked and jogged. He only started once as a two-year old, finishing fourth, but due to immaturity and growth reasons he was turned out and brought back for his sophomore season. A big horse, he needed a bit extra time to properly grow into his body and also to mature mentally. While many of Balanced Image's sons are gelded for obvious mental reasons, Billyjojimbob was only gelded because he could not keep his mind on his job, not for acting studdish.

    He almost did not return to the track, however, as he became seriously ill after a qualified at Kawartha Downs. Rushed to the University of Guelph, he was diagnosed with possible salmonella poisoning and given a 50/50 chance to survive, but after a week in intensive care he recovered. After being told he was unlikely to return to the track that year, Billyjojimbob made a much faster than expected return to the track and started in an Ontario Sires Stakes race in late July where he finished fourth and six more start in the OSS finished with a 3-2-1 record, winning the OSS events at Windsor, Elmira and Dresden. At the end of his sophomore season he then won the General Brock Stakes and in his last start as that yeear he won a free-for-all trot against older trotters. - That is when he impressed me the most as a three-year-old, recalls Ferguson.

    The win against the free-for-allers was a signal of things to come and the following year he won Horsemen's Trotting Series at Greenwood, the Provenzano Memorial Trot at Batavia Downs (in world record time) and the Breeders Crown in track record time while collecting Trotter of the Year awards in both Canada and the US. The 92 season started in style, winning seven straight races including the the Glorys Comet, the Horsemen's Trotting Series at Greenwood and legs of the Su Mac Lad at the Meadowlands before going over to Sweden to beat the best European trotters. Billyjojimbob could leave very quickly and was often the frontrunner - at the Elitlopp he easily took the lead - but he was equally comfortable using his blazing speed and strength to come from behind, something he demonstrated in the 1991 Breeders Crown where he was 8th halfway but came from behind to claim a comfortable win. After the Elitlopp BJ continued to beat the top trotters in the OJC’s free-for-all ranks before he was involved in a bizarre International Trot. After colliding with Crown Invitation both horses collapsed on the track but after some worrying minutes it became clear that neither the horse nor BJ's driver, Murray Brethour, was injured. Later that year he suffered an adverse reaction to an immune system building medication which forced his untimely retirement just as he was getting comfortable on the center stage on the world of trotting.

    His retirement ceremony was at Greenwood Raceway on July 17, 1993 where he lead the post parade for the Maple Leaf Trot and then was honoured in the winner's circle in a special retirement ceremony. On retiring, BJ and his owner could look back at 62 starts which produced 39 wins, 6 seconds, 4 thirds and earnings of $945,741. Being a gelding there was no stud duty awaiting him, just a comfortable life at home. And as Lori Ferguson admitted, "he was born before my kids therefore he was "my kid" and was spoiled and handled every day." Lori taught him to shake a hoof and he would do it for treats. What probably illustrated the personality of the Canadian star and his relationship with his owner more than anything, however, was probably a comment from Bill O'Donnell. Looking at the horse and possibly considering a bid, O'Donnell, commented to one of Ferguson's friends that "I would never take that horse away from her. He follows her around like a puppy dog!"

    The gentle giant was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1995 and passed away on June 15, 2002 in his paddock from a suspected heart attack.

    Photo by Lori Ferguson, used with permission