Taking the reins

Bo Ford & Ryan Cooke
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Island driver fights off demons to reach milestone victory in Truro

TRURO – What seemed like eternity to Fredericton native Mike Stevenson has now become history.

Truro Raceway has been the venue for many of Mike Stevenson's career wins, but on Tuesday night it played host to a milestone for the Island driver - No. 1,500. Despite having a stellar record on the track, Stevenson's life away from the stables has been less than, well, stable. A drug problem led to several suspensions for Stevenson, which nearly shut down his career four years ago.

The 49-year-old driver landed his 1,500th career driving victory Tuesday night in the first race aboard Tyne Valley at Truro Raceway.

Eternity lasted a streak of 20 consecutive races without a victory for Stevenson, until he finally got to the winner circle Tuesday night. 

"It's a relief to be honest. It feels good to get the monkey off of my back actually," he said. "I'm pretty proud of it, for where I've been the last five or six years, to be on the straight and narrow and get something like that makes you kind of see the right side of things."

Stevenson used a perfect pocket ride to ensure his 1,500 trip to the winner circle. 

"I looked over at Paul (Lanigan) through the lane and said, 'Thank god it's off my back.'"

During those 20 races, he picked up six second-place finishes.

“It was good to see him finally get it done,” said Truro Raceway veteran Bernard McCallum. “It can really get in your head after a while.”

McCallum had his own struggle to hit 1,500, which he finally accomplished on July 13, after weeks of trying.

“You can get some pretty dumb drives when you’re chasing down a milestone like that,” he said. “But you have to keep in mind that it’ll happen when it happens.”

Stevenson had a close call last Thursday, when he lost by a quarter-length while driving a horse owned by Dan Ross.

"I would have loved to have won it with one of Dan's," Stevenson said. "He stuck by me through a lot of stuff over the past six years."

While Stevenson has always had a skill for handling the reins in the driver’s seat, his life away from the track often broke stride and spiraled out of control.

On Oct. 11, 2010, Stevenson was notified that he had tested positive for a controlled substance. While drug suspensions are not entirely uncommon around the track, this one was different. It wasn’t one of his horses that tested positive – it was him.

I trained my (first) horse, which I'll never forget, when I was five-years-old and sitting in my dads lap. I can remember we went a mile in 2:23. Ever since then it was all about racing Mike Stevenson

A winner of over $4.3 million dollars in purses, Stevenson admitted himself into a drug addiction program and started to see a counsellor every second week. 

Nine months later he was granted a hearing in front of the racing commission to plead his case for reinstatement.

At one of the most vulnerable times of his life, the local racing community went to bat for Stevenson – namely Dan Ross, Kenny Arsenault, Earl Smith and Richard Campbell.

"For those four guys to come up and stand beside me and say what they said, I get choked up thinking about it still," Stevenson said, holding back tears. 

On July 13, 2011, Stevenson was reinstated to the sport he loves.

"What those guys did makes it seem like it's all worth it. It was the first thing I thought of (Tuesday night).”

Mike Stevenson was born into a rich tradition of harness racing. His father Bobby was a well-known trainer in New Brunswick in the early 1970s before he made his move to Foxboro, MA, to pursue a career in harness racing. His mother Diane was the clerk of the course and program director at the Meadowlands in New Jersey for almost 20 years. His sister Janet is also heavily involved in harness racing and is married to Delaware mainstay Eddie Davis Jr. His other sister Gloria is best known for being the caretaker of Nihilator during his three-year-old season. 

He didn't have much of a choice but learn the trade. 

"I trained my (first) horse, which I'll never forget, when I was five-years-old and sitting in my dads lap. I can remember we went a mile in 2:23. Ever since then it was all about racing." 

After returning to the winner circle 1,500 times, Stevenson said there is one main reason he continues to do it.

"Winning. It's what I love to do, I've never done anything but harness racing."

 

Organizations: Meadowlands

Geographic location: Truro, Tyne Valley, New Brunswick Foxboro New Jersey

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