(Melissa Keith, with Justin Turnbull; photo by Jason Turnbull)
Sometimes people trot out stereotypes about harness racing. They say it's a sport only enjoyed by older people, and maybe kids should just stay home. Justin Turnbull is a young racing fan who flips the script on those notions.
"My parents started taking me to the track when I was two years old," says 13-year-old Justin, who lives in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He was raised alongside a familiar name on the Maritime racing scene: "My great uncle Fraser had a mare named Carols Junebug who had a baby named Junebugs Baby, whose field is practically in my backyard, so I grew up as he did."
Junebugs Baby is now 11 years old and racing for different owners, but the early connection left a lasting impression. "I went to the track with my parents, and they took me to every track that Junebug raced," recalls Justin. "There was one day my dad got me up early. We drove to PEI, as a surprise, just so I didn't miss his race; went out to eat; then drove back home."
While his immediate family does not currently own horses, their presence remains strong. "My great uncle Fraser has always had horses, and he always tells me stories about all his horses he had before Junebug. There were also horses on my mom's side of the family as well," says Justin, who is often sighted at tracks in the Maritime provinces, but also well beyond.
The well-travelled young fan even made an appearance in the winner's circle at the 2019 Little Brown Jug. His dad, Jason, brought Justin to Ohio last year to fulfill a promised 2018 Christmas present: a shared Jug Week vacation. Even though Justin had his arm in a sling--it had been broken in a playground accident--he proudly sported his blue-and-white checkered driving colours, plus a winning attitude. He and his father met trainer Bill MacKenzie during the week, and were later thrilled to be invited to the winner's circle with Southwind Ozzi and entourage.
"I've been to all the tracks in the Maritimes, but the Delaware County Fair and the Little Brown Jug are definitely my favorite," says Justin. "I got to meet all my favorite drivers, spend time with them, while also seeing the best three-year olds compete for the Jug." Southwind Ozzi's Jug is one Turnbull will always remember: In an extraordinary gesture, trainer MacKenzie even gave his first personal Jug trophy to the young fan who had overcome early-life health struggles.
Visiting racetracks has brought Justin closer to harness racing, and harness racing closer to him. "My favorite horses would have to be Junebugs Baby, Foiled Again, Wiggle It Jiggleit, and Wakizashi Hanover, all who I've had the pleasure of meeting," he shares. "My favorite drivers would be my great uncle Fraser, Montrell Teague, Bob McClure, Jody Jamieson, Ryan Campbell, and Tim Tetrick." On Twitter (Justin is @HorseFan4Life), his photos often show him alongside his favourite racing personalities.
If harness racing could use a youth movement, it can best facilitate it by welcoming fans like Justin Turnbull to the track. "I will definitely be working in this industry when I grow up," he notes. "Some days I say I'm gonna call races like Vance Cameron, handicap races like Dave Brower, and other days I think I wanna be a trainer, like Ron Burke, Tony Alagna, and Brent McGrath."
In the absence of a family racehorse or relatives who are current participants in racing, barriers to entering the sport can seem overwhelming for young people. Although many tracks are closed or limiting all spectators at the moment, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the USHWA Youth Membership Committee shares Justin Turnbull's view that young people belong at the races, whenever the races return. "I think kids should be allowed at all tracks because it teaches us little things at a time, and I'm always asking questions to learn what is being done," he says. "I couldn't imagine not being allowed in. How else would I be in love with this sport and wanna grow up doing this as my job?"
The 2020 Northside Downs racing season ended in November, making Justin's local track a quieter place during the winter months. For him, it's only a temporary break from the up-close experience of his chosen sport. "We don't own any horses at the moment, but my dad says we will for sure someday. I would even like to own a part of a horse as a start, to learn," he notes. Here's hoping that 2021 will bring many more racetrack visits for Justin, and for all young people who love horses and harness racing.
(This is the final article in the year-long 2020 USHWA Youth Racetrack Reviews series, circulated and created by the USHWA Youth Membership Committee Chair Melissa Keith, with contributions from USHWA Youth members, potential members, Youth Committee members, and industry supporters, and guidance from the late Bill Galvin.
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