Atlantic Canada has produced some great horsemen over the years, but perhaps none better than Springhill native William “Billy” O’Donnell. As a youngster growing up in a horse racing family, “I wanted to drive harness horses more than anything in life. I was fortunate to have some very good teachers as my father and uncles both drove and taught me lessons that have stayed over the years.”
O’Donnell spent his early years working and learning at Sackville Downs training and caring for horses. His big break was when he decided to head to New England with Jim Doherty of Saint John, New Brunswick. where O’Donnell was given the task of training and caring for Travelin Boy which was to become O’Donnell’s very first drive. On May 20, 1972 at Rosecroft Raceway in Maryland, O’Donnell was informed to, “get dressed and weigh in” and drove Travelin Boy home a winner. O’Donnell affectionately calls Travelin Boy,”the horse that made me”.
From 1970 to 1977 O’Donnell developed his talents at tracks around New England. In 1978 he moved to Saratoga, New York where in the next two years he won more than 600 races. On Sunday, January 7, 1979, O’Donnell drove seven winners; only once in harness racing history had a driver won more races on a single day.
The world was beginning to take note of Bill O’Donnell. His career skyrocketed after he moved to the Meadowlands in New Jersey where he had the opportunity to drive the world’s fastest trotters and pacers. In 1985, he established a record by being the first driver in history to earn more than $10 million in a single season. On August 4, 1985 he led Nihalotor to the first ever sub 1:50 mile with a world record if 1:49.2 Nicknamed the “Magic Man” for his ability to bring home winners with his famous stretch drives. O’Donnell has won close to 5000 races, come in second 3800 times and third 3200 times in 25,000 starts in the highest quality harness racing circuit in the world.