Eugene Melnyk had never been inducted into a Hall of Fame before. Never.
Finally, on Wednesday night, the 58-year-old entrepreneur and philanthropist was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in Toronto. And it seemed no small matter to him.
“There's no other way to put it,” he said. “This is a huge, huge, huge deal for me. It's pretty big stuff. I'm in the Hall of Fame!”
Melnyk was inducted as a builder, along with four other people, and five horses, split between Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds. Melnyk was the final one of all to be inducted.
Although he became a major player in the Thoroughbred world, not shy to spend millions on yearlings, breed his own stock, win 12 Sovereign Awards, an Eclipse Award, a Breeders' Cup and every leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, his start in the sport was humble.
Melnyk was the son of a family and emergency physician in Toronto, but he has his Uncle Leo to thank for instilling the love of the racetrack in him, quite early.
“Everybody has an Uncle Leo,” he said to the crowd. He was “a track rat.” To sidestep a wife that was a nag, Uncle Leo would find all sorts of ways of getting out of the house on weekends. A favorite ruse was to say he was going to take little Eugene to High Park, a beautiful tract of greenery and ducks and kid's zoos in west-end Toronto.
Out of sight of the house, Uncle Leo, with 6-year-old Eugene in tow, bolted to the racetrack. “I had no clue,” Melnyk said. It was a scary place. “I was walking around with these giant people, screaming, yelling, pushing everybody and sweaty.” And he cried. Uncle Leo took him home again.
But it wasn't the last time Uncle Leo took the young Melnyk to “High Park.” These trips would happen about 10 times a year. “I started calling Woodbine High Park,” Melnyk said. “That's how bad it got.”
At the age of 14, Melnyk made his first wager. On a certain summer weekend, he and Uncle Leo went to a “really crowded High Park” and Melnyk bet money on a horse because he liked the name: Royal Chocolate.
Turned out, it was Queen's Plate day at Woodbine, and Royal Chocolate won the Queen's Plate. Melnyk wasn't even allowed to be betting at his age, so Uncle Leo cashed the ticket. Melnyk never saw the money and never knew what the horse paid. Royal Chocolate was a longshot and paid $48 for a $2 win ticket.
“God bless Uncle Leo,” Melnyk said. “He got me into horse racing.”
Melnyk admits he grew up at the racetrack and attended every single weekend. Now running a business, he'd change his company rules so that the work day ended at noon on Fridays, so that he could hit first post at Woodbine. He built his offices next to Woodbine.
But two other people and a horse really started the engine that got Melnyk to the Horse Racing Hall of Fame: Bill and Iris Bristow. Bill Bristow was Melnyk's stockbroker.
“Bill, we're not doing well here,” Melnyk said to him one day. “I know nothing about oil. Nothing about gas. Nothing about mining. And I don't care to.”
“Don't worry,” Bristow replied. “I've got a great business that you could get into.” It was horse racing.
“I should have stuck my money with his mining companies,” Melnyk says now.
But the thrill of winning made it all worth it. At a Kentucky yearling sale, Melnyk bought a group of horses, one of them Archer's Bay, on recommendation of Iris. Archer's Bay, a son of Silver Deputy and from a staunch Windfields Farm family, cost $125,000 and Melnyk owned him in partnership with the Bristows.
Imagine his surprise when Archer's Bay won the 1998 Queen's Plate in Melnyk's first attempt. And the horse won the Prince of Wales Stakes, too. Melnyk threw his support behind new trainer Todd Pletcher, who had just left D. Wayne Lukas to strike out on his own.
“Dumb luck,” Melnyk said. “You just can't believe the thrill after being one of those people that just hangs around the track and tries to find somebody dropping a ticket….It's unbelievable to talk about it.”
After that, Melnyk became a major player at the yearling sales. He began buying expensive yearlings in 1996; in 2000, he bought two yearlings for $3-million at the Keeneland July sale. Then in September at Keeneland, he took home 23 yearlings worth $8.482-million. He wasn't finished.
His favorite horse was the filly Harmony Lodge, a $1.65-million purchase in 2000 at a 2-year-old-in-training sale who went on to win the Ballerina, Gallant Bloom and First Lady. In her first start, she equalled a track record at Saratoga. Melnyk bought her while he was at home in Barbados, and Pletcher was in Florida.
Another favorite was Speightstown, a very fast horse who won the 2004 Breeders Cup Sprint. “He was so good, so fast, so powerful and he dug so deep,” Melnyk said. “When we retired him, I was crying. He was the most powerful horse I've ever had. I was thrilled to see him race. You had a better than 50 per cent chance that you were going to win with him. When that jockey just pressed the button, this guy just started passing horses. It didn't matter what was in front of him. He just went through them.”
The ornery Sealy Hill gave Melnyk a Canadian Triple Tiara win, and she out-raced her owner into the Hall of Fame, inducted in 2013. “Those were the peak times,” Melnyk said.
Strangely enough, it was Sealy Hill that convinced Melnyk to get out of the business. “I won everything I wanted to win, except a male [U.S.] Triple Crown race,” Melnyk said. “I was down to the very last race of the Triple Tiara for Sealy Hill, and my kids were calling me down by the pool. And I was up watching this race with eight minutes to go. And I said: ‘It's a race, I've got thousands of races under me,' and I went down to the pool.
“And that said to me: ‘You know what? It's time to go.” He began dispersing his racing and breeding stock in 2014.
While Melnyk had as many as 500 horses at one time, he now owns only four: Luke's Alley, the upset winner of the G1 Gulfstream Park Handicap in 2016, a Sovereign Award winner and a son of Melnyk's Travers winner Flower Alley; another one on the farm and two “laggards” that probably won't be back. Luke's Alley is still active at age 7.
“I never won a Triple Crown race and I can't keep chasing that,” he said. “There will be another hundred million dollars that's gone by the time I get that one. Or it will be some $25,000 claimer.”
If owning the Ottawa Senators of the National Hockey League has taught Melnyk anything, it's that – if he had known how long he would be in the business – he would have done things differently. Especially on the cost containment side. He's learned the wisdom of not trying to win a $100,000 race when the horse should be running in a $40,000 race. “If you want to succeed in this business, race to where your horse will win,” he said. “It's all about winning and it's not about believing that your horse is better than he is. Don't get married to a horse. It's not your child. You can lose a horse on a moment's notice.”
Still, Melnyk's presence in horse racing isn't over. He's thinking of getting back into it. Good friend John Fielding, a Toronto businessman who owns both Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds, has been tugging on his sleeve to return.
“What I did – and it's a killer – is that I bred to race,” Melnyk said. “I did that when stallions were really [valuable]. You hit a good stallion and you're walking away, starting at $15 million to $20 million. And eventually everybody got their heads together and said:'I don't want to pay that, and now we're going to pay $4-million for a stallion.' That's basically the business model that I had.”
So if Melnyk does return, he may just breed to sell. He has a farm and he has mares. He has breeding rights to Speightstown and some other stallions. He may look at going into the November sale to buy four or five mares and “just start breeding, just for fun.”
He added: “And if you break even or make a little money, that's great. At least you're still kind of in the game.”
So Melnyk, the new Hall of Famer, looks into the future and finds himself plenty busy enough, tending to his NHL team, and his numerous charities, the latest of which is The Organ Project. Melnyk underwent a liver transplant two years ago from a public appeal. Now his mission is to raise the profile of organ donation and end the waitlist for Canadians in need of one.
And, oh yes, Melnyk has just found out that he is also to be inducted into the Ukrainian Sports Hall of Fame. Melnyk didn't even know it existed. He's a Ukrainian-Canadian. Although his racing colours of blue and yellow represent the colour of the Barbados flag, they are also the color of the Ukrainian flag. Melnyk never forgets where he came from.
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