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Shannon 'Sugar' Doyle recalls his lifelong passion for horse racing

Sep 15,2020 Curtis Stock for Horse Racing Alberta

Century Mile track announcer Shannon, call me ‘Sugar,’ Doyle got sold on horse racing early. “I was 10 years old and living in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, when my mother, Frances, walked me through the gates at the Summerside Raceway racetrack."

"Actually she didn’t even walk me through the gates,” said Doyle, who turns 51 this week. “To save a few dollars she told me to wait outside for about five minutes and then tell the admission clerks that I was looking for my mother.” Whatever, it worked.

“From that day on I was hooked. My mom and her sister, Helen, both liked to play the horses,” said Doyle, who grew up with three brothers and three sisters and his dad, Aubrey. “But neither my dad nor my brothers and sisters were interested. It was just me and my mom and one uncle, who owned a few horses.”

Doyle, on the other hand, fell hard. “I started skipping school to hang around the barns. Sometimes I would still be there at 10 or 11 o’clock at night. I was 10 or 11 years old and it was a 20 minute walk home which was a long walk - especially in the winter. Sometimes, when my parents told me I couldn’t go to the track - that I had to do my homework or something - I remember crying because I couldn't go to the races.”

The year after Doyle got smitten by race horses his mother took him to Charlottetown, about a 45-minute drive away from Summerside for their famous Gold Cup and Saucer harness race. “That made me fall in love with horses even more,” said Doyle. “When I was old enough to get my driver’s license I would drive back and forth to Charlottetown. If I wasn’t at school, and, like I said, I often skipped school, I was at the races,” said Doyle, who would often be found on the end of a shovel shovelling manure.

“I liked everything about the track. The speed of the horses, the sound of the hooves hitting the track… I liked it all. I also always had a liking for dogs and if there is any animal close to the spirit and mind of a dog it would be a horse.”

One of the other things Doyle likes is the smell. “It’s funny but I remember coming home one day with my boots covered in manure when I was 12-years-old. I told my mom that I wouldn’t mind if I had to wake up every morning smelling like manure. “I took a liking to everything about horses and it stayed with me.”

It wasn’t long before Doyle also started to imagine himself calling races. “It was always one of my dreams to actually call a race myself. One of my sisters bought me a transistor radio for Christmas. I used to go to bed at night listening to a guy named Kevin ‘Boomer’ Gallant call the races which in those days would come on every 20 minutes. That radio got a lot of mileage. I’ve always told people I’ve mentored about becoming a race announcer that if you close your eyes you should be able to imagine that your are right there at the track watching the races.”

Doyle does just that. He paints a picture of every race - often telling a story about the race - in his own inimitable style and with his big booming baritone voice. Every race is different and Doyle makes them all come alive.

“Sugar is a great announcer,” said Century Mile racing manager Matt Jukich, who used to call the races at Northlands himself. “He’s enthusiastic and he loves what he does. He brings a lot of colour and entertainment to the booth.”

And he’s good - rarely, if ever - making a mistake. “He gets them all in the right order which is the most important part,” said Jukich. Doyle calls the races mostly by colours. Before the races begin he takes out pieces of paper and uses felt tip, coloured markers and Crayolas to help him call the right horses.

“I write out the names of the horses and the names of the jockeys or drivers - along with the numbers of the horses - on the sheets of paper.
“Mostly I go by the colour and patterns of the jockeys’ or the driver’s silks. “In thoroughbred racing I also go a lot by the colour of the jockey’s caps. The colour of the caps can tell the tale too especially when they are turning for home and the colours of the silks get covered up by all the heads and necks of the horses.”

The latter hasn’t always worked. “I called the races in Fort Erie one year and there were a dozen horses in one race and half a dozen of the jockeys all had black caps. The sun was setting. That was tough,” Doyle recalls.

“In Alberta it’s pretty easy because what’s written in the program is almost always what the jockeys or drivers are wearing.” Sometimes Doyle will also note other differentiating factors like the colour of the horses - whether they are chestnuts, bays or roans - or the colour of blinkers or even which horses are wearing bandages and what colour they are. Any little thing to help me distinguish one horse from another.”

Doyle got his first gig calling races at a small track in Prince Edward Island. “It was a track called O’Leary in western P.E.I. There was just a handful of races and very short fields. “There was no betting; it was all for fun. One day the winner of one race got a bag of potatoes. That’s no lie. But from that day on I always thought if somebody gave me a chance to go somewhere and call the races I would definitely give it a whirl.”

That was in the summer of 2005. The following year Doyle was reading an on-line racing forum and one of the things that was brought up was who was going to call the harness races at Northlands. “I put some feelers in and Alan Bott, who unfortunately just died a few days ago, was the racing secretary. He was the first one I talked to. He told me to put together a tape of a call and that’s what I did. In January of 2006 I called one race at Charlottetown, put it on a VHS tape and send it to him. Alan called me back and that spring I was on a plane to Edmonton."

“That one race was all anybody at Northlands knew about Shannon Doyle. Nobody in Edmonton knew anything abut me and I knew of nobody in Edmonton. I didn’t know a soul. I’ve always been proud that nothing was ever handed to me. If I wanted something I always had to go after it. That’s something that my dad instilled in me. Fourteen years later I’m still at it, still excited to go to work and still looking forward to each race day.”

Doyle was a hit right off the bat even if his first night in Edmonton wasn’t so special. “They told me they would have a room for me in one of the dorms at Northlands. But when I got to the backstretch a guy named Andy told me that no one had mentioned anything to him about it. But he gave me a room and it was just me, the floor and my bags. I really roughed it that night; it was definitely not the Holiday Inn.”

Doyle called the harness races at Northlands from 2006 to 2013. Starting in 2010 he also started calling the thoroughbred races. “I never pictured myself living anywhere outside of P.E.I. but something in me clicked. After a couple of weeks I knew I was in the right place. Keith Clark had a horse called Father Knows Best and my father always did.”

Then, in 2013, Doyle left Edmonton for London, Ontario’s The Raceway at Western Fair District when their announcer Greg Blanchard who was promoted to the role of Racing Manager. “I’ve been there ever since,” said Doyle. “It’s a winter track only. There’s no racing from June to September.”

This year Doyle returned to Edmonton to call the thoroughbreds but unfortunately for Edmonton racing fans, Doyle will be heading back to London immediately after the Sept. 27 Canadian Derby.

Who will call the races in Edmonton for the rest of the meeting is up in the air. So too is what Doyle and Century Mile’s plans are for next year. “I’ve been very fortunate,” said Doyle, who does a lot of social media. “A lot of people are not looking forward to their days and their jobs. I still get excited every race day and every time I call a horse race. When people listen to me call a race they are listening to a big fan. I’ve been a fan for 40 years.

Sometimes I have a hard time containing my excitement and I get loud,” said Doyle, who believes the most exciting race he announced was when Tajma Hall set Northlands track record of 1:50 3/5  as a 10-year-old in 2008. That was a world record for a 10-year-old on a five-eighths of a mile track. “I just try to be myself but I guess I’m a bit of every announcer I’ve ever listened to. If there’s a story to be told I’ll tell it. It isn’t just about where the horses are sitting. I want to have fun and maintain some professionalism.”

Doyle’s favourite announcer is Tom Durkin and his favourite race was Durkin’s call of the 1989 Breeders Cup Classic when Sunday Silence, the 2-1 second favourite just held off 1-2 choice Easy Goer by a neck. “If I want to get pumped up that’s my go-to-race,” said Doyle. “The hair on my arms still stands up when I listen to that race. Tom used every bit of energy and whatever he had in his pipes, I’m sure I will listen to that race again before the upcoming Canadian Derby here at Century Mile.”

Doyle has called four Canadian Derbies. The first was No Hesitation in 2010, then Freedoms Traveller in 2011, Toccetive in 2012 and Broadway Empire in 2013. “This one will be won by Maskwecis. I like him and I like the trainer/owner Red Smith. He’s one of my favourite people. “That’ll be an awesome day. Who knows how much they’ll bet? They bet $1.361 million on the recent Alberta Fall Classic Call which was a record handle for Century Mile.”

The all-time record handle in Edmonton came in 1980 when $1,652,940 was bet on the Derby card when Queen’s Plate winner Driving Home, owned by Camrose’s Hal Yerxa won at Northlands. “Who knows?” said Doyle. “Maybe they can eclipse that mark on September 27.

As for his nickname, ‘Sugar’ Doyle said it came when he was coaching minor hockey in Summerside. “The kids were all passing around nicknames and they figured I needed one too. I always had a pocket full of candy so the kids wanted to call me ‘The Candy Man’ but one of the mothers didn’t like that so it became ‘Sugar.’ It’s stuck."

“People always had trouble with Shannon anyway. I’d get called Sheldon or Shaun or Steven. My family still calls me Shannon but most everybody else knows me as Sugar.” They also know him as one of the finest race callers to ever come to Edmonton.

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