Cape Breton harness racing legend Sonny Rankin is known for his skill and knowledge on and off the track
SYDNEY, NS – The Cape Breton harness racing community mourns the loss of a driver many considered a legend on the local scene.
Douglas (Sonny) Rankin, known for his talent and willingness to help others on and off the track, passed away on Wednesday. The cause of death was not confirmed at the time of publication. He was 76 years old.
Longtime friend Dr Carl (Bucky) Buchanan learned of Rankin’s passing Thursday afternoon and said the news surprised him.
“This is a real loss for the harness racing family,” Buchanan said in a telephone interview from his home in Dartmouth.
“He was the kind of person who helped and shared his racing knowledge with anyone who asked for help. There is no doubt that he was a giant in the horse racing industry and just a great guy overall.
Buchanan, who helped induct Rankin into the Cape Breton Sports Hall of Fame in 2019, first met Rankin at Tartan Downs in Sydney, where the two have become close friends over the years.
“We’ve always talked about hockey, football and of course harness racing and I think that’s how we really became good friends through those talks,” Buchanan said, noting that the two were always joking between. them.
While knowing him for his competitive nature on the track, Buchanan said he saw a different side to Rankin, both as a father, a member of the Cape Breton Horsemen’s Association board of directors and a friend.
“If a horse was sick it was definitely as good as any vet,” Buchanan said. “I think, unofficially, a lot of people thought of him as a vet because he always came to see what he could do or what he thought the problem was with the horse.”
New Waterford rider Dana Getto echoed Buchanan’s words, noting that there were times his family would ask Rankin to check their horses.
“If you called Sonny at 3 am because there was something wrong with your horse, he would come to you,” Getto said. “He never refused anyone. It didn’t matter if it was 3 a.m. or 6 p.m. or any time of the day, he would always be there to help.
As a child, Getto remembers watching Rankin run at the Cape Breton Turf Club – also known as the Cape Breton Sports Center and Tartan Downs.
“When I was eight, Sonny gave me a baseball cap with Sonny Rankin Stable on it – it was gold and blue that were his colors,” Getto said.
“A few years ago he came home with the boys and I had the hat on. I still had it, it was in mint condition and in storage over the years and he was shocked to see it.
A career to remember
The man everyone around the stables knew as Sonny was born April 12, 1945 in Judique – the oldest of eight children.
At the age of two, he rode his first horse, a pony named Ginger that he never forgot during his career.
Rankin’s young life was filled with many such memories around the Balls Creek stables as part of a family that would become synonymous with racing in the Maritimes.
He started his career as a coach and driver for Public Stable in 1957 when he was just 11 years old. He won an ice race at Dartmouth the same year.
At age 15, Rankin began driving under the United States Trotting Association and a year later placed second at the Nova Scotia Invitational in Lower Sackville.
In 1963, Rankin had 106 incredible victories, all over Maritime ovals. The successful feat placed him 25 wins ahead of his closest rival.
Rankin ended his career in the early 1990s after sustaining a serious back injury, but not before recording 15,032 starts, 2,554 wins, 2,345 seconds and 2,181 thirds, earning over $ 1 million on the stock market over a period of 30 years from 1961 to 1991.
Buchanan and Getto both said Rankin was a fierce competitor on the track and, while friendly off the track, never did anyone a favor during a race.
“He liked to win and he didn’t like to lose,” Buchanan said. “He gave 100% all the time and I think his record reflects that. He took it seriously and was a great competitor not only to compete but also to admire from a distance.
“His record places him in a special category. I think his record would be comparable to that of some of the best harness racing drivers.
His very first practice at the Sydney Sports Center saw Rankin leading the field with Tenniswood, a 14-year-old Corporal Lee gelding owned by his father Donald Rankin in 2:19. The winning scholarship was $ 250.
After his racing career ended, Rankin remained active as a judge and trained horses as well.
Information on the funeral of the late Douglas (Sonny) Rankin was not available at the time of publication.
Jeremy Fraser is a sports and breaking news reporter for the Cape Breton Post. He has worked for the publication for four years. Follow Jeremy on Twitter @CBPost_Jeremy.