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Down But Not Out

Trot Feature - Stéphane Bouchard

Stéphane Bouchard’s rise to the top of the driving ranks was anything but ordinary.

From his start in Quebec to stints in Italy and Germany, at Woodbine and then in the United States, Bouchard was a winner wherever he went. And then in one tragic moment, everything changed. By Debbie Little

Stéphane Bouchard is a survivor, and despite being dealt an incredibly bad hand, he perseveres, committed to staying in the business he loves.

TROT sat down with Bouchard in June, nearly a year to the day after his catastrophic accident at Saratoga Raceway, to discuss his injuries, recovery and future. Chatting with Bouchard at Yonkers Raceway in the past, the scene of so many of his career triumphs, including five driving titles, was always easy. This night was different. It was hard for Bouchard to be at Yonkers and not sit behind a horse. And even though he tries to remain positive for his wife, Eve Bergeron, and son, 16-year-old Sam, there's pain both emotional and physical.

Throughout his career, Bouchard had never stayed in one place too long. He started out working for trainer Pierre Touchette and then for Jean Paul Gauthier in Quebec. When Gauthier died in an auto accident, his widow gave his colors to Bouchard, who wore them throughout his career.

After getting his license in 1989, Bouchard got his first career win at Rideau Carleton and then went on to become a regular at Montreal's Blue Bonnets. In 1993, Bouchard was offered a training/driving opportunity in Rome, Italy and he jumped at it. After about six months, he returned to Blue Bonnets, but in 1997 he went back to Europe, this time for a gig in Germany, that also lasted about six months.

When he returned from Germany, he spent the winter at Pompano where he was noticed by trainer Bill Robinson.

"I had never met him before and I won a few races at Pompano and he watched me drive and he said 'Why don't you come and drive horses for me at Woodbine?' and I said sure. I went all around the world to drive horses, why not Woodbine? That was an easy decision," said Bouchard.

But Bouchard's time in Toronto was short lived because in 1999 his good friend Daniel Dube suggested he relocate to Yonkers. Bouchard felt he could trust Dube's recommendations since he was responsible for introducing Bouchard to his wife Eve, so Bouchard moved to Yonkers. In 2000, he was given the Rising Star Award by the U.S. Harness Writers Association and the year after that was named Driver of the Year by Harness Tracks of America.

But nothing that the Saint-Urbain, QC native had been through prior to, or during his reign as the King of the Hilltop Oval, could have prepared him for what was still to come.

Bouchard, 51, recalls that going into that fateful June afternoon at Saratoga, he had no bad vibes or feeling of foreboding. It was just like any other race day, until it wasn't.

"I remember the first turn. Then I see myself [in the air] over Dan Daley. I see him right under me. That only lasted a few seconds and then I hit the ground and passed out," Bouchard said.

In the paddock turn, Mister Miami, driven by Dan Daley, stumbled and fell. Bouchard, who was trailing the field with Sporty Big Boy, was unable to avoid the spill and was catapulted out of the bike, cracking his helmet as his head hit the track.

"He was moving and he was conscious but he wasn't really there. I looked at Kyle [Spagnola] and I said, 'He's not good, we have to keep him still'," said Henry Westbrook III. Driver/trainer Westbrook and trainer Spagnola had seen the accident from the paddock and were the first to reach Bouchard.

Bouchard remembers little before he was put onto a backboard and into the ambulance but clearly remembers Westbrook and Spagnola keeping him down on the track.

"We didn't really hold him down as much as talk him down and we never stopped talking to him. I was concerned about his head but I never expected him to have the injury that he had," said Westbrook III.

"It's hard to think about it but in hindsight, looking back, if we didn't pay attention to him, I think he would have tried to sit up, and it's a pretty scary thought. He was alert enough that he could have sat up," he added.

Bouchard had been in four or five prior accidents, including a 2003 spill at Freehold Raceway where resulted in a broken shoulder and a collapsed lung, but had no idea how bad off he was this time until he spoke with his doctor following his MRI.

In addition to a concussion, a broken rib and a gash in his leg, Bouchard had broken his C1 vertebra and was lucky to be alive and not paralyzed.

Orthopedic Surgeon, Dr. Kevin Khalsa, explained to Bouchard that he had two options: the halo or the fuse.

"The doctor recommended the fuse because of how [the C1] was broken. One piece of the spine was out. Thank God it didn't go in and touch the [spinal] cord. They put it back in but there was so much damage that he said the halo was 50-50. If it heals good, then you're fine, but if it doesn't heal good, then we have to go back in. So they put it back together and they put in a plate and they fused the [C1 and C2]. Today, my head might turn if I had the halo, but if they had to go back in because it didn't work, it would have been a problem," said Bouchard.

At the time of his accident, Bouchard was still dealing emotionally with the death of Olivier, his son from a previous relationship.

Olivier died of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) - commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease - in December of 2016, four years after being diagnosed. He was only 26 years old.

"He tried so much to live. He didn't want to die. He fought it until the end," said Bouchard.

Like Olivier, Bouchard has fought hard to get better, and just because he doesn't take any pain medications, it doesn't mean that his recovery has been pain free.

Bouchard said about three months after his accident, his doctor put things in very plain terms.

"[My doctor said] 'Stéphane, pain is now your new friend in your life. You're going to have good days and bad days, but pain is your new friend. You're going to have to deal with it your whole life'," said Bouchard.

After nearly a year of physical therapy, Bouchard has better movement of his head up and down, but will probably never regain movement side to side.

He also had his last scheduled appointment with Dr. Khalsa the week prior to our interview. His doctor reiterated how fortunate he was that his situation was not worse.

Bouchard recalls that Dr. Khalsa said 'Stéphane, you don't know how lucky you are.' The doctor went on to explain that a C1 injury usually cuts your air off.

"When the C1 breaks, it's something to do with your diaphragm and you die right away, so I was very fortunate," he said.

Less than six months after his injury, Bouchard saw an ad on the USTA website looking for an ID Technician for the New York/New England area.

According to the USTA's ID technician supervisor TC Lane, Keith Hamilton was retiring at the end of 2017 and replacing him would be a daunting task.

"Our job is to put people in the situations to take care of the membership, and for replacing Keith after 43 years there was a really, really, really high expectation... it makes us look like the smartest person in the room by being able to replace Keith with an individual like Stéphane. It's a continuation of success. It really is," said Lane.

To be an ID Technician, Bouchard was taught how to properly take a hair sample for DNA testing, as well as shave a horse and freeze brand it. He was also taught how to chip a horse.

Bouchard has spoken with Hamilton on several occasions regarding the ins and outs of the job, and who better for him to learn from than the man who served with such excellence for all that time.

"Stéphane is the absolute consummate professional. You can absolutely quote me on that. He's a wonderful guy and I'm happy to have him following me, so to speak," said Hamilton.

Hamilton is the Grand Circuit week starter at Goshen Historic Track and people let him know how the new guy was doing.

"[They said] 'We're getting the job done, but we miss you.' But Stéphane is getting the job done," Hamilton said. "I know he's doing a good job."

Bouchard likes his new job and is happy to have found it, but always in the back of his mind is the desire to one day, somehow, get back on the track.

"I don't push myself. I don't have a goal. I don't have a date. I just go with the flow and I have good people around me that go on the track with my horses and for now that's fine," he said.

Bouchard often competed with Wally Hennessey at Saratoga, and remembers the Hall of Famer giving him some sobering advice during the early stages of his recovery.

"I don't remember what we were talking about, but Wally said 'Stéphane, you will find out the hardest part is going to be the feeling of being forgotten.' And he was so right," said Bouchard.

"Now, I walk in the paddock or I go to the racetrack and you feel like you're not part of it anymore. It's hard to deal with mentally, not physically," he added.

He and Eve have three horses which Stéphane often paddocks, and as he gets to a slower time of year for his technician job, he'd like to get a few more horses.

"If you stop on your own terms, that's OK, but when it happens for any other reason, it's not easy. One day I would like to drive a trotter that I own and win with the horse and then retire," he said.

Only time will tell.


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