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Defying The Odds

Trot Feature - Quebec Racing

Through many tough times, the fighting spirit and will to succeed of Quebec’s horsepeople should be an inspiration to us all.

As should the large number of French Canadian superstars that the province’s harness racing industry continues to produce. By Paul Delean

Harness racing in Quebec is still in the midst of a difficult rebuild after coming to the brink of extinction a decade ago, but the province`s standardbred savoir faire continues to flourish across North America.

Native Quebecers, now both based in Ontario, Sylvain Filion and Richard Moreau, were respectively named O’Brien Award winners as outstanding driver and trainer in Canada in both 2015 and 2016. For Filion it was his fourth victory in this category in the past five years, while Moreau has now captured the training award an unprecedented four years straight.

Driver Louis-Philippe Roy, recipient of the 2016 O`Brien Award as Canada’s Future Star, and a surprising second-place in the driver standings on the Woodbine Entertainment Group circuit through the first quarter of 2017, hails from the Quebec village of Mont-Joli.

Yannick Gingras, leading money-winning driver in the U.S. in 2016 and already ninth on the all-time list for earnings at just 37 years of age, has Sorel, QC., as hometown. Gingras’ career purse earnings already sit at an astonishing $147 million.

Quebec can also lay claim to the fourth-leading driver by earnings in the history of the sport in North America (Michel Lachance, $192 million), and the third-leading driver by total wins (Herve Filion, 15,179). Luc Ouellette, 51, is another native Quebecer prominent on both lists with over $136 million in purses and 8,587 career victories.

Sylvain Filion, 48, Rick Zeron, 60, and Daniel Dube, 47, have also topped 8,000 wins and $100 million in earnings, and New York-based Stephane Bouchard has quietly surpassed 8,500 wins as well. Mario Baillargeon, 59, and Gilles Gendron, 72, also rank among the four dozen North American drivers with more than 7,000 career victories.

The level of standardbred driving and training achievement by Quebecers is completely disproportionate to the province’s demographic weight. The province accounts for less than 25 per cent of Canada’s population, and just over 2 per cent of the North American total.

So why is Quebec such an incubator of excellence for a sport barely hanging on at home?

A survey of industry participants produced a variety of theories, everything from the relatively small physical stature of Quebecers to the rigours of Quebec winters, but one of the recurring points was the sport’s long and rich tradition in the province. Quebec hosted the country’s first documented horse race 250 years ago and it`s been a hotbed of standardbred racing since the 1940s.

“Forty years ago, we had a province of five million… and many race tracks. Connaught, Blue Bonnets, Quebec City, Richelieu, Trois-Rivieres, Jonquiere, Sherbrooke. Racing was alive in all areas of the province and Montreal was a North American leader for the sport. The foundation of the horsemanship still evident today dates back to those times,” said Quebec Jockey Club General Manager Jocelyn Faucher, whose plans for Quebec`s only surviving racetrack, Hippodrome 3R in Trois-Rivieres, include a summer tournament bringing together outstanding Quebec-born drivers from throughout North America.

Driver Michel Lachance, who put up most of his hall-of-fame numbers in the U.S., remembers the 1960s and 1970s as a time when “everybody came to race in Montreal because it was so much bigger there than in Toronto.”

And when top U.S. and Ontario horsemen came calling, Quebecers were up to the challenge, because many had graduated from the best school: the farms and stables of Quebec`s pioneering horseracing families. Names like Filion, Baillargeon, Lachance, Gendron, Zeron, Bardier, Gingras and Giguere, who produced and groomed generations of horsemen and provided them with the stock needed to get a strong foundation. Sylvain Filion and Yannick Gingras are both third-generation horsemen whose fathers drove and trained. Daniel Dube`s father also was a driver and trainer.

“My dad is the person I learned the most from. Working with him, I knew I wanted to do what he was doing,” said Gingras.

“People who`ve been brought up with horses, if they’re intelligent, there`s a good chance they`ll catch on right away. And if you don`t like school - and I didn`t - it`s an easy choice,” said Yves Filion, father of Sylvain and a Canadian Hall of Fame inductee in 2016.

Lachance says, “a natural horseman from Quebec is a horseman forever. It`s in their blood. Even if you shut down their races, they keep buying horses. They’re addicted to horses. There are racing families as well in other places, but you rarely see whole families stay in it like you do in Quebec.”

“I started in 1952, at Saint-Georges-de-Beauce, when purses were $200 or $300,” noted another hall-of-famer from Quebec, Benoit Cote, whose father Alfred had been a driver in Quebec City. “With purses like that, you don`t stay unless you love horses.”

The success decades ago, in the U.S., of Herve Filion, one of eight sulky-driving brothers from Angers, QC., motivated and encouraged other Quebecers to give it a shot outside provincial borders. Lachance said the example of his own brother Gilles and Montreal’s longtime leading driver Gilles Gendron emboldened him to initially take his stable from Montreal to New York… and I never came back.”

Quebec racing`s contraction, decline and near-death over the past two decades made moving elsewhere an inevitability for most with ambitions to support themselves and get ahead in the sport, which explains why there are now so many Quebecers at tracks all over the continent.

“I was young, I was adventurous, I had no kids at the time, and what happened in Quebec made my decision easy,” said Bouchard, who relocated initially to Yonkers about 20 years ago and now is based at Saratoga, N.Y.

“The racing circle in Quebec is so small now that people really don’t have much choice but to exile themselves if they want to make a living from it. They wouldn’t be all over the place if there were still five operating tracks in the province,” said Moreau, who now owns a farm in Puslinch, Ontario.

Gingras said that, in retrospect, he probably moved to the U.S. earlier than he should have, given his relative inexperience. “It was a bit ballsy, given that I had only 300 or 400 drives in total. If someone in the same position asked my opinion today, I`d say you might want to know the ropes a little more. But after a rough start, it worked out. I was in the right place at the right time.”

Faucher said another reason Quebecers have excelled in racing jurisdictions throughout North America is their work ethic.

“A groom from Quebec won’t have trouble finding work elsewhere. They`re accepted everywhere. Quebecers are hard workers, and workers for all seasons. Training horses in winter is tough. You’ve really got to love horses, and they do. If you look at their barns, it shows. They’re neat and well-kept,” Faucher said.

Judy Farrow, breeder and co-owner of millionaire trotter Intimidate and a native of the U.K. who moved to Quebec in 1961, also sees the passion and commitment as a common trait, and said Quebec`s long-established summer fair circuit also has played a pivotal role.

“Even after everything collapsed in Quebec, what amazed me was the amount of people who kept their horses, with no place to race them. That shows there was a lot of hope that somehow things would work out for them, even though they were financially stretched to the limit, all through this tumultuous time, with no thought of dumping their four-legged friends.

“They were determined not to give up the only life they knew and maybe that`s why so many horsemen were still around and that’s why Trois-Rivieres was restored. Prior to that, regional races are what kept them hopeful. Definitely the regional races were paramount for producing and continuing to produce good horsemen. The traveling they did on weekends, the incredible distances - even taking the ferry - and traveling all day for the sheer passion of the competition, camaraderie and fun they had competing for peanuts.”

Cote said even the province’s pony-racing circuit has played a significant role in the development of its talented drivers. “Yannick Gingras, Simon Allard… for them, it started with ponies.”

Faucher said the Quebec Jockey Club is trying to get the regulatory agency that oversees racing in Quebec to lower the driving age for the fair circuit to 16 from 18, to help encourage the emergence of more talented young drivers like Louis-Philippe Roy.

“If you want to learn how to drive a horse, you race on a half-mile track,” Faucher said. “You need to make a lot more moves. That`s where Louis-Philippe learned, in Mont-Joli.”

Bouchard, 50, said that over time he`s come to realize and appreciate the depth of knowledge in the Quebec stables where he got his start. “It still helps me today. I worked for Pierre Touchette and Jean-Paul Gauthier, and they were real horsemen. Watching them, working for them, you couldn’t help but learn. But even the small trainers were good.”

Racehorse owner and longtime Quebec horsemen`s association executive Rick Karper said Quebecers also are known for their sense of community, and they bring that with them wherever they go. “You’ll hear a lot of French spoken in the paddocks in Toronto, and at barns all over Ontario,” he noted. “Often, a French-speaking groom will go from one French-speaking barn there to another.”

It`s not uncommon for Quebec horsemen to help another Quebecer making a move, by providing introductions, recommandations, companionship and even lodging, while the newcomer gets settled. Yannick Gingras stayed with Daniel Dube when he first moved to New York and says he would not have survived financially during the rough early months without that help. Louis-Philippe Roy recently lived at Richard Moreau`s farm after his move to the WEG circuit. Dube put in a good word for Bouchard when he followed him to New York. Moreau and Filion worked together in Quebec and now in Ontario. “Ìt`s been 30 years… the longest relationship I`ve ever had,” Moreau smiled.

Whether Quebecers will remain a force in the sport is more uncertain. With fewer racing opportunities and small purses in the province, the sport has limited appeal as a full-time vocation and would seem fated to inevitable decline.

“If you had asked me a year ago [whether Quebecers will be less prominent], I’d have said yes,” Gingras said. “And then a guy like Louis-Philippe pops up and makes you wonder.”

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