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Dreaming Is Free: Roy's Star Shining Bright at the Holidays

Trot Feature - Louis-Philippe Roy

Just a few short years ago, Louis-Philippe Roy was working full time for Telus and driving his car tens of thousands of kilometers per year, just to drive a few horses, mostly at the fair tracks.

Now, with two O’Brien Awards on his mantle, and a nomination for a possible third, the man they call LPR isn’t about to forget the people from his hometown - especially at Christmastime. By Keith McCalmont.

As the recent holiday season approached, driver Louis-Philippe Roy, an O’Brien Award winner as a ‘Future Star’ in 2016, sat second in the standings at Woodbine Mohawk Park with 222 wins from 1,504 starts.

In 2018, the now 30-year-old native of Mont-Joli, Quebec reached new heights by winning the O’Brien Award as Canada’s Driver of the Year, a well-deserved honour for the ambitious Roy, who, beginning in the summer of 2008, piled the kilometers on his car in search of drives in Quebec at Nouvelle, St Hugues, Ayers Cliff and the Hippodrome to name a few. Along the way, he traveled his talents to tracks like Charlottetown Driving Park in Prince Edward Island and to Woodstock Raceway in New Brunswick.

It wasn’t until the winter of 2015 that Roy had established himself as a regular at Rideau Carleton Raceway in Ottawa, Ontario, and it was a full year later that he started to make an impact at Woodbine Racetrack in Rexdale, Ontario.

Although his father, Jean-Marc, had owned horses and his brother, Pierre-Luc, initially shared Roy’s passion for driving, he completed his journey to the top of the charts at Woodbine on the back of his own graft.

“I’m really proud of where I’ve come from,” said Roy. “My dad had horses when he was younger but he wasn’t in the business when I got started, and I had to start from scratch and climb up the ladder to be among the elite drivers in Canada.”

Roy led the nation in 2018 with 416 wins and total purse earnings in excess of $7.4 million, while partnering top horses like Jimmy Freight and Shower Play. As he stood at the podium in front of a room full of his peers at the O’Brien Awards ceremony, Roy enjoyed an almost out-of-body experience.

“The O’Brien Award is the summit of what you can achieve in Canada, and to be able to say once in my life that I did it, was special,” said Roy. “We all go through stages in our careers but sometimes you don’t realize all the roads you traveled. That night, I realized. Five years ago I was driving in the fairs in Quebec and suddenly I was standing there recognized as one of the top drivers in Canada.”

While it’s easy to look at the program now and see Roy’s name attached to drives for trainers like Richard Moreau each night, the now-established reinsman found himself reflecting on how far he’s come.

“When I started driving more at Three Rivers and Ottawa there were so many trainers, like Eric De Champlain, who gave me opportunities that allowed me to get to where I am now,” said Roy. “Just to get one drive on the fair track is hard. Who would put you down on a horse if you’ve never had a drive before? It’s almost harder to start at the fairs than it is here at Woodbine.

“When I started driving in Ottawa, it was a big turning point in my career,” he added. “It was an eight-hour drive from my hometown and I’d make the trip for two drives that were double-digit odds. People would say I’m crazy, but I had a plan in my head and I was believing in my ability to reach it.”

All those long drives from track to track, countless kilometers spent listening to the radio in pursuit of a dream, paid off.

“Maybe people would say I’m a dreamer, but it’s free to dream,” laughed Roy. “As long as you know that you’re dreaming, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

• • •

Since breaking in there in late 2016, Roy has continued to hone his craft while establishing himself as a regular on the Woodbine circuit. Over the past three years, he has easily surpassed $5 million in annual purse earnings and is closing in on yet another year with more than 300 wins.

Some of Roy’s bigger wins have come for owner Adriano Sorella and trainer Richard Moreau, with now-stallion Jimmy Freight and the talented $600,000+ earner Double A Mint. The outspoken Sorella has developed a good relationship with Roy and said the driver’s success boils down to one key trait.

“Confidence,” said Sorella. “When you race in a top barn like Richard’s you can gain a lot of confidence. I think Louis really believes in himself. He knows how to drive. He’s not afraid to be on the front end, first up, whatever it takes to win. Once you have that confidence, you get other horses to drive. He uses his head when he’s driving and I have confidence in him driving my horses.”

And Roy refuses to rest on his laurels, recently spending his mornings working at two training centres - training some at Shane Arsenault’s farm in Freelton, ON, as well as tending to some babies at Moreau’s facility in nearby Puslinch, before readying himself for the usual full dance card at Mohawk Park at night.

“It gets me out of bed in the morning and keeps me busy. When you know you have to wake up early, you get in less trouble at night,” laughed Roy. “So, I help Shane at his farm and I also go to Richard’s farm where I have two young fillies.”

Developing young talent has piqued the interest of Roy, who owns four broodmares, two of which will be sent to the court of Jimmy Freight.

“As a driver, you’re learning every day,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about young horses the past few years. I wasn’t able to drive many young horses back in Quebec. Learning how to build up those two-year-olds and teaching them to race is important.”

With that in mind, Roy and Sorella partnered up at the 2019 London Selected Yearling Sale.

“We bought a Shadow Play filly and a State Treasurer filly,” said Roy. “The partnership is more friendly than business – we paid $22,000 and $35,000 for them – and we have some hopes for them, but it’s still early.”

Sorella was out at Moreau’s farm recently to watch the two fillies in action and he holds out hope that they will achieve beyond their purchase price. No matter how it works out, Sorella knows he can rely on his friend’s good judgment.

“The one thing with Louis is, when we get young horses, he’ll tell me straight up if we have a keeper,” said Sorella. “He’ll let you know which horses he likes. This sport is a business and if I ask if the horse is good or not, he’ll just tell me.

“Some people will let you hold onto bad horses and it can cost you a lot of money at the end of the day,” continued Sorella. “Good or bad, the bills are going to show up.”

• • •

A graduate of the University of Quebec at Rimouski, Roy has an accounting degree and spent two years working for Telus as a financial analyst, while also pursuing his racing dream. He could easily run his own business as a trainer-owner, but it’s driving fast horses that holds his interest.

“I know how to run a business but I prefer to spend more time with the horses and let others do that part. I’m just not passionate about it,” said Roy. “I went to school and it was easy for me. It just wasn’t my passion. What I’m living now is my passion. As they say, if you have a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

However, Roy finds himself wishing other young people would share his passion for the sport.

“Even as an optimist in life it’s hard to see any increase in terms of growth of the industry. I feel there’s a lot we don’t adapt to regarding what people see as entertainment in 2020,” said Roy. “When I bring my friends to the racetrack, people that love sports and even gambling, the comment I get back is that it’s too long. You get two minutes of action for twenty minutes of break.

“In baseball, they’re trying to make it quicker,” he added. “People want to consume their entertainment quick and then switch to something else. It makes me think there’s less and less people that know about harness racing.”

He has a point. On Saturday, November 30, an 11-race card at Mohawk Park kicked off at 7:16 p.m. with the final race not bursting away from the gate until 10:44 p.m. for a card that lasted 3.5 hours.

The NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and NBA champion Toronto Raptors clock in at just under 2 hours and 20 minutes per game, on average. Both sports are generally loaded with end-to-end action.

Major League Baseball said the average time of a nine-inning game in 2019 was 3 hours, 5 minutes, 35 seconds, which is up from 3:00:44 in 2018.

“It’s probably possible to make racing quicker than four hours,” said Roy. “Baseball is hard to speed up with nine innings to play and making time for pitchers. But with racing, you really could speed it up.”

A familiar complaint for those betting on and watching the sport is the killjoy of post-time drag, a practice that sees tracks hold off the start of the race in search of last-minute wagering revenue. It’s a practice that Roy says is hurting the sport’s ability to grow and connect with new fans.

“I understand they say when they drag the races they can increase the handle, but I feel like it’s just the same people playing via simulcasting,” said Roy. “The more you drag the post, the more you can get the attention of a person wanting to bet on a track. But I feel like it’s a competition between tracks for the people who are already going to bet anyway and we’re killing the opportunity to bring new people into the sport itself because it takes too long.”

While the sport could use an ‘air-traffic controller’ to meter out the timing between races and avoid tracks running on top of each other, Roy is cautiously optimistic regarding a change.

“I know if it happened at Woodbine the handle would be lower for the first while, but I think if every track would do it that way it would help the sport,” he said.

• • •

Roy lives in the big time now, but he still holds strong to his small-town roots. For the past three years, heading into the Christmas season, Roy has donated a full card’s earnings to Moisson Mitis, a food bank in his hometown of Mont-Joli.

As a teenager, Roy had friends whose families benefited from Moisson Mitis, and he promised himself he would never take his own good fortune for granted.

“For me, Christmas is the part of the year where I don’t have any stress. I go home and forget about my job,” he said. “I’d like others to be able to feel like that, at least for Christmas. For some people, their stress is they cannot afford to eat well. If I can help out even a little bit, that makes me happy.”

On December 5, Roy continued his charitable efforts, with his Mohawk drives picking up purse earnings of $16,390. Roy donated his percentage of the amount to the foodbank, and the French Canadian driver was thankful for the support of friends and colleagues who matched his amount.

“My purses [commissions] came back over $800, and people like Adriano Sorella, Clay Horner, William Donovan, and Michel Allard all joined in too. In total, we’ve raised close to $4,500,” said Roy. “Last year, my mum went to drop the cheque off to the leader of the organization and she told me he started to cry when she gave it to him.”

Roy can certainly serve as a role model for other aspiring youth from his small town and elsewhere. He has proven that hard work and determination, along with a little God-given talent, can take you to faraway places and make dreams come true.

And he’s still dreaming.

“I want to be a regular driver on the Grand Circuit with lots of good horses traveling around through the summer. I know it’s a big step from where I am,” he said.

But hey, dreaming is free.

This feature originally appeared in the January issue of TROT Magazine. Subscribe to TROT today by clicking the banner below.

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