Trot hits the road with politician Hec Clouthier on his campaign trail in the Ottawa Valley riding for a glimpse into the life an enthusiastic independent candidate, who is passionate about the harness racing industry.

By Norm Borg

WE ARE ON THE OUTSKIRTS of Arnprior, deep in the heart of Ontario’s Ottawa Valley, and the first political sign we come across dominates the roadside. “Give ‘em Hec” it screams.

James and I are scheduled to meet the man himself by 3 o’clock at a local coffee shop. Hector Clouthier, ubiquitous fedora and all, arrives on time, but is held up in the parking lot as well wishers u-turn to stop and shake his hand.

It’s immediately obvious that regardless of the outcome of the spring federal election, this is Clouthier country.

Hector (Hec) is as Ottawa Valley as they come. He descends from that popular mix of French and Irish and it exudes from him... from his Boucherons (stylized lumberjack boots) to his Irish inspired Valley brogue (“pair-lament,” he says).

Like his progenitors, the former OHRIA executive director brings a lot of good old fashioned spunk to whatever he does – including tackling the daunting task of gaining election as an independent. The challenge of it doesn’t appear to bother him, though; the one time Liberal MP and special advisor to Jean Chrétien is full of fighting spirit. “I had over a thousand lawn signs put up,” he says, “Now, mysteriously, they’ve disappeared.”

No biggie. “That’s okay,” he shrugs. “We’ll just put up more.” Politics can be a nasty business.

Hec tours us around his riding, the second largest in Canada, to show off one of his many enormous roadside placards. We stop for a photo opportunity near one of them, and James is setting up for a few shots when the trademark fedora is spotted by three motorists who, yes, stop to visit. Our politician gladly obliges. A fourth vehicle passes by and fires a sustained honk of approval that trails off down the highway.

As most of us in love with our game can understand, nearly everything about Hec Clouthier – even the fedora – comes back to harness racing; it’s the touchstone of his life. “When I was a young boy, the MP (Member of Parliament) in my riding was Hugh Proudfoot. I looked up to him. He was the owner of Pontiac Farms, which produced a strain of horses that flourished on the local racing scene. He wore a fedora and I wanted one too. Then one day, back in 1959, my dad and I were going to Richelieu Park to race Northwood Billy in a stakes race. On the way there we stopped in the town of Lachute, where my dad decided to buy me the hat as a good luck charm. Well, Northwood Billy won with Keith Waples in the bike and I’ve been wearing fedoras ever since.”

So endearing is that trademark capello that it caught the attention of none other than American President George W. Bush. Hec was then special advisor to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and part of a diplomatic mission meeting with the President back in 2002. Bush was smitten by the head piece, he says, and insisted on getting one himself. Hec shipped him a model and boasts of the personal letter of thanks he received.

Today, if 50 is the new 30, then Hec’s 61 years make him more like the new 25. He displays his medal from last year’s Boston Marathon and again brings it back to racing. “You know why I’m so proud of that?” he grins. “It’s like our game. To run in the Boston Marathon you have to qualify first.”

Indeed, he’s no stranger to beating the clock. In 1982, Hec won three starts in the bike at The Meadowlands, an accomplishment that tops his list of favourite racing memories. “John Burns was my trainer at the time. We had a horse called Syncopation that finished up the track in the previous three starts for none other than John Campbell. Burns was embarrassed to ask Johnny to drive again so he roped me into it. Lucky for me, he had just figured out some problems the horse was having in the back end. I went out and won my first race with him there at 60-1 and the next two after that! If John Campbell drove him that day, he would have won by ten lengths instead of my half.”

As we drive on, the topic turns in short order to what Hec, as an independent MP, could do to support his much-loved racing industry, and it’s now that his Franco/Celtic fire reaches its zenith. “The first thing I’ll do is meet with the CPMA,” he says. “That’s a draconian institution that needs to get with the program. How are we supposed to compete with the Texas Hold’em’s and Casinos if we can’t have new types of exotic betting? The people there aren’t part of the sport and don’t understand it. They operate behind a curtain yet wield so much control. They need a kick in the pants.”

Hec suggests that by being an independent, he can more directly set his own agenda rather than being told how and what to vote by his party. He insists that he’ll have more freedom to voice his ideas and affect a positive outcome. He points to how he can now take a more direct approach to industry issues (like the restrictive aspects of Section 31 of the Income Tax Act, which, by limiting farm loss to a mere $8,270, hurts horse owners too). “When I was a Liberal MP I tried to convince Paul Martin to at least double the limit,” he reminds me. His suggestion was shot down then; the section in question has since been successfully challenged but is now being appealed by the federal government.

He’s equally adamant when it comes to detailing what steps the industry needs to take to survive. “We need a centralized marketing approach. A portion of purse money has to be dedicated to marketing the sport and attracting a younger audience. The trainers and drivers may not like it but if we don’t do something now,” he warns, “what happens if the government decides to reduce the flow of money from slots?”

Soon enough, Hec decides to stop in town and go door to door. He meets and greets with ease, and, on the spot, tries to help one potential voter with a Canada Pension disability issue. He has soon banked a committed supporter. And so it goes.

Obviously the going concerns of harness racing participants cannot be the core of Hec’s legislative agenda in such a diverse riding, but rest assured that his extracurricular passion will help shape his approach to his constituents... many of whom have already joined in that sweet political chorus we’ve come to know so well. Give ’em Hec!

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