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Gingras Takes The Long Way Home For First North America Cup win

Trot Feature : Tall Dark Stranger

Quebec native Yannick Gingras had never won his homeland’s biggest race, and he decided that he wasn’t about to let a global pandemic keep him from changing that. By Keith McCalmont

The Woodbine Mohawk Park winner’s circle was a whirlwind of emotions in the aftermath of Tall Dark Stranger’s tour de force in the $1 million North America Cup on August 29th.

The Bettors Delight colt, trained by Nancy Takter for owners Crawford Farms Racing, Marvin Katz, Caviart Farms, and Howard Taylor, paced the field off their feet en route to a 1:48.2 win, and Tall Dark Stranger looked amped up and ready for a victory lap during the trophy presentation.

Yannick Gingras, who faced unprecedented challenges to secure the drive on the race favorite, had spent the two weeks leading up to the race in quarantine, the last week on his own, and holding back tears in the post-race interview, he looked into the camera and spoke directly to his family – “I miss you, guys.”

Co-owner Marvin Katz, who arranged for an isolated cottage on Lake Simcoe to ensure his talented reinsman would be available to drive, was in ecstasy.

“I’m overjoyed, I really am,” said Katz. “I’ve been doing this for a very long time and I’ve been fortunate to have many great horses, but I think this guy really rates up with some of the greatest horses we’ve ever seen. This is historic. What he’s done tonight has never been done before. He won the Metro as a two-year-old, and he won the Breeders Crown – he’s come back [at three] to win the Meadowlands Pace and he’s won the North America Cup. Somebeachsomewhere, Cap-taintreacherous… they couldn’t do it, but he’s done it.”

On a night that saw Gingras win the Eternal Camnation with the Takter-trained Caviart Audrey and the Roses Are Red with Warrawee Ubeaut in the race prior to the North America Cup, the U.S.-based Canadian-born driver was a man on a mission, intent on securing his first victory in the rich event.

Gingras allowed Tattoo Artist, with Bob McClure in the bike, to lead the field through an opening quarter-mile in :25.4, before asking Tall Dark Stranger to take command. The race was over as soon as the powerful colt hit the front.

“I talked to Nancy during the week and said, ‘if I have to be on the front, I’m going to roll him,’” said Gingras of the talented bay, bred in Kentucky by James Avritt, Sr. “I think he’s just stronger than they are right now, and he can get them tired just by trying to keep up with him.”

No doubt the other drivers in the race feel the same way about Gingras, who continues to build on a ledger that in-cludes 7,555 wins and more than $190 million in purse earnings.

The Katz family, beaming ear to ear in the winner’s circle, made sure to take a moment to thank the Gingras family.

“Yannick went over and above,” said Katz. “His family really went out of their way to make this possible.”

* * * *

Gingras may live in the U.S. now but he was happy to be home in Canada for the North America Cup, even though he believes some of his fellow horsemen would rather he had stayed put as the world continues to fight the COVID-19 pan-demic.

“I think certain people have fear of COVID and I understand that,” said the 41-year-old native of Sorel, Quebec.

Gingras said he contracted the coronavirus in March and is now negative after multiple tests. Along with his wife and three kids, he spent the 14 days leading up to the North America Cup at a cottage in Barrie, off of Lake Simcoe, leaving only for continued isolation at Mohawk, where he engineered a winning drive in the Cup elimination.

“I’ve done everything asked of me. I haven’t gone to the farms. I’ve been isolated to a certain area in the paddock. I fol-lowed protocol,” said Gingras. “But also, I’m as Canadian as anyone. I’ve paid taxes here in Canada since I was 18 and I’ve never stopped. I have the same rights and I didn’t put anyone at risk. I could have gone out with the guys, but I didn’t. I didn’t put anyone at risk. I went home to my family.”

Gingras was quick to praise Woodbine Entertainment for their assistance in navigating understandably strict proto-cols the organization put in place.

“The people at WEG have been so helpful and they have a great protocol in place to protect their product,” said Gingras.

It is estimated there have been more than 24.6 million cases of the coronavirus disease worldwide and more than 835,000 deaths.

As a husband, father, friend and athlete, Gingras says he has taken the sobering numbers to heart.

“I had the virus in March,” he said. “I had lost my sense of smell and taste but at that time, those symptoms weren’t even known. I couldn’t get tested in New Jersey at that time, but I got two positive antibody tests in April. I brought those results to the border and it came in handy.”

In order to come home to Canada and drive, Gingras required a great deal of documentation.

“I called Border Services many times,” said Gingras. “One lady sent me the exemption lists to read and see what I would qualify for. The one I zeroed in on is ‘often border crosser’ and being able to do business.”

Gingras presented his Canadian passport at the border along with a recent negative COVID test from the U.S., his pos-itive antibody tests, documentation notifying of the isolated property where he would serve out his quarantine, as well as Woodbine’s protocol which required Gingras to secure another negative COVID test on Canadian soil.

After following the rules and obeying protocols put in place, it’s understandable why Gingras would be frustrated with those who questioned his integrity.

“There were people who believed I didn’t get the exemption and they’re basically calling me a liar, but I’m not sure if they realize that forging a federal document would mean jail time. I like to race horses but I’m not ready to go to jail for that,” said Gingras. “Plus, I have three young kids. I don’t want to have COVID either. In all of Canada, I’m probably the safest person there is. I haven’t been around a single soul and I had a negative COVID [test] before leaving New Jersey.”

* * * *

The plan was to come here for six weeks, and for those that might think Gingras put in all this effort for the money, think again.

The veteran driver had never won a North America Cup and he desperately wanted one, not only for himself, but for the Bettors Delight colt he holds near and dear to his heart.

“A lot of it is the personal goals,” said Gingras. “Money wise, I’m putting a lot of eggs in the same basket. There’s sev-en to 10 races that make it or break it [being in Canada] being a successful venture or not. You have to do well, not neces-sarily win, but do well in the North America Cup, Canadian Trotting Classic, Maple Leaf Trot, and the [Canadian] Pacing Derby. You have to get the best horse you can get to drive those races and do well.

“It’s not like there aren’t big races back home,” continued Gingras. “There is money in the Pennsylvania Sires Stakes, and [there are] one or two legs left in most divisions and the finals. Money wise, if I am successful and have a great run, then I’ll make more money here, but if not, I could have made the same amount of money at home.”

But it’s not just about the money for Gingras. He has put in hundreds of hours and thousands of miles into building the relationships that often land him the drive on some of the best horses in the sport, including Tall Dark Stranger.

“The personal goals you set matter. Nothing against the sires stakes races, but I want to win the big races. That’s what I work hard for,” said Gingras. “You go to baby races and train babies and try to build up relationships over the last 10 to 15 years to get the horses I get to drive today. Horses like Tall Dark Stranger and Ready For Moni don’t come around every day. These are once in a lifetime horses and right now they’re all coming here.”

A win by disqualification at last year’s Breeders Crown at Woodbine Mohawk Park, over now retired rival Papi Rob Hanover, was a race that helped bring Tall Dark Stranger to the forefront, but Gingras said some still didn’t believe in the fortitude of his colt.

An epic battle to win the Meadowlands Pace in July proved otherwise.

Tall Dark Stranger took command with a bold move down the backstretch, but Papi Rob Hanover and driver David Miller challenged on the turn and took the lead in the stretch.

The race was over until suddenly it wasn’t.

A resurgent Tall Dark Stranger battled back gamely on the rail and got the win with a jubilant Gingras punching his fist into the air at the finish line.

“It was emotional,” said Gingras. “You battle... sports need rivalries like this, and last year’s Breeders Crown showed that. My horse came back fighting and he gave me even more joy. Those are the races you want to win and yes, I get emo-tional, but I think it’s a good thing. I think people like to see that we have feelings too and that this means something to us. It definitely meant a lot to me to win that day.

“I’ve had people come up to me since the Meadowlands Pace and say to me ‘we didn’t believe that he came back on to win that race’,” continued Gingras. “I’m extremely proud of the horse that he is. He’s a tremendous fighter. Some horses may have quicker acceleration, but they can’t go faster than him. When he gets in that high gear, he stays there forever. He wants to win races and that’s something you can’t teach.”

Gingras said the win matters just as much for his horse as it does for him. The $330,000 yearling purchase at the Lex-ington Selected Sale, now has banked more than $1.9 million in purse money.

“It’s on everyone’s bucket list to win these million dollar marquee races, especially this year because of everything go-ing on around us,” said Gingras. “Mostly, I want it for the horse. He has a tremendous pedigree and a long list of accom-plishments already, but I want that on his resume as well.”

Part of the motivation is the memory of a difficult loss with Father Patrick, trained by Nancy’s father Jimmy Takter, who made a break behind the gate in the 2014 Hambletonian, denying the odds-on favorite a landmark win in the famous race.

“That got to me,” said Gingras. “I got beat in the Hambo with Mission Brief [2015] and beat a nose with Southwind Frank [2016] but those don’t bother me at all. With Mission Brief, I made a call in the moment and given the choice, silly as it sounds, I’d do it again.

“Southwind Frank wasn’t at his best that day and he wanted to run on me the whole stretch. I thought I did a great job and there’s no regret there,” continued Gingras. “This year, with Ready For Moni [second to filly Ramona Hill], I think it was a great race and the filly raced tremendous and sometimes you have to raise your hat and say congratulations.”

But Gingras confessed his regret with Father Patrick’s Hambo effort and his desire to make sure Tall Dark Stranger would not be denied a similar classic win.

“I do have regret with Father Patrick because maybe I could have done something different and now he will never have that race on his resume,” said Gingras. “He was a tremendous horse. I will hopefully win a Hambo one day but he will never have another chance and that’s the sad part.

“Tall Dark Stranger has a great resume already and will have good mares when he goes to stud,” added Gingras. “But it’s not only this race, you want them all. It’s horse racing and nothing is guaranteed.”

* * * *

Playing board games at the cottage is a fond memory for many Canadian families, but maybe don’t confirm that senti-ment with Vicki Gingras.

“My wife brought a checkers game to the cottage to help pass the time during quarantine,” said the bemused driver. “In the first game, she beat me. I wasn’t happy about it and she was making fun of me. I beat her a dozen times in a row after that and she said, ‘Why do you have to be like that? Why can’t you let me win so we can keep playing?’”

There are no doubt a number of drivers who can empathize with Vicki’s plight.

“I’m definitely into strategy. I always try to get an edge and I try to do the same thing when I race,” said Gingras. “In a race, my edge is how well I know all the horses. I have a very good memory of the strengths and weaknesses of not only my horse, but all the others.

“You try to drive your horse in a certain way that can maybe also put another horse in a spot that they don’t want to be in,” continued Gingras. “It doesn’t always work out and more often than not it doesn’t, but that’s the goal. Put your horse in the best spot possible and put the horse to beat in the worst spot they can be.”

In a talented field of 10 in the North America Cup, Gingras knew he would have to make a decisive move, and knew full well that anything other than victory would leave him open to criticism.

“There are a lot of quick decisions,” admitted Gingras. “If you hesitate for a quarter of a second, that move isn’t avail-able to you anymore and the next decision is coming. It’s the same for all the drivers. It definitely looks easier on the sideline, but don’t get me wrong – when I’m watching hockey, I’m cursing those guys out, too. So, I have no problem with people second guessing.”

One thing Gingras said he won’t second guess is his decision to come to Ontario.

“I made the decision to come here not only for the North America Cup, but because most of the big horses I drive were headed here, so it was hard not to come.” “Ready For Moni, Sorella, Tall Dark Stranger and all the better two-year-olds I thought I had were coming here. It just made it hard to not come.”

But four days before the race, Gingras did express one regret.

“My family left today. I was hoping they’d be here a bit longer, but school is starting back up so they left this morn-ing,” said Gingras. “It’s not as fun without them and we’ll be split up for the next little while. It was not a fun morning but that’s the sacrifice we have to make right now. Family is always the number one thing for me, everything else comes after that. I want to spend my time around the kids.”

With major races like the Mohawk Million, Canadian Pacing Derby and Maple Leaf Trot on the horizon, Gingras said he could be alone in Ontario through September 19th.

“I won’t see my wife and kids until the middle of September and that sucks. That’s going to be the hardest part,” said Yannick.

Just a few strides after the finish of the North America Cup, Gingras quietly pumped his right fist. It was both a sigh of relief and the joy of victory that perhaps, for a moment, eased the burden of missing his wife and kids.

There was certainly joy for his beloved colt.

“He’s the best pacing colt I’ve ever driven. There’s no doubt in my mind. He’s an amazing animal,” said Gingras. ”He’s a tremendous horse and he’s living up to his pedigree.”

With victories under his belt like the Pepsi North America Cup, there’s no doubt that Tall Dark Stranger will one day be retired to stud, and with a family tree as strong as his, there’s also no doubt he’ll be a popular sire. And as the veteran driver Gingras is wont to point out – family matters.

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