His nickname is Boo, but you have to cheer for Woodbine jockey Gary Boulanger.
The last year has been one of turmoil for many people. The horse racing community has been hit extremely hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, as many backstretch workers lost jobs when the Ontario government shut down racing. The situation became so dire, there was talk that the industry in this province might die.
But with both Woodbine Racetrack in Rexdale (thoroughbreds) and Woodbine Mohawk Park (harness racing) finally opening for racing this weekend, there is a sense of relief and excitement. And that’s especially true for Boulanger whose head is still spinning from the roller-coaster that was 2020.
Talk about a crazy year. The 53-year-old riding legend was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame last June and suffered a serious knee injury a month later — thereby missing out the chance to ride eventual Queen’s Plate and Prince of Wales champion Mighty Heart. He then became a father again in November with partner Jennifer Petricca (baby Cristian), which he called a blessing.
“He’s been a saviour for me because it gave me something to do all winter,” Boulanger told the Toronto Sun.
When the Drayton Valley, Alta., native first had his injured knee diagnosed and underwent surgery in September, there was talk that his career might be over or that he would be laid up for at least a year. But last weekend, after months of hard work and rehab, Boulanger was back at Woodbine breezing horses. Jockeys are considering some of the toughest athletes in professional sport and Boulanger is one of the toughest riders. Nobody was surprised when Boulanger was spotted exercising horses earlier than originally thought. Boulanger has gone through hell and back for his sport, overcoming a series of very serious injuries in the past, including a broken back in 1999. In 2005, Boulanger suffered a life-threatening injury when he went down in an accident during the running of the Mac Diarmida Handicap at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida, undergoing surgery for a ruptured spleen, broken ribs, as well as a detached tendon in his left elbow. The accident caused a blood clot, that surgeons had to extract, which necessitated the removal of a section of his skullcap to avoid damage to the brain from pressure caused by swelling. Boulanger became a trainer for a few years after that but, in 2013, he started riding again and has never looked back. Boulanger has recorded 3,616 wins with his horses earning over $80 million. He has also won some of the biggest races in North America, including the 2001 Queen’s Plate and Woodbine Oaks with Sam-Son filly Dancethruthedawn.
And now, he’s looking for more. Boulanger won’t be riding this Saturday, June 12 when racing resumes at Woodbine, but the personable rider is hopeful that he’ll be back racing by next weekend — if he gets the green light from his surgeon, Dr. Danny Whelan. Boulanger is aching to get back in the game, but only if he’s absolutely ready.
“I don’t want to come back and just look average,” he said. “Physically, I’m capable of competing with these younger riders. I think I’m as good a rider there is there. Tactically-wise, positioning-horses. I’m a pretty good rider.”
There’s no debate about that. Boulanger’s agent Gary Kemplen said he has received plenty of calls from trainers at the Rexdale oval asking if his client is ready to race. But Boulanger and Kemplen are not going to rush anything.
“He’s a well-respected rider,” Kemplen said. “Gary would never make a comeback unless he thought he was 100%. He respects the trainers and owners too much and thinks it would be cheating them to perform when he is not at his best.
“This is not my first rodeo,” added Boulanger. “I kind of knew the comeback wasn’t going to be just a walk in the park — that you go get on a few horses and you’re ready to go again. But the knee is doing tremendous. It’s just getting yourself fit and waiting for the right horses to ride coming back. I’d feel like a real Dodo head if I’m in the battle from the half mile pole to the wire and I run out of gas. I don’t want that. I want to come back looking like me.”
Even though he’s at an age when many jocks have already retired, Boulanger still has some goals to reach, including winning another Queen’s Plate and getting to 4,000 wins.
“As long as the body’s doing well (I’m going to race),” said Boulanger. “The mind is always there. I miss it immensely when I’m not riding. It’s all I think about.
“If people are still offering me quality horses in big races and I still feel I’m riding at a competitive level with the younger guys, I’m going to keep doing it,” he said.
The first stakes race of the Woodbine thoroughbred season will be on Saturday, June 19 with the $125,000 Star Shoot Stakes for three year-old fillies over six furlongs and the $150,000 Whimsical Stakes, six furlongs, for four year old fillies and mares. The $1 million Queen’s Plate, Canada’s most prestigious race, will be held Aug. 22.
Spectators will not be allowed at Woodbine when racing resumes but that may change if COVID-19 restrictions ease in the province. The 99-day Woodbine meet (which was originally supposed to begin April 17) will be conducted mostly on a Thursday-through-Sunday schedule, with a 1:20 p.m. post-time. Sovereign Award-winning jockey Rafael Hernandez will have nine mounts on opening day as he looks to defend his Woodbine riding title after earning a meet-leading 129 victories last season.