Queen's Plate jockey Boulanger riding high off humble bull-ring beginnings
Jockey Gary Boulanger describes the situation he is in on the eve of the Queen’s Plate as “beyond fun.”
Fun for a guy who got his start on the humble bush tracks of Alberta -- places like Teepee Creek, Red Deer, Grand Prairie. Fun to be on a largely untested but talented colt that could give him his first Queen’s Plate win in 15 years (Dancethruthedawn in 2001), a few years after a comeback from a serious head injury. Fun in that he figures his colt, second-favourite Leavem In Malibu at 7 to 2, has gears nobody has seen yet.
The purse for the 157th Queen’s Plate is $1 million, a far cry from the scratched-together prize of $5,000 for a stakes race on the dusty bullrings of Alberta, where the Edmonton native first learned his skills, and where details were less important than just getting on a horse and going pell-mell to the finish line.
Bush tracks are unlicensed, so anything goes. Boulanger rode horses straight off the local farms. Many were quarter horses. Some were old thoroughbreds. Some were Arabians. It didn’t matter. “They ran everything,” Boulanger said.
He’d tack up his own horse. Jockeys had one set of silks for every race, and one set of saddle towels which would switch around race by race, depending on the post position. There were no valets to take care of the equipment and clean it. Riding on the bush tracks is not a get-rich pursuit. “I think we got $15 a mount and $30 for a win,” Boulanger said.
Weighing in for a race? Nothing fancy. A bathroom scale.
At bush tracks there are no bug riders or apprentices who get breaks in weight carried, depending on the number of wins. All jockeys face the start line as equals. Nobody need be surprised to see a horse in the next stall in the starting gate carrying a fighting rooster, a monkey, a bag of rocks or a string of rattling tin cans rather than a jockey. But at the bush tracks, Boulanger got a chance to ride against some older, talented jockeys who just couldn’t make weight at the regulated tracks any more.
Boulanger isn’t alone in learning his skills at the bush tracks. Johnny Longden rode the bush tracks in Alberta before making history in California, winning a record 6,032 races by the time he retired in 1966. Calvin Borel and Kent Desormeaux, each three-time Kentucky Derby winners, rode on the Louisiana bush tracks as young boys.
In the 1980s, Boulanger rode the bush tracks with Jim McAleney, who opted to move to Woodbine while Boulanger went to the United States and became a three-time leading rider at the Longacres Mile near Seattle.
His riding career seemed to have ended after a Gulfstream Park racing accident, when a blood clot formed on his brain and surgeons removed a portion of his skull cap. But three years ago he began riding for trainer Mark Casse.
It has all led to Leavem in Malibu, unraced as a 2-year-old in 2015 because he was a big colt with a few aches and pains common to youngsters. Boulanger started riding him in February in Florida and was impressed. “Every time he’s done something, he’s done it easily,” said Boulanger, who turned 48 last November.
Leavem in Malibu has raced only three times, his debut coming in April at Woodbine. In his third start, Casse couldn’t find a race for him against horses of his own age, so he competed against older horses.
”He went by those guys and turning for home, we were three in front,” Boulanger said. “I was like: ‘What do we do now?’” He won by 2 ¾ lengths, easily. “He galloped on home and it was like it was no big deal,” he said.
The big colt is owned by Manfred and Penny Conrad who live in the Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., area. Semi-retired from real estate development, Manfred Conrad and his wife got into the racing business only in the past decade and have had horses with Casse for the past four or five years. When Manfred told Casse he would like to have a Canadian-bred, Casse found Leavem In Malibu and bought him privately for them. Leavem In Malibu is their first Queen’s Plate entry.
Casse liked the colt because he’s a full brother to his talented but ill-fated Danzig Moon, who broke down in the Plate Trial last year and had to be euthanized. When Casse bought Leavem In Malibu, Danzig Moon hadn’t raced yet. “But they look nothing alike,” Casse said.
“He’s beautiful,” Casse said. “But I wouldn’t want him to step on your toe. He’s big.”
And he’s giving Boulanger an extra skip in his step these days, only his third Plate mount since he won in 2001.