Every day is a gift for jockey Gary Boulanger.
The sun rises. (But he’s up before it does.) His blue eyes take in everything, with a twinkle. He rides into the sunset. When he’s not in a saddle, he’s on a golf course, chipping away. He has spent the past winter in Ocala, Fla., working horses for Mark Casse, and with that comes plenty of hope, when he returns to Woodbine after riding a few for Casse at Keeneland. In mid-April, it’s snowing in Kentucky and everybody just wants to start….living.
It seems that each year Boulanger has ridden in Toronto, things have just felt rosier. Last year, he won 99 races, the most he’s ever won during a season at Woodbine. He got more mounts, too, than ever. All told, in his career throughout North America, he’s won 3,483 races (despite some long absences from the saddle) and he’d like to win 4,000 before he hangs up his tack. A year ago, he was on one of the favourites for the Queen’s Plate. And in June, he won the Avelino Gomez award, too. Bonus.
The 50-year-old jockey from Alberta hadn’t expected this latest fete. Hadn’t a clue he would even be considered. He never knew Avelino Gomez, who died after an accident during the 1980 Canadian Oaks. Boulanger was a kid from Drayton Valley, Alta., at the time, most concerned about his next encounter with a horse, any horse, any time.
But he’s seen the documentaries and heard the stories about the Cuban-born champ with the big personality. It’s hard to miss the life-sized statue of Gomez overlooking the walking ring at Woodbine. “That’s the nature of our beast here,” Boulanger said. “It’s not when you get hurt. It’s how bad.”
Accidents And More
Boulanger knows this grim fact better than most. Most racing folk know about the racing accident at Gulfstream in January of 2005, when his mount lost his footing heading into the stretch and he suffered a spate of injuries, including a worrisome clot in his brain.
But he also suffered a serious back injury a couple of years before he won the 2001 Queen’s Plate with the resolute filly, Dancethruthedawn. That Plate was a gift too.
Boulanger’s back had been a mess. He had fractured a vertebra that didn’t show up on any x-rays. So he continued to ride. In the meantime, he compressed a disc and severed some nerves, requiring doctors to fuse some vertebrae. There was no guarantee this would work to revive his career.
He went in for surgery that was to last four hours. It lasted 9 ½. Boulanger was out of action for 15 months, with 9 ½ months of tough rehabilitation. “Just to make it back has been a blessing for me,” he said at the time of his Plate win. “I thank God for giving me a second chance.”
On that humid Plate day in 2001, Boulanger flung himself on the filly’s neck after the win, and didn’t know whether to scream or cry or yell. Legend has it that he did all three.
“I died twice”
Boulanger has had a few more dramatic misadventures since then, too. That accident in Florida? He can’t remember exactly what happened. He suffered a ruptured spleen, broken ribs and a detached elbow tendon, but the blood clot on his brain was most serious. The impact had caused the pressure to mount in his brain to such an extent that doctors removed half of his skull – there is still a vertical scar visible on the right side of his noggin – and that skull didn’t return to its rightful place on his head for 2 ½ months. His heart stopped twice during the ordeal, but doctors revived him, kept him in this world each time. He began to remember things from the 20th day of his ordeal.
Migraines followed. Seizures, too. These conditions haunted him for years. In his mind, he thought his career was over. (Obviously, it wasn’t.) Still, it was eight years before he returned to the job he loved.
He finds the Gomez award wistfully ironic. “I died twice,” he said. “And I’m back. But there’s a guy who lost his life, doing what he loved to do. And I came as close as you can to losing mine. And I’m being honoured with an award like this.” Perhaps, it’s Boulanger’s best salute to Gomez, that he has lived to carry on.
Discovers horses early
In the beginning, all Boulanger wanted was to be near horses. He seemed to be born with a passion for them. His uncle Eugene hoisted him aboard a pony called Trigger when he was only 1 ½ years old and that was the start of it. “It’s all I wanted to do, get on horses,” said Boulanger, a fifth-generation immigrant from France (not Quebec.) He was holding the reins, decked out in a cowboy hat on this little brown pony.
Boulanger’s father, Maurice, worked in the oil fields in Alberta, moving oil rigs, and his son hated that world. His uncle Eugene had farm horses, cutting horses, halter horses and “I couldn’t wait,” Boulanger said. “I tried to do anything to get to his farm. In the summer time or on the weekend, however I got to one of my uncle’s farms that had a horse, I was going.”
As a young lad, Boulanger’s family lived in Grimshaw, a town of about 2,700 people west of Peace River and situated at Mile Zero of the Mackenzie Highway that leads to the Northwest Territories. Boulanger was in grade one and one of his classmates lived on a farm. With horses.
He kept asking his friend if he could come to his place for the weekend and maybe see his horses and even ride them. The boy said he’d talk to his mom, who agreed.
Meanwhile, Boulanger had said nothing about it to his mother, Marceline. After school, Boulanger jumped on the bus to his friend’s farm after school. It took his mother about five hours to figure out where he was. He felt it was awesome that an APB bulletin came out across the radio, and police officers showed up at the house to take him home. They put Boulanger in the front seat of the cruiser and pointedly asked him: “Do you know what you’ve done to your mother?”
But Boulanger would do anything. Once returning from a family function (his father and uncle went fishing) four hours from home, Boulanger announced that he was returning in his uncle’s car. When they stopped off at uncle’s house, Boulanger told them his mother said he could stay the rest of the weekend. His family had to drive three hours to meet the relatives half-way and hand the errant kid back over to his parents.
He says his mother laughs about it now. “I’m sure I drove them crazy back then,” he admitted. Although he came from large families – his mother was one of 13 children, his father, one of nine – Boulanger had only a sister and a brother who did not share his interests.
Earning his first horse
Recognizing the passion, Boulanger’s father made a deal with him when he was seven years old. If the kid saved up enough money to buy his first horse, his father would pay the expenses. It took Boulanger two years to earn the $350 to buy an 11-year-old Welsh pony mare called Beauty.
Boulanger would collect bottles. The bottle depot would pay $1 for a case of empty beer bottles and 25 cents for a large plastic soft drink bottle. He shoveled snow. He cut grass in the summer. If he worked at an uncle’s farm, they’d pay him a little and he’d stash the money. All the money he got for his birthday would go into a bank account. He’d give the money to his mother, and she would deposit it, until finally she announced that he had just enough.
Beauty was tough as nails. There was no quit to her. When Boulanger got her, he had already been riding for six years. The hardest thing about Beauty was catching her in the field, but once netted, he could ride her all day long. He and his friends played cowboys and Indians on her. Hide and seek, too. Beauty could take anything they would dish out to her. “She was a great pony,” he said.
The route to the Alberta bush tracks went through a cutting event that Boulanger attended as a youngster. People saw him ride and noted how small he was and light bulbs went on in their heads. They asked Boulanger if he was interested in riding at bush tracks. “I was always interested,” he said. “I just didn’t know how to get involved. I had no family in racing. And they asked me to come to their farm and see if I liked it.”
They put Boulanger on a thoroughbred on their little half-mile track. “I didn’t know shit,” he said. “I had never been around racehorses.”
Pull and they go faster?
His first thoroughbred mount ran off with him for miles. “I went six times around that thing,” he said. “I couldn’t’ stop and every time I pulled, he would go faster. I thought: ‘What kind of horses are these?’ When you pull, they are supposed to stop. But you pull and they go faster. I pull more, he’d go faster. I thought: ‘Geez!’”
Once that hurdle was crossed, his new friends took him to a little bush track to get his gate licence. In other words, he had to show he knew how to break from a gate, how to back out of the gate, how to go straight, how to hold a horse’s head. The group approved him, and Boulanger, now 17, rode at his first bush track the next weekend.
Bush tracks weren’t exactly formal or steeped in any kind of exacting tradition. They were catch as catch can. Sometimes the meets lasted only a weekend. Sometimes they lasted two weeks. Any sort of horses ran. Old thoroughbreds that couldn’t make it in Edmonton or Calgary. Quarter horses. Any old sparkplug. It was meant to be fun. Barbecues followed. They were like family parties.
It was a no frills operation. The jockey’s scale was a bathroom scale. Everybody used it. There was one set of silks (eight different colours) and one set of saddle towels to use. Jockeys tacked their own horse and cleaned their own goggles. There was no jock’s room, other than a trailer or a little shed, where they could deposit their suitcases with their tack inside.
Boulanger had an old saddle that he bought from somebody else, an old hardback saddle. He hustled some boots. Once he got going, and amassed savings (jockeys got $15 a mount, $30 for a win), Boulanger bought some new boots, nicer pants. “I thought it was great,” he said. “I was riding race horses and making money doing it.”
“They painted me”
Immediately, Boulanger’s name flashed up on the win column. The first weekend, he rode seven horses, and won, he thinks, three. The first win? “Oh god it was fun,” he said. “They painted me from my belly button to my knee cap. They initiated you in those days [for the first win.]” His “friends” would use black shoe polish or Absorbine Jr., or whatever else they could find. A bottle of alcohol would remove it fairly quickly. (Years later, when Boulanger won his first official race (with an Arabian) in Tampa, Fla., he had to endure another initiation.)
Boulanger’s first (non-official bush track) win came with a 10-year-old horse called Dial Me Right, an old thoroughbred. He laid just off the pace in the 1 1/16th mile race on the half-mile track, which meant they went around the little oval three times. “He knew what he was doing,” Boulanger said. “I was just a passenger.”
From there, he hit the circuit: Red Deer, Lethbridge, Grand Prairie, and others.
Along the way, he also met Jim McAleney, who got his start at the bush tracks before winning back-to-back Sovereign awards as an apprentice in 1987 and 1988.
Boulanger had other options. He went to a national championship as a high school wrestler and earned a scholarship to become a veterinarian at the University of Saskatoon. He had an acceptance letter that opened the door for him to start study in September of 1987. But by this time, he was already riding in the United States. He weighed the options: go to school for six or seven years, or earn money now. He decided to follow the money. If it didn’t work out, he could always return home.
Out of the cold, into the warmth
While on the bush circuit, Boulanger had met Dr. Ed Branch, a psychologist who had a farm called Branchaway. He used it as a half-way house for troubled teens, to help them find the right path. Branch was actually an American, who had a farm just east of Tallahassee, Fla., and had sent some Arabians to Florida to run. Because he also had some babies he wanted to break, he offered Boulanger a job in November. “It was like -32 degrees in Alberta, and it was to be 50 degrees in Florida,” Boulanger said. “Let’s go.”
He left the day after Christmas. Branch had a big greyhound bus that he had converted to a travelling trailer, with six stalls in the middle and living quarters at the back. Boulanger’s truck stole a ride, hitched to the back with a tow bar. On the way, they picked up a horse in Minnesota. The trip took three days. They lived in the greyhound bus at an RV park in Tallahassee.
Boulanger was 19 years old now, and knew nobody in Florida. He’d left behind what he knew: Alberta with its hockey and oil and cattle. He lived by the seat of his pants. He didn’t know what was going to come. Because he was with the Arabian people, not a lot of people knew him. Tampa had many riders during the winter. “It was definitely a learning experience,” he said. There, he won his first race.
Off to Delaware next. Then to Cleveland, Then New York.
In Cleveland, at Thistledown, he was leading apprentice and second leading rider. Boulanger had hooked up with Cleveland’s leading trainer, who had brought him from Delaware. Harmon Drake was a multiple stakes winning trainer who won 526 races in his career and last raced a horse in 1990.
Drake asked Boulanger where he wanted to finish the rest of his bug. There were three or four months left on his weight allowance. Drake had connections in both New York and Florida.
“You think, New York. Big Apple,” Boulanger said. “Let’s go.”
The Big Apple
It was an eye-opening experience to ride that winter of 1987-1988 at Aqueduct. For one thing, it was brutally cold. For another thing, he was living in Queen’s. It was at a time when racist tensions were high.
He sold an old truck and bought a new Chevrolet S10 Blazer. He had owned it for only 10 days when thugs stole it during a drug deal that ended up in a high-speed chase. The driver totalled it, and it sat in a police impound yard as evidence. “The town never went to sleep and it scared the shit out of me,” Boulanger said.
He bunked up in a house only six doors away from the entrance to Aqueduct and stayed with an Italian lady with no understanding of his line of work, who took one look at him and vowed she had to get him to eat more. She offered up pasta, lasagna, all of that hearty stuff. It didn’t help.
By the time Boulanger lost his bug in New York, the big-name riders had returned, and riders like Angel Cordero, Jose Santos and Jerry Bailey were getting the mounts that Boulanger had won on. He had done well, riding for Frankie Martin and Oscar Barrera. “It was fun to see, but I would never want to live there,” he said.
California, here I come
A trainer asked him to come to northern California tracks such as Bay Meadows and Golden Gate. If he didn’t catch on there, Boulanger always held the Alberta option.
He had a formidable task in northern California. He was riding into Russell Baze country. Ron Hansen and Cowboy Jack Kaenel, who had won the 1982 Preakness on Aloma’s Ruler at age 16, rode there too. But Baze ruled. He finally retired two years ago after becoming far and away the leading thoroughbred rider North American history with 12,842 wins. He rarely strayed from Northern California, where he won 36 riding titles at Bay Meadows and 27 at Golden Gate.
“Breaking in was tough, because Russell was there,” Boulanger said. He won some races, but it was a jockey’s colony with a lot of depth. Finally, Seattle trainer Clint Roberts had been watching Boulanger ride and suggested he ride at Longacres in Washington State.
“Listen, you’re a good rider,” Roberts said. “You need to go somewhere where you can ride in more races, polish off your craft.” He told Boulanger that he had 30 horses at Longacres, and his son-in-law had another 30. And Boulanger would have first call on all of them.
“Sounds pretty good,” Boulanger said. “Let’s go.”
Boulanger’s career at Longacres was electric from the first day, when he won two races. By year’s end, he had won 194 races – the second highest total in Longacres history – and was top jockey, 79 wins ahead of the jock in second place. Remarkably, he averaged two wins a day. The next winter, Boulanger decided he wanted to ride at Santa Anita, against the big guns.
Pincay generous with advice
Laffit Pincay was still riding there at the time. So were Bill Shoemaker, Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, Gary Stevens, and Fernando Toro, who dominated on the turf. Boulanger wanted to learn from them. He went for three months, then returned to Seattle.
Every minute he spent at Santa Anita proved worthwhile. It was a turning point for Boulanger. He would sit and chat with Pincay and ask him about what he’d done in a certain race. Pincay would generously tell him. “They were all very cordial and they were great,” Boulanger said. “They wanted you to be a better rider. The better rider you were, the better they could ride. They knew what you would do. They knew what you thought.” Soon he started emulating the things they were doing.
From Pincay, he learned dedication and strength. “Just how strong he was as a rider, and staying in time with a horse and not over-riding, and staying with them,” Boulanger said. “Delahoussaye was probably the craftiest. Chris was a very smart rider. Gary Stevens still is a good rider. They all give you little things.”
Shoemaker was the jokester of the jock’s room. “He was always pulling jokes on everybody, like putting shaving cream on their helmets,” Boulanger said. “He was a great guy in the room.”
He heard stories about the rivalry between Shoemaker and Pat Valenzuela. Valenzuela ended up riding a horse that Shoemaker used to ride, which meant that Shoe knew the horse all too well. The first time they raced together, Valenzuela tucked in third behind Shoemaker, but down the backside, Shoemaker floated out wide into the five-path. Valenzuela’s horse grabbed the bit and rushed up the inside, past Shoemaker.
But by the eighth pole, Shoemaker ran them down and won. “#@*&%$” Valenzuela muttered.
Three weeks later, in a stakes race, the same scenario happened. Valenzuela, riding the same horse, tucked in behind Shoemaker. Shoemaker floated out wide. Valenzuela’s horse charged through, Shoemaker came back and beat them again.
“What the heck are you doing to me, man?” Valenzuela blurted to Shoemaker as they returned to dismount.
“Well, I know the summbitch,” Shoemaker said of P-Val’s mount. “If he sees daylight, he’s going to go and I’m going to run you down.”
“You summbitch,” Valenzuela said to The Shoe.
Boulanger was lucky enough to ride in Shoemaker’s last race before he retired on Feb. 3, 1990 at Santa Anita. Shoemaker’s last mount was Patchy Groundfog. A record crowd of 65,000 showed up to watch and bid farewell. Everybody wanted The Shoe to go out a winner.
Shoe left from the eight hole but everybody could see rather quickly that “he’s got nothing,” He ran fourth behind Delahoussaye. “He couldn’t get home,” Boulanger said. “They were a fun bunch of guys. It was a tough circuit.”
Shoe was missed after he retired. He would put shoe polish on the inside of his competitor’s goggles. The shaving cream came out after riders had already checked their gear. When they weren’t looking, Shoe would dart by and deposit a cone shape of cream atop their helmets. He loved to play cards.
Major Jockey Dust-up
“All the guys down there were really good,” Boulanger said. “Everybody has their cockiness when they win a race, but all of those older guys were very humble. They joked around and had a good time. There were no big rivalries.”
Well, except perhaps between Valenzuela and Stevens, who had a major dust-up one day. They got into a full-blown fist fight, for three races in a row.
Something had happened in a race and Valenzuela said something frosty and Stevens told him to put it where the sun doesn’t shine. “They went at it like two alley cats,” Boulanger said. Things in the room flew everywhere. Eventually, they separated, weighed in, went out to ride. But when they returned, they went back at it again. Once again, they paused to do their jobs, returned and fists flew again. After about 10 seconds of this the third time, finally, one said to the other: “Aren’t you tired yet?”
“F…. yeah, I’m tired man,” said the other. “Let’s stop this shit.”
And so they walked apart. Battle over. Dust settled.
“Gary, I’ll shatter it”
At the end of this eventful excursion, Boulanger returned to Longacres, where he led the show for the second season. At Longacres, everything Boulanger had learned and seen all began to take hold. Watching him was Ron Stevens, father of Gary Stevens, who had set the record of 232 wins for a single season during the mid-1980s. It was generally regarded as an unbeatable record.
Ron called Gary and said: “There’s a kid here that is going to break your record.”
“Aw, they say that every year,” Gary replied.
“I’m telling you, he’s going to break your record,” Ron said. “I’ve adopted him. He’s my third son. Really, he’s going to break your record.”
The third season, Boulanger could do no wrong. He won six races in one day – three times. Half-way through the meet, he was way ahead of the pace needed to break Steven’s record.
Gary – who had been a friend from Boulanger’s northern California days – called him up and said: “Do me a favour.”
“What’s that?” Boulanger asked.
“Don’t break the record by one or two wins,” Stevens said.
“Gary, I’ll shatter it,” Boulanger promised.
On Sept. 15, 1991, Boulanger broke Stevens’ record and by season’s end, he had a win total of 247, achieved in 125 days. In three years, he had won 30 stakes races there.
A year later, Longacres closed for good, sold to the Boeing Company.
Suffice it to say that Boulanger has a soft spot for Longacres. “It was a great place,” he said. “It really helped me become what I am. Probably the biggest help was going down to Santa Anita to ride with those guys. And once you win races, the confidence level and the belief in your instincts rises, and you fine tune your sense of timing and your feel for good horses. I got fortunate enough to ride a lot of nice horses there and win a lot of stakes. It just rolled over. The more you win, the more people want to use you.”
In 2015, Boulanger was inducted into the Washington Thoroughbred Hall of Fame, an award dear to his heart.
With Longacres out of the picture, Boulanger returned to northern California with a different tilt to his hat. In the first two months, he took the lead, six wins ahead of Russell Baze, now the first rider to ever challenge him. Boulanger was even riding horses for Jerry Hollendorfer, when a horse flipped on him in the paddock and shattered his ankle.
“Russell was a strong rider,” Boulanger said. “We called him The Slasher. He just never stopped working on a horse. Russell the Muscle. I just kept going. He was a very classy guy. Quiet, doesn’t say a whole lot.”
The ankle was his first big injury. He broke both the tibia and fibula, and dislocated the ankle, even tore a part of his Achilles tendon. A surgeon put in seven screws and a plate and Boulanger was off for only 47 days. “The first three weeks, the swelling was just awful,” Boulanger said. “But he [sports medicine doctor Michael Charles] started me on therapy quick. He didn’t want the Achilles shrinking.”
Canada by way of Florida
Next, Boulanger took his talents to Calder Racecourse in Florida, where he was leading rider in in 1994 and 1995 – and at Tropical Park, too. In Florida he won more than 20 stakes and in 1998, piloted Chilito to win the Flamingo Derby. That victory launched Boulanger on a trip to the Kentucky Derby, won by Real Quiet. Chilito finished 11th.
While Boulanger’s career was smoking in Florida, Canadian trainer Mark Frostad was watching and he liked what he saw. Only 2 ½ months after Boulanger returned from breaking his back, Frostad and agent Gary Kemplen called him. Frostad was looking for a second go-to rider other than Todd Kabel, brilliant, but troubled. Nobody knew whether Kabel would show up or not on any given morning. Or afternoon.
“Listen, the purses are huge at Woodbine, and you’re a Canadian citizen,” Kemplen said. Boulanger considered it and said – as he always did for a big life change: “Let’s go.”
He drove up with his family the first year, and in 2000, got to work a Sam Son Farm colt called Scatter The Gold, which hadn’t won a race before the Queen’s Plate that year. Still, he was well bred, a son of Dance Smartly. Kabel had been working another colt, Strike Smartly, a half-brother to Dance Smartly, but he finished only fifth in the Plate Trial. And then Scatter the Gold, with Boulanger aboard, outworked Strike Smartly. “He just toyed with him,” Boulanger said.
A week before the Plate, Kabel told Frostad he wanted to ride Scatter the Gold. “Listen, Gary, Todd wants to ride him,” Frostad said. “But don’t worry, I’ll make it up to you.”
So Boulanger rode the horse that Kabel worked, and Kabel rode the horse that Boulanger worked. Usually, jockeys ride the horses they work. And Kabel won that Queen’s Plate, while Boulanger finished tenth with Strike Smartly.
Finally, a Queen’s Plate win
However, that fall, Frostad offered up a filly – Scatter the Gold’s sister, Dancethruthedawn – to ride in the Princess Elizabeth Stakes. She won it.
“She was a very aggressive filly,” Boulanger recalled. “She was very precocious. We did a lot of work just trying to teach her to settle. She and I got along really well. I’d come to see her every day.”
Hughie Chapman, Frostad’s assistant trainer, recognized that Boulanger got along with her better than he did. This became a trademark of Boulanger: he always wanted to get to know the horses he rode and form a bond. The more he got on Dancethruthedawn, the more he got to know her. He rode her in the Canadian Oaks, which she won, but not without incident.
She had run in the Kentucky Oaks, but finished only 12th of 13. Impatient, she acted up in the starting gate after a long wait, got caught behind a wall of horses, then shuffled, and was bumped.
In the Canadian Oaks, she drew the two-hole but flipped in the gate, and threw Boulanger out the back doors. He clambered aboard again, but she got away horribly, leaving the pair of them at the back of the field. However, during the race, she “just cruised through traffic like nothing” to win.
Who picks 17?
In the Queen’s Plate, Dancethruthedawn faced colts for the first time. Win City was the favourite to win. Boulanger accompanied Frostad to the Plate draw. Frostad asked the jockey which post position he wanted.
“How many are in there?” Boulanger asked.
Frostad said: “Seventeen.”
“I want the 17 hole,” Boulanger said. “I want to be in the gate as little time as possible. I want to get in and out. I’m not going to be in traffic. I got all the speed in the world if I want it. There’s two cheap horses in there that were sprinters. Nobody can try to box me in. I could be lying third and dictate when they move and when they don’t move.”
Frostad drew the fifth pick for Dancethruthedawn. He walked up and took post 17. The crowd of breakfast grazers all gasped.
Frostad said something frothy and fake news-worthy like: It was a relative’s favourite number.
The race went exactly the way Boulanger thought it would. He laid third and waited. And waited. And waited. Win City came to his hip, just as they straightened away for home. “I turned her loose, she spurted and put 2 ½ or three lengths on him,” Boulanger said. “He tried getting her but he never could.”
Winning the Oaks-Plate double in one year was a major milestone for Boulanger. “[The Plate] was the biggest race I’d ever won,” he said. “I was elated. I didn’t know what to do.
“I hope I get another one. I always set my standards high. I want to win the Kentucky Derby. I want to win a Breeders’ Cup race. I think when you push yourself to be as good as you possibly can be, the harder you will work at it. If you set your standards low, then once you get there, what do you do?”
Boulanger eventually drifted back to Florida for family reasons – he had children going to school there, and while there, he suffered the horrific accident at Gulfstream. For a long time, his life was just about surviving. Not riding.
It took three years before he felt good enough to show up at a track again, and decided to become a trainer, thinking his riding days were behind him. But as if he needed more from the Help Department, he was thrown from a tractor when it hit a rut and ran over his leg.
Finally, he celebrated his first win as a trainer at Calder in 2009 with Tinkerbok. But it wasn’t so easy to get a toehold in this end of the sport. He had no owners. In four seasons, he trained horses to only 43 starts with earnings of $46,710. Finally, frustrated at watching others ride his horses, he got clearance to ride again himself. On Feb. 17, 2013, he finished ninth on Spring A Latch, a horse he trained.
It was an unforgettable, emotional moment for Boulanger. “The hair stood up on my arms,” he said. People were yelling his name, wishing him good luck, welcoming him back. “It was like I was winning my first race,” he said. “It’s something I will never forget.”
In the meantime, he began galloping horses for others. He was working for a guy 25 miles west of Ocala, breezing horses. He worked for a time at Adena Springs, too, but began looking for a job. A man renting an apartment at his Florida farm worked for Mark Casse, who was going to need another breezing rider, because he was about to get another 25 horses from the farm.
A breakthrough with Casse
Casse took him on. Kaigun was one of the earliest horses he rode for Casse. At the time, he was a maiden, and had never started. “I breezed him a bunch,” Boulanger said. “I said: ‘this is a super nice horse.” He asked Casse if he got cleared to ride, could he ride Kaigun? Casse said yes.
A month and a half later, Boulanger got clearance to ride. Boulanger rode the horse at Keeneland.
Casse gave him another job: to ride a horse called Conquestor in the OBS Sprint. It was an ideal situation. There was no pressure in this assignment. Casse didn’t demand a win. This 2-year-old had flashed speed in three or four races as a 2-year-old, but stopped at the eighth pole every time. Casse wanted a positive race for the horse, just to get him to finish. “Don’t let him show any speed,” Casse told him.
Boulanger knew there was a lot of speed in the race, so he just left Conquestor alone. “They kind of ran away from him,” Boulanger said. “The next thing I know, I’m 15 or 16 lengths back. I knew he had a kick. I had worked him a bunch.”
Meanwhile Casse, watching with his wife Tina, was cursing Boulanger to the skies. “What the hell is he doing?” Casse said. “He’s going to run last.” He was ready to walk away, but Boulanger wasn’t finished.
“It was just beautiful, because I had no pressure of winning,” Boulanger recalled. “I just let him run down the lane. At the three-eighths pole, I pushed the button and he was passing horses left and right. And he wins by 3 ½.”
Casse looked at Boulanger in a new light. “You’ve still got it,” he told him. The next day, Casse asked him: “What are you doing for the summer?”
Boulanger didn’t know.
Casse asked him if he would consider going to Woodbine.
“If I had a guy like you behind me, sure,” Boulanger said. “To go up there after being off eight years would be a big hill to climb. Everybody is going to be questioning: ‘Are you still the same?’”
Casse said he wouldn’t ride Boulanger on everything, but he’d ride him a lot. Like on half the barn. And it was a formidable barn. “Let’s go,” Boulanger said.
“I’m very appreciative of what he’s done,” Boulanger said of Casse, who has breathed new life into his career. “It’s been a pretty nice way to come back. It’s a great situation. I think the years that I’ve ridden for him, he’s given me instructions on three horses. It’s been fun and a blessing. “
A man of his word
Boulanger has found Casse a man of his word. While Patrick Husbands often gets first call on the horses, Casse tends to ride Boulanger on horses that he’s worked, because he feels Boulanger fits the horse. Boulanger now rides for a wide variety of people. It’s best, he says, not to have all of your eggs in one basket.”
Boulanger has ridden some very good horses for Casse. He used to ride the ill-fated Delegation. He also rode the Leavem In Malibu, a powerful colt that finished sixth in the Plate, second in the Prince of Wales, and third in the Breeders’ Stakes. He carries a photo of Leavem In Malibu on his Smartphone. (A month after Boulanger won the Valedictory Stakes atWoodbine with Leavem In Malibu, the horse suffered a fatal accident during a workout while preparing for the $16-million Pegasus Stakes at Gulfstream Park.)
He also worked My Conquestadory before she ever ran. Ten days after Casse bought her out of a sale for $240,000 Boulanger was astride her. The first time he breezed her, he thought she was a 3-year-old. “She has a few gears,” he said.
But no. Casse told her My Conquestadory was only a 2-year-old. “No way,” Boulanger said. “If that’s a baby, holy cow. Sheer talent. Just an unbelievable amount of talent.”
Boulanger couldn’t ride her because he had already ridden a couple of winners for one of Casse’s other owners, John Oxley. And Casse couldn’t take Boulanger off the Oxley horses to ride a maiden for another owner. Eurico Rosa da Silva got the mount.
“I told Rico you won’t get out of first gear,” Boulanger said before the Summer Stakes – her maiden voyage and against colts to boot. She won by four lengths. In the Alcibiades at Keeneland after that, My Conquestadory came from the back of the field, was blocked by a wall of horses but still burst through with an exciting turn of foot to win.
A magical 2017 season
Two years ago, Boulanger began to get on a little 2-year-old colt called King And His Court. “He’s a neat little horse,” Boulanger said. Casse had bought the colt before the Coronation Stakes, and the little King had a few idiosyncracies: like suddenly sticking his toes in and stopping when he felt like it. The week before the Coronation, as Boulanger was trying to breeze him, he still showed these tendencies.
The stable put blinkers on him and worked him in company with an older horse. Assistant trainer David Adams warned him: “Watch him. Make sure you break him off at the pole. He might stick his toes in the ground.”
Boulanger didn’t know who the colt was at the time. He was just a horse.
King and His Court broke and tow-roped the other horse all the way around. Whenever the older horse would come to him, he’d surge.
Asked what he thought of this colt when he returned, Boulanger said: “He’s a nice summbitch.”
“He’s going to run in the Coronation,” Adams told him.
“Great!” Boulanger said. And he won it.
“He sat back there in the Coronation and he run by them for fun,” Boulanger said.
Still, he thought the Display Stakes was an ever better measure of what King and His Court could do. “He got hammered out of the gate,” Boulanger said. “Now I’m in mid-traffic. Through the second turn, I got bounced around like a ping pong and he’s not a big horse. Any young 2-year-old getting that kind of beat up, they could just hand you the ‘hey, I’ve had enough here.’”
But as soon as Boulanger showed the colt some daylight, King and His Court was gone. He didn’t even have to hit him. Boulanger only raised his hand and the colt shot by the rest. “What a turn of foot,” Boulanger said.
After some lacklustre races on the dirt in the United States over the winter, King and His Court appreciated the home Tapeta, and won the Wando Stakes with grit at Woodbine last spring. He finished second in the Plate Trial, and seventh in the Plate itself. But he came back to finish a strong third in the Breeders’ Stakes. There’s always next year. This year.
Last year, leading up to Plate time were exciting days for Boulanger. His mother came to the Queen’s Plate last year. His father died 29 days before his Gulfstream accident. “It was a tough year for my mother,” Boulanger said.
But nobody had expected him to win the Avelino Gomez Award. It hadn’t been in his plans. Perhaps the good vibes are his now to keep. It’s about time.