Understand this about jockey Gary Boulanger: He can’t recall exactly what happened that day eight years ago when he was thrown from his thoroughbred in the home stretch and then nearly trampled to death.
He has scars, including a 10-incher on the right side of his head, that remind him about that late January afternoon at Gulfstream Park. He remembers the painful recovery in the hospital from a ruptured spleen, broken ribs, detached elbow tendon and blood clot in his brain.
He remembers the agonizing migraine headaches and seizures that followed him around for years after the accident. He wondered if he would ever feel right again.
What he didn’t know is his racing career would not end. In fact, it still has many acts to be played out, including a return to the Queen’s Plate after a 12-year absence in Canada’s biggest horse race, when he climbs aboard filly Spring in the Air at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto on Sunday.
Being back in the saddle again for five months has been an emotional ride for the 45-year-old Boulanger, born near Edmonton in Drayton Valley and raised in Whitecourt, Alta. But the ride has been worth it because he’s winning again at Woodbine.
First, he had to recover from the fall. It took three years before he felt good enough to show up at the track again. With his days as a champion jockey behind him — or so he thought — Boulanger had a plan to return to the business as a trainer. But he suffered another setback when he was taking a tour of a paddock on a tractor. The driver hit a huge rut, bucked Boulanger off and then ran over his leg.
When he finally got a few horses to train, he had a difficult time trusting the jockeys. He had his way. He had won more than 3,100 times, so who knew better than Boulanger?
Frustrated, he had an idea earlier this year that he would ride Spring a Latch, a three-year-old filly, in the ninth race at Tampa Downs on Feb. 17, and get the result he wanted for his horse.
"It was amazing. I was excited. I felt good. It was emotional," he said. "The hair stood up on my arms. People were yelling my name, wishing me good luck, welcoming me back. It was like winning my first race. It’s something I will never forget."
Boulanger finished ninth. But Woodbine-based trainer Mark Casse, who spends the winter season in Florida, liked what he saw. He still saw a championship jockey even though he had been out of the game for eight years.
Boulanger already had been breezing some of Casse’s best horses like Spring Venture and Uncaptured at Gulfstream in the morning. The trainer wanted to see his jockey back in the game.
Casse gave Boulanger some more rides. The jockey swiftly found himself back in the winner’s circle aboard Conquestor at Ocala (Fla.) on Mar. 11.
"I didn’t have an expectation," Boulanger said on Thursday. "But when you get to sit on such nice horses for Mark, it wasn’t a question of if I would win, it was a question of when."
A short time after that victory at Ocala, Casse asked Boulanger about his long-term plans. He asked the jockey if he was interested in returning to Woodbine. When Casse promised Boulanger that he would give him horses to ride, the jockey simply replied, "Let’s go." He has 18 wins in 183 starts at the Toronto track, good for seventh in the jockey standings heading into Queen’s Plate weekend.
"It’s been a great merge," Boulanger said.
One of the reasons why Casse likes Boulanger so much, is he knows horses. Boulanger has a knack for getting speedy horses to relax and he gives his trainers insightful feedback.
Casse, who has never won the Queen’s Plate, will have four horses in Sunday’s race. Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Joel Rosario, who finished second aboard Spring in the Air in the Woodbine Oaks last month, will ride 4-1 shot Dynamic Sky for Casse’s other top horse in the race.
"I can’t pick one. But if Gary could win it would be great," Casse said, with his voice trailing off as he got emotional.
"Everything I’ve ever done has been in horses and everything I did after always pointed me back to horses," said Boulanger, when asked why he’s back in the saddle. "I also believe things happen for a reason. I didn’t die when I was hurt. I went through a lot of physical things I had to go through. But it just kept pointing me to horses.
"I thought maybe I should try this, maybe I should try that. I tried being [a jockey] agent and it just wasn’t me. I loved training, but I didn’t have any owners. I believe it was always meant to be."
"But being gone that long has made me appreciate it more."