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Feature: No fear, nowhere else Gary Boulanger would rather be

By: Chris Lomon

Gary Boulanger doesn’t frighten easily. When he recently crossed paths with a venomous snake and an alligator on a Florida golf course, the veteran jockey didn’t flinch. After all, he’s stared down much scarier things.

“It was pretty big,” Boulanger remembered of his close encounter with the snake that measured about four feet. “People were saying it was a cottonmouth. I don’t know what kind it was, but it wasn’t small.”

A few holes earlier, the 49-year-old and his group happened upon an alligator.

“Well, that’s Florida for you, isn’t it?” quipped Boulanger, who is riding in the Sunshine State ahead of Woodbine’s 2017 thoroughbred meet that’s set to start on April 15.

While others were far less composed at the interactions, the rider with 3,386 career wins was very much the person he is in the saddle: unfazed, unflappable and unafraid.

It’s been Boulanger’s calling card since his first race in 1986, throughout the devastating injuries he suffered in an on-track incident 12 years ago, and after he returned to action in 2013.

The aftermath of the spill on January 30, 2005 wasn’t pretty: fractured ribs, ruptured spleen, torn elbow tendons, a blood clot, and brain damage that required doctors to remove part of his skull to ease the swelling.

On two occasions, he flatlined on the operating table.

No one believed he’d ever ride again, including Boulanger.

The subsequent hours spent in rehab were long, demanding and draining. Slowly, he got better. Eventually, as he healed, his thoughts turned toward a possible return to riding. It was a longshot at best, but Boulanger figured if an opportunity to get back on a horse came his way, he’d at least consider it.

After breezing horses for champion trainer Mark Casse, he rode his first race in eight years at Tampa Bay Downs in 2013. His first win after the accident came on a Casse horse.

A fixture at Woodbine since 2013, Boulanger, the man who guided Sam-Son Farm’s Dancethruthedawn to a sterling Queen’s Plate score (main photo, courtesy of WEG/Michael Burns Photography) in 2001 won 95 races in 2016 – 88 of them at Woodbine – the most victories he’s posted since 2004.

The Alberta native is looking to best that number this year.

(Jennifer Petricca photo. Boulanger is second from the right)

“At one time in my life, I was highly regarded as a rider,” he offered. “Going through the accidents I’ve been in, and then getting the opportunities to get back to that level where people look for you in big races and you get to ride the good horses – I feel fortunate and I want to make the most of the opportunities I get. Once you win those big races, more people start looking at you. I don’t know if it’s about me being better, getting back to where I was – I think I’m more level-headed about how I see the sport.”

Gone are the days when Boulanger would do a slow burn after getting taken off a horse, losing by a nose on the wire, or enduring a winless afternoon.

With age, he laughs, comes perspective.

“You don’t beat yourself up as much as you did when you were trying to establish yourself,” said Boulanger. “You let things go more easily. You’re still competitive and you still want to win, but it’s about looking ahead. I just look at things differently. I don’t look back to the ones I didn’t win. I look forward to the next one I can win.”

He also looks forward to every morning he heads to the Woodbine backstretch.

(Jennifer Petricca photo)

“I’m more in-tune with the horses than I’ve ever been,” noted Boulanger. “I want to form a bond with the horses I ride. Any new horse that I get presented with, I want to get on them a few times to get to know their tendencies. Then they get to know me. That makes a huge difference when the race is on.

“I love to win. I love seeing the team win. I like getting to know the horses, the grooms, everyone at the barn. These people in our industry work hard – the trainers, the grooms, the exercise riders, the farriers, everyone. I have a smile on my face when I visit with them. There are a lot of people that have jobs they don’t want to be at. I can’t wait to get to the track. Who will I see? What horses can I see? What will today bring? It’s something I always look forward to.”

Soon, Boulanger will be back from Florida to prepare for the upcoming Woodbine campaign.

He’s eager to build off a season in which he ranked fifth in wins at the Toronto oval.

“Everyone wants to win the big races,” said Boulanger. “I’d love to win the Queen’s Plate again. I’d love to win the Woodbine Mile and get back to the Breeders’ Cup again or have a horse in the Kentucky Derby. That’s what you ride for, to have that chance to be in the big ones. My goal is to win as many of the big races as I can.”

(WEG/Michael Burns photo)

There’s no booming bravado in his voice. There’s no swagger in his step. And there’s no desire to recite past glories.

Boulanger is very much a man living in the moment. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I don’t take anything for granted. I enjoy what I do immensely. For however much longer I do it, I’m going to enjoy it every single day.”

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