Gary Boulanger expects to be nervous Sunday, and he looks forward to the feeling.
Eight years after a serious spill at Gulfstream Park brought his career to a screeching halt and nearly took his life, the ex-jockey-turned-trainer returns to competition in Sunday's ninth race at Tampa Bay Downs aboard Spring a Latch, a 3-year-old filly he trains for his girlfriend, Darcy Scudero, and Thomas Delgiorno.
The race is an allowance/$75,000 optional claiming affair scheduled for a mile on the turf course. In an incredible twist of fate, Boulanger rode his first winner at Tampa Bay Downs in 1987 in an Arabian-bred race.
“There is going to be a lot of buzz going around, for sure,” said the 45-year-old Boulanger, who won more than 3,100 races from 1987 to his accident. “It's going to be exciting to be on a horse I'm training and that I'm so familiar with. There will be some nervous energy, but if you don't have that you wouldn't be human. It will be a good energy, a good feeling, and it's going to be a lot of fun.”
Boulanger lives with Scudero, a former jockey and current pinhooker, in Ocala on Center Stage Farm. He was cleared to return to riding Thursday by the Tampa Bay Downs stewards after they watched him work a horse out of the gate. He is allowed to ride the horses he conditions, but should he choose to ride for other trainers, he would be required to give up his trainer's license.
“I just want to ride my own horses for now,” Boulanger said. “If I didn't think I was healthy enough or strong enough, I would say it's out of my realm, but I feel better than I've felt in the last six years. I know it might take a while to get my fine-tuning down as far as timing and sense of pace, but the only way I'm going to get that is by doing it.
“If I want to go back to being a full-fledged jockey, I'll make that decision later on.”
Boulanger's accident occurred in the 2005 running of the Grade III Mac Diarmida Handicap on the turf, in which his mount, In Hand, lost his footing and fell after entering the final turn. Boulanger's injuries were extensive, including a ruptured spleen, broken ribs, and a detached tendon in his left elbow.
A blood clot was extracted from his brain and part of his skull was removed to prevent cranial pressure, then put back. He had a seizure in 2007 and experienced migraine headaches for a period of time, but he has been medication-free for three years and recently underwent a battery of tests from a neurologist to assess his motor skills and reactions.
“He told me I was perfectly healthy and said ‘If you want to do it, go for it,' ” Boulanger said. “I work a lot of horses in the morning, both our own and some for (trainer) Mark Casse. So basically I'm doing everything in the morning, risk-wise, that I'm going to face in a race, but obviously not in tight quarters or with as much pressure to win a race.”
Scudero is confident that Boulanger can step right in and be competitive and says she will not be surprised if he elects to make himself available for other business in the near future.
“I want him to be safe, of course, but I also know this is what he was born to do. It is second nature for him,” Scudero said. “He and I have been riding together a year and a half, and he has been thinking about this for a while. I'm excited for him. He is healthy, fit and strong, and he has his eyes on business. If he is going to try to make a go of this, his timing is good.
“He had some memory loss the first couple of years after the accident, and I know there are doubts and questions from people about any (lingering) brain damage,” Scudero said. “But I can tell you there is not a race he rode where he can't tell you verbatim what happened. He is plenty sharp and ready to roll.”
Boulanger took out his trainer's license in 2007, but had those plans put on hold for several months when he suffered a broken leg and dislocated ankle in a tractor accident. He began riding horses again in 2008 and gave riding lessons to young students in south Florida and has been gradually building toward a return ever since, even if not fully committed at the outset to returning to the track.
Boulanger enjoyed outstanding success in his prime. In both 1991 and 1994, he rode more than 300 winners. He rode Chilito in the 1998 Kentucky Derby for trainer H. Graham Motion, after winning the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah on him at 15-1 odds.
And the native of Edmonton, Alberta won both the 2001 Queen's Plate and Labatt Woodbine Oaks on the 3-year-old filly Dancethruthedawn for owner Sam-Son Farms and trainer Mark Frostad.
Boulanger won five meet titles in his previous career, two at Calder in Miami and three at Longacres in Washington state, where he won 247 races in 1991 to beat Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens' record. Stevens returned to the saddle earlier this year after eight years away (with the exception of one mount in 2008) and is 4-for-37 at Santa Anita, including two stakes victories last weekend.
Boulanger earned his first victory as a trainer in 2009 at Calder with Tinkerbuck, but the going has been slow since. “I haven't found any substantial owners who were going to stay behind me and I've been chasing money here and there, and that got frustrating,” he said. “That and watching some of these young riders, and even some of the older ones, making so many mistakes, helped push me to do this.”
Although he has been pleased with the efforts of Jose Angel Garcia, who helped Spring a Latch break her maiden here Jan. 23 and rode Boulanger's Barbershop to a third-place finish Thursday, Boulanger believes he knows his horses well enough from working with them in the mornings to coax their best efforts.
He has received strong encouragement in his comeback effort from Scudero and close friend Will Knight, a Tampa attorney.
“They are probably my two biggest backers as far as pushing me to do this,” Boulanger said. “And Spring a Latch is my biggest inspiration as a horse because she has done everything so easily for me in the mornings.
“After eight years, it's weird to ride my first race back at the track where I got my first win. I don't know if there was a big picture painted out beforehand, but everything happens for a reason and I take it for what it is. I'm just glad to be in a position to do it.”
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