Paladin Bay: Canada’s Answer to California Chrome

by | 05.23.2014 | 8:11am
Paladin Bay after her win in the Selene Stakes

Paladin Bay is a gift.

This 3-year-old filly with the crooked blaze is the story of spirit. Perhaps not your normal sort of spirit, as you will see. It's the kind of spirit that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

Last week in the $208,500 Selene Stakes at Woodbine, she swooped down upon heavy favorite My Conquestadory like the rush of an eagle's wing through a tiny hole and defeated her by a nose. Nobody could believe it. Trainer Harold Ladouceur, spruced up in a natty suit, jumped up and down with joy. He now has the filly that is favored for the $500,000 Woodbine Oaks on June 15. A couple of years ago, this scenario was unthinkable.

Ladouceur isn't Mark Casse with a stable full of wealthy owners and well-bred horses. He couldn't get stalls at first at Woodbine years ago, when he came east from the Canadian prairies. He settled in at Fort Erie racetrack first, and when he finally got stalls at Woodbine, he was assigned the ones out in left field, in the back corner of the lot. Still, his stalls overlook the vista of the training track and there's a peacefulness about it. He and his wife, Jessie, and children Jacob and Sarah have just planted tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers along the sheltered side of the barn.

Ladouceur is a creature of the earth. He's a proud Metis, a Canadian aboriginal of mixed race, tracing to First Nations and French/English/Scottish settlers. In Canada, there are about 390,000 Metis, many of them settled in the prairie provinces, where Ladouceur is from.

There is a clear native cadence to his speech and it's still steeped in his culture. As a young man, he hunted, trapped, knew how to call moose, how to make bannock or muqpauraq, a flat quick bread made by the Metis; and he knew how to do the Red River jig (a Metis dance very much like an Irish jig). Ladouceur's native heritage is Cree.

“In the spring, when I was little, I would go with my aunts and uncles in a wagon with a team of horses through the bush,” Ladouceur said. “There weren't even roads there, and wherever there was a little pond, they knew where to go. This stuff gets handed down. I knew what to do, from being with them, when you're a kid.” They knew how to find duck eggs, a delicacy. They knew where to go to find fish in frozen parts of a creek. They would geld horses at a certain time of the moon.

The Ladouceur silks pay homage to his culture. They are white, with blue trim and the crest is important to him. He likes butterflies, so there is a butterfly, and on the lower tips of the wings is an eagle's head, a grove of trees, and a moon. The eagle is a powerful sign in native culture; it has the ability to see hidden truths. It's a symbol of the holy spirit. Carrying these important totems, Paladin Bay won the Selene.

A Memorable First Ride

There were always horses in Ladouceur's life. He was only four or five years old when he had his first ride on a horse and it was memorable. It was at a rodeo on the Moosomin reserve (Moosomin is the Cree word for high bush cranberry), and as his parents chatted with an acquaintance, one of them asked if little Harold could sit on one of the horse's backs, maybe even go for a ride.

Apparently, somebody said yes, and Harold was hoisted aboard. He doesn't know what kind of horse it was. He remembers only that he slid into a Western saddle. But as soon as bum hit leather, the horse took off, bolting, with the kid on his back. “I remember not being scared,” Ladouceur said. “I was just hanging on and the horse was running and there was bush there.” He could have landed in a thicket.

Finally the horse came to a stop, and little Ladouceur was still on him. He never begged to get off during the head-long rush. “It was like, 'Right on! What a ride!” he said, laughing.

Ladouceur has a special relationship with horses. It seems to be one of spirit. “He senses things and sees things that your average horseman doesn't,” Jessie says. “He has a different kind of sense with a horse.”

“Horses like me,” Ladouceur explains.

In all the years since, horses were at the center of Ladouceur's life. His grandfather, Alec Poitras, taught him about horses, and took him to all the bush tracks in the province, some of them cut out of cornfields. Ladouceur rode rodeos from Alberta to South Dakota, like his father. He exercised horses at Marquis Downs in Regina, Saskatchewan. He sometimes struggled for work, landing at Stampede Park in Calgary, where he met Jessie Bird, daughter of top western jockey Larry Bird. They both spent time all over the United States, breaking and preparing 2-year-olds to sell, meeting pinhookers, like Luke McKathan. In 2006, Harold and Jessie ended up at Fort Erie, with a few 2-year-olds supplied by McKathan.

Finally, at Woodbine, where Ladouceur held out his trainer's shingle, they struggled to make a go of it, falling back on Ladouceur's ability to exercise horses and Jessie's equestrian and grooming knowledge to pay the bills. But over the past two years, their stable was anything but successful. Ladouceur had a good work ethic, and could always make enough money to live, but it was for other people, helping them win races. He galloped horses for top trainers like Bob Tiller.

In 2011, Ladouceur won one race in 25 starts as a trainer, his horses earning $27,089. The year of 2012 was a little worse. Ladouceur broke his arm when he was kicked by a horse. The little stable didn't win a race all year, managed only two seconds and a third. “You need some half decent horses,” Ladouceur said. “And none would ever come our way.” They weren't starving, but not thriving, either. They contemplated getting out of the training business, perhaps working at a farm or a training center, or maybe Ladouceur could become an assistant trainer.

Life-Changing Moment

Then a chance meeting changed their lives. Ladouceur was going to the track with a horse when he saw a familiar face, an Alberta horse owner named Curt Kobza. Ladouceur had helped Kobza with stallions on a farm in Alberta.

They got chatting. Kobza had horses with Woodbine trainer Dave Cotey, known as the man who picked out Mine That Bird.  Kobza respected Ladouceur enough that he told him that he'd buy him a yearling at the upcoming yearling sales at Woodbine.

When the catalogues came out, Ladouceur went looking. “We dog-eared some pages,” Jessie said. One of the horses on those pages, ironically, was On Rainbow Bridge, who later proved to be a rival of Paladin Bay. Kobza bought On Rainbow Bridge and ended up giving her to Cotey. The Ladouceurs settled on a Milwaukee Brew yearling, the very next hip number in the catalogue. Kobza bought that one for the little team.

However, Ladouceur had spotted a Sligo Bay filly during his treks, and he had returned again and again to her stall for a look. He couldn't get her out of his head. Ladouceur was struck by her eye, her look and her power. And he knew he could get her for a reasonable price, because she'd just fractured a splint bone before the sale. Still, they had no money to buy her. She sold much later in the sale.

Unbeknownst to Ladouceur, Jessie went to the sales office and got $6,000 worth of credit. Then she began to get nervous. The filly was about to enter the ring, and she couldn't find her husband. Finally, she texted him and told him about the credit. Ladouceur took his position.

“The hand kept going up to $10,000,” Jessie said.

“I was a little nervous,” Ladouceur said. “But you know when you're in that, you just kind of go with it. You don't have time to think. You're either going to do it or you're not.”

My Conquestadory had cost $240,000, purchased by one of Casse's new owners, a Porsche dealer from the United States. She blitzed the continent as a 2-year-old, defeating males in the Summer Stakes at Woodbine, then impressing with her grit in the Alcibiades Stakes at Keeneland. She drew a terrible post in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Santa Anita and finished fourth, but still, she was a monster. Her first start of the year as a 3-year-old was the Selene, with only three opponents.

They didn't know at the time that breeder Ericka Rusnak had put a reserve of $9,900 on the Sligo Bay filly. Rusnak is the farm manager for the Hill 'n' Dale farm division in Ontario. It was meant to be.

But the Ladouceurs suddenly found themselves owning a filly for $10,000 with no way to pay for her.

Ladouceur tried to get people to buy 50 per cent of her. “We knew she was nice,” Jessie said. Nobody bit. Perhaps, Jessie thought, they had no faith in them. After all, their track record hadn't trumpeted success. The Ladouceurs were on their own. Finally, Kozba saved the day. He put up the money for the filly on their behalf, telling the Ladouceurs that they could work it off by training the Milwaukee Brew yearling for him.

“That's where I think everything to do with this filly has been divine,” Jessie said. “Everything has just fallen into place. We weren't scared. We just took this leap of faith that it was going to work out. There was never a panicky moment, where we said: 'What have we done?'

“As long as we have our health, we can always work and earn a living,” she said. “So we just have always relied on that. We've never done without. It's like okay, we'll be okay. We'll find a way. We'll just find a way.”

A Special Filly

Early on, Ladouceur knew he had something special. Jessie has a video from November-December of 2012, when Ladouceur was just starting to work with the filly. He breaks his yearlings at the farm of their principal owner, Charles Boyd, proprietor of an insurance agency, in Newmarket, Ont., northeast of Toronto.

There is no arena there, so Ladouceur gallops them in the field, a big sod field. “There was probably a foot and a half of snow, and she's loping along through that snow,” Jessie said. “Charles and I are talking, and in the background, you can hear Charles saying: 'I think we're looking at the Oaks winner.'”

By the middle of March, within two weeks of coming to the track, Ladouceur knew he had something special. He'd take her to the track, return and say: “Look after this horse. She is nice.”  They didn't know how nice.

As a 2-year-old, Paladin Bay won the country's most important race for 2-year-old fillies, the Princess Elizabeth Stakes, then she took the Ontario Lassie, too. Both were hard-fought, gritty, tooth-and-nail narrow victories, rather like her Selene win. She lived up to her name. Remember “Paladin,” the television show from the 1960s? Paladin was a gun for hire (a knight), who helped the underdogs triumph. Paladins in medieval literature were chivalrous heroes, like the knights of the Round Table. In Dungeons and Dragons, the Paladins are the defenders of the earth. Ladouceur liked the name: it spelled champion and defender to him.

Back at the barn, Paladin Bay is a gentle soul that works for apples and mints. Ladouceur's tiny daughter can safely walk into the stall with her. On the track, the filly is a warrior.

The Selene Stakes took things up another notch. Ladouceur knew that if his filly could get through an opening along the rail, she'd win. “It feels special,” he said afterward. “It feels heavenly. It just feels awesome. Like our silks, floating around like a butterfly.”

The other piece of the puzzle has been jockey Gerry Olguin, who has ridden Paladin Bay in all of her starts. He gained the mount by chance. Olguin was the Ladouceurs' 2-year-old man, the one who worked their young horses. Another jockey had the call on Paladin Bay, but one morning, didn't show up. Olguin took over.

It seems to be a match made in heaven. They suit each other. He's mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Jessie said, and he's quiet on a quiet filly. “He has very quiet, soft hands,” she said. “When she goes out to the track, she will stand like an outrider pony, and you usually have to ask her to go. She'll just stand there and look and look. Obviously, you need a rider that's patient.”

Olguin is the yin to Paladin Bay's yang. “He's the human version of her,” Jessie said. “And she's the horse version of him. They just get along, plain and simple.”

The day after the Selene win, there is pizza in the barn for any caller. A steady stream of people passed Ladouceur's barn to congratulate him. “Didn't I tell you last Friday?” says one exercise rider on horseback. The blacksmith stops by. The feed man blurts that it couldn't happen to nicer people. Jessie says they've been getting as many compliments on Olguin's patient ride as on the plucky effort by the filly.

From back home, Ladouceur is told: “Grandma and Grandpa will be smiling down on you.”

Everything has just been perfect, like it was planned. Everything has fallen into place, beyond reason and belief: Canada's answer to California Chrome.

**(Click here for more on how Paladin Bay's earnings are helping Woodbine's Racetrack Chaplaincy)

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