If you don’t believe in fairy tales, read no further. You won’t want to know about trotter Intimidate’s incredible journey from obscurity to harness racing’s biggest stage, and the two small-time owners from smalltown Quebec still pinching themselves after the ride of a lifetime. Too Disney. Utterly implausible.
Story by Paul Delean // Photography by Matt Waples
And yet it happened, to Luc Blais and Judy Farrow, the Quebec duo that bred the diminutive dynamo, kept him despite a racing-industry collapse in Quebec that cost countless other standardbreds their lives, developed and emboldened him on a track far from the spotlight, took a huge financial risk to race him against the best three-year-old trotters in North America, and were rewarded with one of the biggest prizes in the sport, the $546,987 Breeders Crown.
“It’s amazing, an unlikely story with an unlikely ending. I keep shaking my head. Turns out even a 71-year-old can have a Cinderella story,” laughs Farrow, who now has the financial cushion to replace her 16-year-old Toyota Corolla.
“It’s an underdog story, and they always touch people. I’m an ordinary guy. If I can do it, anyone can,” said Blais, 50, a salesman’s son from the west Quebec town of Papineauville who first got interested in standardbreds as a child watching his father’s horses race at Quebec fair tracks, then learned the ropes working for Bayama Farm, Rheo Filion and U.S. trainer Doug Hamilton.
A professional horseman for 30 years, Blais had the respect of his peers but relatively modest success in the sport he embraced after brief stints in banking and construction.
Until this year, the high points of his career had been training the likes of Goliath Bayama, Topaz Blue Chip, Goodtime Bayama and Ring Of Life while employed at Bayama Farm, campaigning $200,000 winners Unanimously and Gogogadgetgo and winning a Prix du Quebec final in Montreal with trotting mare Dicent No.
Recently, though, stakes wins had been scarce. The Quebec Sires Stakes program that sustained him for two decades was gone, and he relied on overnight racing at Rideau Carleton Raceway, not far from the 40-acre farm he bought seven years ago in the Quebec village of Lochaber Ouest, to make ends meet for his 20-horse racing and breeding operation. This past winter had been especially tight, he said.
Farrow also was going through a challenging period. Born in England, she’d come to Canada in 1961 for what was supposed to be the first stop of a trip around the world, but stayed to raise a family after meeting the man who became her husband at a car race in Watkins Glen, N.Y. It was a roller-coaster existence that hit bottom in 1988 when the family was evicted from the farm where they raised cattle. For a few months, Farrow and her son Trent lived with friends.
In the 1990s, she rebuilt her life with a new partner, Wayne McNaughton, a farmer she first met when McNaughton’s ex-wife hit one of their cows on a country road. At the request of friends, McNaughton started boarding standardbred mares at their 112-acre farm in Hemmingford, Quebec, near the border with New York.
The arrival of the horses got Farrow interested in breeding and pedigrees, and eventually she bought one of the boarded mares for $1,500. The first colt she bred herself, a son of Flight Of Fire called Farrow Fire, sold at auction for $10,000 in 1996 and Farrow decided this was for her. She was on her own, however, as of 2006; McNaughton died of cancer just months after being diagnosed.
Farrow had built up her breeding operation to six mares when the racing industry in Quebec collapsed, taking with it the market for Quebec-bred yearlings. One of those mares was Fabulous Tag, the horse that first connected her with Blais in 2006.
“I had bought a Mr Lavec mare called Canadian Stitch in foal to Tagliabue for $5,600 at a sale in Ohio, and Fabulous Tag was the baby,” Farrow said.
She wasn’t in the habit of racing her own horses but decided to try with Fabulous Tag, so she called Blais. She was familiar with him because he’d bought a couple of her yearlings for clients at sales, notably stakes-winning pacer Surf LA, for $31,000, and she called him after to ask how they were doing.
“We’re not that different as people,” Blais said. “We’re both honest and frank. I trust her knowledge of pedigree, she had confidence in me as a horseman.”
Blais agreed to take Fabulous Tag, broke her and bought half. She had knee problems but won eight races at three and four in Montreal and Ottawa and collected more than $50,000 for the partners..
They stopped her at that point, and in 2008 Farrow decided to breed her to a new Quebec trotting stallion, a son of Garland Lobell called Justice Hall who stood for $2,500.
The result of that cross was Intimidate, born just as the Quebec racing industry was imploding in 2009.
From the start, the colt was a handful, Farrow recalled. “He was always after the other babies, which is why we named him that. He wasn’t mean, he just seemed to have endless energy. When I turned him over to Luc at six months, I said ‘you’re going to want to cut him.”
Blais said the colt showed talent from day one and a willingness to learn, but he was more playful than most and had a few physical problems. He won his first start as a two-year-old in 2:04 at Rideau Carleton, then broke in the next two. Blais stopped him, gave him three months of stall rest, and over the winter had him gelded .
At three, Intimidate was ready to rumble. “He was sounder, more mature, and with that big acceleration. He always had the motor to be a good one. The question was whether he had the toughness,” Blais said.
After a sixth-place finish at Rideau in his first start in April, he rattled off eight wins and two seconds in his next 10 for three different drivers: Blais, Yves Filion and Simon Allard.
“He got his confidence in the small classes. He didn’t have to go full-out all the time. And he kept getting better,” Blais said.
The Canadian Breeders Championship at Mohawk in July had been on their schedule, but Blais didn’t think he was ready and nixed the final payment. “I didn’t want to put any pressure on him. He’d had a few small tie-up problems. We didn’t really have a game plan. I just sensed he wasn’t ready.”
A clocking of 1:56.1 in a condition race at Rideau on August 26 is what convinced him the gelding was ready for prime time, and Blais entered him in the Simcoe Stakes at Mohawk on September 1.
“The Simcoe was a one-shot deal. He wasn’t eligible for anything else. Whatever happened, at least we tried him,” Blais said.
With Sylvain Filion committed to Prestidigitator, and Simon Allard at Georgian Downs for the Xtreme Horsepower program, Blais called on veteran U.S. driver Ron Pierce.
Not normally a front-runner, Intimidate found himself on the lead past a punishing half in :54.4, but held on gamely and fought right to the wire against the oncoming Little Brown Fox, losing by a neck in a track-record 1:51.4 at odds of 26-1. He collected $61,630, of the $246,521 purse, more than he’d made in 13 previous races.
“To be honest, I was more excited by that race than the Breeders Crown,” said Farrow. “My son (Trent) was there with me and we were so elated, you’d think we’d won. We were just so dazzled by what he’d done. We felt then we had something special.”
Blais was anxious to see him the next day, “but he was the same horse. You just hope they’ll come back.”
He chose Mohawk and Woodbine for the trotter’s next two starts and he didn’t disappoint, winning both and lowering his mark to 1:53.1 for driver Doug McNair.
On October 15, Blais and Farrow had to make a gut-wrenching decision: enter him, or not, in the Breeders’ Crown at Woodbine, at a cost of $62,500 (because neither horse nor sire had been nominated).
“I left it up to Luc,” said Farrow. “It was his call.”
Blais said he rationalized the outlay as follows: “I could spend the same amount on a couple of yearlings who might never amount to anything, or I could spend it on a horse I already know, and get a thrill to boot.”
Farrow waited for his call. “I found out when he said, ‘who do I make the cheque out to?’” she recalled with a chuckle.
“Honestly, I felt really good after writing the cheque,” Blais said. “I’d made the decision, I’d live with it. I knew my horse, how honest he was. We were in tough and you never know what can happen in a race, bad luck or sickness. Even if we lost the money, I figured we’d get some back in overnights.”
To add to the pressure, the horse was in to race that very night at Woodbine. “I mistakenly thought the deadline (for the Breeders Crown supplemental payment) was the next day, and this race would give me one last indication he was ready,” Blais said.
It could have been the opposite but it wasn’t. Intimidate scored a comfortable victory in 1:54.4 for his sixth driver, Sylvain Filion, a close friend of Blais since their days together at Bayama Farm.
Filion was back in the sulky for the Breeders Crown elimination at Woodbine on October 20. Facing a field that included Hambletonian winner Market Share, Intimidate pulled out all the stops, rocketing from seventh on the final turn to gun down Market Share and win by over a length in 1:53.1 at odds of 11-1. His last quarter clocking of :26.3 turned more than just a few heads and was equal to the final quarter speed of Bettor Sweet in that night’s Open pace.
Suddenly, the little B-track horse with the dog-chewed blinkers looked like a serious contender. Someone certainly thought so. Blais received an email offer for an amount well in excess of what they’d collect if he won the Breeders Crown final.
“I was angry about that,” said Farrow. “Luc already had enough to deal with. I didn’t want anyone to throw a wrench into the fabulous party we were having. I told Luc, ‘you could build yourself a nice home, but it’ll mean giving the reins to this little horse to someone and never seeing him again. You’ll go in the barn and his head won’t be the first one you see. Weigh those two things and get back to me.”
Blais said he felt no pressure from Farrow but he also couldn’t ignore the offer. “I’m not a money guy. I’m 50. You have to think of the future. I talked to an accountant. But then I thought ‘this is what I want to do all my life’. I’ve worked for people who sold the good ones and kept the bad ones. They’re not in the game anymore. I like what I’m doing, on the scale I’m doing it.”
So the answer was no, setting up a Breeders Crown finale right out of a Hollywood script.
Reunited with Pierce for the final as Filion stuck with Prestidigitator for trainer Dustin Jones and owner Ecurie Synergie, Intimidate took his usual seat well off the pace, advanced rapidly around the final turn and then unleashed his merciless finishing kick. This time, it wasn’t even close. To a huge roar from fans who embraced his story and made him the 3-2 favourite, Intimidate hit the wire three and a quarter lengths ahead in a career-best 1:52.4, leaving Little Brown Fox and Market Share in his wake.
Blais watched from the paddock with son Justin, 23. “When we saw him go by, we jumped in each other’s arms. It was a special feeling.”
Farrow was trackside with children Tracy, Kyla and Trent, and just as overjoyed. “It’s been incredible…a very special, unifying thing. I’ve got family all over the world, nieces and nephews, and they’ve been following this horse on his Facebook page (Intimidate.the.trotter).”
Their plan is to rest the gelding, then stake him to most major races for older trotters in 2013. One race Blais would dearly like to win is the Frank Ryan Trot at Rideau Carleton, the track where it all began to the horse now known as “The Intimidator.”
Farrow said Blais deserves full credit for the horse’s rise. “He’s such a dedicated man. He wants everything to be perfect.”
Her own plans are uncertain. She’d been pondering getting out of the breeding business even before the two mares she bred this year failed to catch. “At 71, dealing with babies is not a picnic. They’re pretty unpredictable.” The uncertainty gripping the Canadian racing industry also is a concern. Following Intimidate on his 2013 schedule sounds like a lot more fun at this stage.
Blais, for his part, is “back to dreaming” with a couple of young horses he bought at the sales, for $8000 and $12,000.
”It’s hard to believe this all happened,” he said, “but decisions were easy with that horse. He’s a pleasure to train. He’s never disappointed me. Step by step, week by week, he brought us there. It shows that if you keep at it, anything’s possible.”