For two brothers intent on chasing their harness racing dreams, even a nine hour round-trip commute, to drive one card, is no obstacle. By Paul Delean
They’re still light years from the fame and numbers of such accomplished Quebec brother acts as the Filions, Lachances and Allards, but in their home province, the Roy boys are starting to make some noise.
Louis-Philippe Roy, 26, and brother Pierre-Luc, 28, both finished in the top 20 in the driver standings this year at Hippodrome 3R in Trois-Rivières, QC. Louis-Philippe topped $120,000 in purse earnings and ended up with 25 wins in 186 starts, good for seventh place. By the end of the 2015 season , just a year removed from his first win as a professional, he was one of the track’s busiest catch-drivers.
Overall, as of November 16th, Louis-Philippe’s stats for 2015 read, 275 - 45 - 67 - 40 ($153,936) 0.347.
Pierre-Luc drove six winners in 60 starts at 3R, most of them from the stable of close friend Charles Gaudreault, and another seven on the Quebec regional circuit and in the Maritimes.
Pierre-Luc’s stats as of the same date read, 92 - 13 - 15 - 15 ($34,081) 0.286.
What’s unusual about the brothers is that they live nowhere near Hippodrome 3R, the only full-fledged racetrack still operating in Quebec. Their hometown is 460 kilometres east, in Mont-Joli, a town of 6,000 on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, near Rimouski. Every trip to the racetrack is a major journey, for relatively minor purses.
“We’re not afraid to travel,” Pierre-Luc said.
They also hold down full-time jobs outside racing, reflecting the reality of the industry’s still-fragile economics in Quebec. Louis-Philippe has a degree from the University of Quebec in Rimouski and is a financial analyst for telecommunications company Telus. Pierre-Luc works in maintenance at the hospital in Mont-Joli. They fit racing around their work schedules as best they can for the 40 days of live racing annually in Trois-Rivieres.
“Luckily, my employer gives me a lot of flexibility. I can work on the road, I can work from home,” said Louis-Philippe.
Though their own involvement in harness racing is still fairly recent, the family’s roots in the sport go back several decades. Their grandfather owned racehorses and so did their father Jean-Marc, an accountant for a paving company in Mont-Joli.
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, Jean-Marc owned some productive Quebec-circuit performers including Lukes Bonhomme p,1:56.3f ($182,709) and Canaco Rain p,3,1:57.1f ($137,514), but he withdrew from the sport when the boys and their sister Anne-Sophie, now 21, were very young.
“We had winner’s circle photos in the house and cassettes of races but we weren’t very interested,” Pierre-Luc said. “Hockey was our thing.”
Both boys played hockey at a high level. Louis-Philippe, a goalie, got as high as Junior AA. Pierre-Luc made it one rung higher, playing one pre-season game at forward for the Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“At a certain point,” Pierre-Luc said, “you realize you don’t stand out, that you’re just average. Time for something else.”
“I was too small to go any further,” said Louis-Philippe, who is 5-foot-8 and 145 pounds. “But what limited me in hockey helped me in racing. “
He was the first of the two to fall for harness racing, around age 14. One of his friends growing up was Maxime Gaudreault, and the Gaudreault family owned a retired standardbred called Silverdust, who had only made one career start, and was kept at a training centre in nearby Price.
Louis-Philippe and Maxime decided they would try to ready the 8-year-old for a return to competition on Quebec’s fair circuit, which made an annual stop in Mont-Joli.
“After school, we’d train him four miles – two miles apiece,” Louis-Philippe recalled.
The comeback never happened, but Louis-Philippe’s interest and dedication were enough to convince his father to purchase another horse. Not a very fast one, as it turned out.
“Her name was Chaleurs Genesse. We raced her at the fairs (in 2004-05), and she’d be 40 lengths behind everyone else,” Pierre-Luc recalled with a chuckle.
When they kept their enthusiasm anyway, their father bought others.
“It was all new to us. We figured it could only get better,” said Pierre-Luc, whose first win as a driver at age 18 came, not with a family horse, but one from the Gaudreault stable called Pepite Dor. It was at the fair track in Bonaventure.
Louis-Philippe’s first win as a driver also came on the Gaspe fair circuit, in Pabos, with a pacer called Golden Vanity. It was just his second drive. He actually finished first in his initial drive, also with Golden Vanity, at the track in Nouvelle, but was disqualified to second for interference on the final turn.
A $2,000 purchase that Pierre-Luc also drove to victory, Golden Vanity p,1:56.4h ($54,744) was the first good horse of Jean-Marc’s second coming in the sport, a multiple winner who eventually graduated from the fair circuit to the big track in Quebec City.
“Seeing the races at a larger track like Quebec, that’s what got me enthused for the sport,” said Pierre-Luc. “It seemed so grandiose.”
On the fair circuit, the brothers often drove against each other, and while they were and remain competitive, their ambitions headed in different directions.
Louis-Philippe is determined to succeed as a catch-driver and ultimately make his living from harness racing. Pierre-Luc no longer considers that feasible.
“I’d like as much success as possible, obviously, but for me, it’s more a hobby,” said Pierre-Luc, who trains the family’s two horses, one of them a Maritime-bred yearling they hope to race in Atlantic Sires Stakes events. “I went to Ontario in 2011 and worked for (trainers) Daniel Potvin and Dave Menary. I learned a lot, but it also taught me I don’t want to do it full-time.”
Louis-Philippe, who got his full, professional licence only last year, already has come a long way. He got his first professional win at Hippodrome 3R in August of 2014 in a $4,000 pace with a horse called M G Kudos. Days later came another first – his first major spill.
He was thrown heavily to the track, suffering a concussion, after a rival crossed sharply in front of his horse, Iron Phil, on the first turn.
“I had just left the track with our parents, on our way to see a horse at a farm,” Pierre-Luc said. “I was watching the races on my phone but we hit an area with no signal so I didn’t see it. Then I get a call from a friend saying ‘I hope your brother’s OK’. We turned around right away and headed to the hospital.”
Louis-Philippe was released the same day and back racing 10 days later. “I was anxious to get back,” he said.
“And he wasn’t fearful.,” added Pierre-Luc. “That tells you a lot.”
After a modest start at Hippodrome 3R in 2015, Louis-Philippe built momentum as the season progressed and by October had risen to seventh in the driver standings. That earned him an unexpected first invitation to the track’s annual drivers’ tournament on October 11. Normally, only the top six get invited, with two outside drivers completing the field, but organizers decided to change the format this year and include the top seven from 3R.
Youngest in the field, Roy entered the final race of the tournament leading the pack on the strength of two consecutive victories. Only one driver, Stephane Gendron, had a mathematical chance to catch him, and Gendron was driving a 40-1 shot. Louis-Philippe had drawn the 3-5 favourite, Cliff Drummond, due to start from the second tier.
“I wasn’t keeping track of the points, but before the last race I heard I was leading,” he said.
“I thought it was in the bag,” said Pierre-Luc.
Not quite. As the field lined up for the start, Cliff Drummond was well back. And that’s where he remained, 20 lengths off the gate as it pulled away, to the stupefaction of the crowd.
“I could have invented some excuse and blamed it on the horse, but it was me. I was inattentive. The gate got away from me. I wanted to relax the horse, not get him nervous, and I timed it wrong. That race was the longest two minutes of my life. In my head, it lasted 15 minutes, and I was giving myself hell the whole time,” Louis-Philippe said.
Cliff Drummond eventually caught the pack but wound up sixth. Gendron finished fourth and got the score he needed to beat Roy by a single point.
“Even Hollywood could not have come up with an ending like that,” said Pierre-Luc said.
“The whole trip home, all four and a half hours, I thought about it,” Louis-Philippe said.
Winning the tournament against a group of seasoned pros would have been a nice bonus, but Louis-Philippe said he was still more than happy with his 2015 campaign.
“I got more drives than I ever expected. It’s hard for young guys to break in.”
The confidence trainers showed in him boosted his own self-assurance, and in November he started racing at Rideau Carleton Raceway in Ottawa, hoping to make inroads there as well.
“He has the talent and the head to do this,” Pierre-Luc said. “Win or lose, good or bad, nothing rattles him.”
Louis-Philippe said what captivates him about the sport “is that it’s preparation, it’s strategy, it’s reading how the horse is feeling. It’s not just two minutes.”
“I’d like to be able to earn a living from it, if it’s possible. That’s the dream. For now, I’ll try to do both (jobs) for as long as I can. It’s a lot of effort, but worth it when it’s your passion.”