HAROLD AND JESSIE AND A HORSE NAMED PALADIN
by Jennifer Morrison
Deep in the wilderness of the tiny Alberta hamlet of Lac la Biche, Harold Ladouceur grew up learning the keys to survival. As one of seven children and the only boy of French Metis – Cree Indian parents, Ladouceur learned to hunt and trap and manage the family crops of hay with the family’s work horses. It was the early 1970s and in this First Nations community, there were no main roads and no powerlines. The only television they knew of was with relatives in another nearby town. A young Ladouceur spent his childhood in the outdoors.
Further east, just outside of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Jessie Bird was still a baby, born to well known American and Canadian jockey Larry Bird and his thoroughbred training wife Sandra. Jessie was surrounded by successful horsepeople and it was not long before she was riding her own pony. She attended university where she studied geography and worked with thoroughbreds at the track. The track eventually won over the studies.
The story of how Harold and Jessie met can be told through a shared love of horses and a fateful day when they met in a track stable.
Now married with two young children, Harold and Jessie scrimped and tried to save for years as they worked in horse racing together, never knowing where their next job would come from. Bu just over one year ago, when money and prospects were at the lowest, they met Paladin Bay.
A leap of faith, a generous friend and plenty of expert horsemanship and Harold, Jessie and the two-year-old filly Paladin Bay went on a ride of their lives and became the feel-good thoroughbred racing story in Canada in 2013.
Harold Ladouceur credits his late grandpa Alec Poitras for teaching him everything his knows about horses. Poitras, son of Edith Blackstar, a Cree Indian from the Moosemen band in Saskatchewan, put a young Ladouceur on his horses for the Saskatchewan bush meets when his grandson was barely a teenager.
“Everything I learned about horses, I learned from my grandfather,” said Ladouceur. “We went to all the bush tracks, Meadow Lake, Maidstone, Duck Lake and Beardy’s. One day we won all seven races and one horse won two of them.”
Ladouceur rode with the well known bush track rider Freddy Tabacco in quarter-mile races on dirt tracks cut out from corn fields. He remembers many of the names of horses he rode too, mentioning Seven of Hearts as a favourite.
Restless as a teenager, Ladouceur left his homestead to live with his grandparents in Saskatchewan where he learned that ‘the horses are fed and taken care of before you eat your own breakfast’. He finished grade 12 at a local school and then took odds jobs with horses from Alberta to South Dakota, riding in rodeos to satisfy his adventurous side.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” said Ladouceur. “It was at one rodeo, when I was bucked off, that I saw they had flat races. I rode a couple of the races and the owner paid me. That’s how I decided to try working at the track.”
In the early 1980’s, Ladouceur and an uncle traveled to Marquis Downs in Regina to find the teenager a job exercising horses.
“I didn’t know sh*t about the track” laughed Ladouceur. “My uncle didn’t know anything either. A trainer told me to take his horse out for a two minute-lick (strong gallop). I had no idea what that meant, I just took the horse to the track and let him go.”
Ladouceur learned the skills of exercising horses as he went along and soon picked up jobs as outrider and parade marshal for more recognized race meets in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Then came a time when Ladouceur quit the track: he met a girl who wanted him to “get a real job”.
“She wanted me to go back to school, so I took some courses,” said Ladouceur. “I worked in gas, checking meters and driving trucks for three years.”
When that relationship ended, Ladouceur found himself back with his mother who was now living in the Kikino Metis settlement, close to Lac La Biche.
“It was my lowest time,” said Ladouceur. “I was in depression: no job, no girlfriend, no money.”
When a cousin suggested Ladouceur try the track again, he gathered some money by selling fence posts his mother had kept. He went to Stampede Park in Calgary and, while he struggled to find steady work, eventually landed a job for trainer Leland Meier. It was Meier who told him that a fellow horseman, Alan Bird, was having trouble galloping a horse. Ladouceur visited Bird, galloped the horse and met his daughter, Jessie.
Wild and crazy about horses, Jessie Bird left the University of Winnipeg after two years studying geography and returned to the track, where her family had made their living.
Walking hots and boarding horses at her parents farm in Winnipeg, she joined up with her grandfather Jim in ownership of a horse. She did not have much of her own money but she simply wanted to be around thoroughbreds.
Harold and Jessie began dating not long after they met and when Tony Bowling, a prominent pinhooker from Florida and friend of Jessie’s father suggested she try her hand at breaking and preparing two-year-olds under his watch, they both set sail for the south.
“Well, we were young and dating, we had never been to Florida and it was work, At that age, you just go,” said Jessie.
For several winters, Jessie and Harold traveled to Florida, Arkansas, California, Texas and Maryland to the big spring juvenile sales. They prepared and showed horses offered for sale and both took turns riding and breaking young horses.
One of the most influential people the couple met was Luke McKathan, a well known horseman and pinhooker.
“Luke is a genius when it comes to the horse,” said Jessie. “He was like a mentor and I think he saw potential in both of us.”
Jessie and Harold also learned some tricks of the horse buying and selling trade.
“He makes his own [leg] paint,” said Jessie. “He would buy horses with little imperfections which would affect their value at big sales. He would walk down a shed twice a day and paint those splints. By the time we went to sales we would be showing these horses to top trainers like D. Wayne Lukas, Nick Zito and Bob Baffert. You would never know Luke had bought these horses seven months earlier with these imperfections.”
It was McKathan and sons J.B. And Kevin that sent a few two-year-olds to Harold and Jessie to their first stable at Fort Erie in 2006, just about the time their son Jacob was born and the coupled married.
Harold obtained his training license and sent out a couple of quick winners for the McKathans in two-furlong, two-year-old races at Woodbine for the McKathans.
Fast Trick, who set a track record for the distance, was his first winner.
The next year the couple were granted stalls at Woodbine and had a small collection of runners, several for Charles Boyd, an educator, philanthropist and horse owner in Newmarket.
Boyd also set the new family up with living quarters at Pickering College, located in Newmarket, and gave Jessie work as an equestrian teaching assistant.
The Ladouceurs had a second child in 2010, Sarah, while “holding their own” financially with a small group of cheap runners.
In 2011 and 2012, business, as in wins, began to slide for the Ladouceurs. “I remember 2011 was not good at all,” said Jessie. “And in 2012 we said in late summer that we had a decision to make,” she said, suggesting they were thinking about leaving the business. “We weren’t starving, but it wasn’t good.”
To make matters worse Harold had missed a lot of 2012 when he broke his arm after being kicked by a horse and when he returned to health, began working for trainer Robert Tiller.
It was when he was coming home from the track on a Tiller horse in August of 2012 that he ran into a friend from Alberta, horse owner Curt Kobza, who works in oil in Alberta and owns racehorses.
Kobza, in the market for horses at the upcoming Woodbine yearling sale, had Dave Cotey as a trainer but told Harold to pick out a filly for him to buy.
Harold and Jessie examined a number of fillies in the sale and pegged a couple that they liked. One of them, a Bold Executive filly, was purchased by Kobza but given to Cotey to train. Later, the owner bought a Milwaukee Brew filly that the Ladouceurs would train.
The excitement did not end there, however, as the couple had fallen in love with another filly during their tour of the barns. A slender, pretty bay filly by Sligo Bay (Ire) caught their eye, even though she had a large splint bone sticking out from one foreleg.
“I liked her presence and she was very pretty,” said Jessie, “She had the biggest splint you have ever seen but from our time with Luke Mckathan, we thought we could handle it.”
While Harold was busy watching the sale with Kobza and Cotey, Jessie had applied for $6,000 in credit at the Woodbine sales office, just in case they could scoop the Sligo Bay filly for themselves for a bargain price.
When the bidding ended on the filly, Harold had bought her for $10,000.
“We no more had $100 to spend on a horse than $10,000,” said Jessie. “It was crazy, really: from Harold’s broken arm and our broken spirits, now were were buying a horse. We went on the search for a partner, and even asked Curt if he would buy a part of her.”
While Kobza declined to buy into the filly, he did cover the cost of the horse for the Ladouceurs and they paid him off through day rate and work with the Milwaukee Brew filly they had for him.
Christened Paladin Bay (Jessie’s mother liked the word Paladin, meaning ‘champion and defender of the faith’), the filly showed promise early in her training.
The splint was long gone thanks to the Ladouceur’s application of the McKathan leg paint, and jockey Gerry Olguin was already hinting to the couple that the filly had talent.
After fourth and third place finishes in her first two races in the summer of 2013, Paladin Bay finished a close second in her third race, the $150,000 Shady Well Stakes, just 1 ½ lengths behind none other than Kobza’s Bold Executive filly, On Rainbow Bridge.
“I had tears in my eyes,’ said Jessie. “For our filly to run so well behind his horse, it was incredible. We would not have had this filly had it not been for him and it was an honour to be second to his horse.”
Paladin Bay finished second and third in two more sprint stakes races before she won her maiden in a one mile and 70 yard maiden allowance worth $50,000. That would be just the beginning of an incredible autumn campaign that started off with the filly winning the most significant race for two-year-old Canadian-bred fillies in the country, the $250,000 Princess Elizabeth Stakes.
“It took a long time to sink in,’ said Jessie. “It was hard to believe we had won a $250,000 race. One of the first people we called was Luke. He was so happy for us.”
Paladin Bay then finished second by just a neck to arch rival Lexie Lou in the South Ocean Stakes before turning the tables on that filly when winning the Ontario Lassie.
The filly ended her first season of racing with earnings of $361,888.
The remarkable season also paid a lot of awards to her young breeder Ericka Rusnak, manager of Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms and a relatively newcomer to the breeding sales business.
“I don’t want to say she has changed our lives but she sure has had an impact,” said Jessie. “We are blessed.”
After years of living from pay to pay, it was a joyous Christmas time for the Ladouceur family as Paladin Bay’s exploits put their very first house under the tree.
“We are moving to a big, beautiful house in Keswick,” said Jessie. “I have already dedicated the walkway near the garden ‘Paladin Bay Way.”
From the bushes and small tracks of western Canada to the lush winner’s circle at Woodbine racetrack, Harold, Jessie and Paladin Bay have formed that special bond that everyone in racing dreams about and who knows what the future will hold for them as a new year approaches.