Written by: Chris Lomon
Justine Bourque is everywhere she wants to be.
For as long she can recall, Justine Bourque has enjoyed everything horses and horse racing. But it was a horse fit for a crown, so to speak, that helped inspire her to pursue a life in thoroughbred racing.
It was the summer of 2003 when Gus Schickedanz’s three-year-old Wando, a son of Langfuhr, had the eyes of the racing world firmly focused on his pursuit of racing immortality.
For a young girl, the chance to see the handsome chestnut up close and personal, the very horse that would go on to sweep all three races – Queen’s Plate, Prince of Wales and Breeders’ Stakes – in the Canadian Triple Crown series was a life-changing experience.
“What made me really become a racing fan was watching Wando win the Triple Crown,” said Bourque. “I remember my mom bringing my sister and I to meet him. Before that, I just loved going to see the horses at the track.”
Soon after Wando’s coronation, Bourque found herself back at Woodbine, this time, however, not as a spectator.
“I got involved in thoroughbred racing at a young age,” she recalled. “I started working on the backstretch at the age of 12 for (trainer) Lorne Richards for five and a half years. I started out as a hotwalker and worked my way up to groom. I then moved on to work for (fellow conditioner) Stuart Simon, who I currently work for, with going to B.C. to work for trainer Pat Jarvis at Hastings Racecourse for two years in between.”
The biggest plus working for three different horsemen? Seeing how different approaches can all lead to the same desired result.
“I find myself discovering different new things all the time and I love it,” offered Bourque.
Ask what the most rewarding part of her racetrack life is, and Bourque pauses, then points to the various sights and sounds that greet her in the early morning hours.
“Being on the pony and watching the horses train every day, bringing them up to the gate for schooling, breaking one off for a work or ponying one beside me – I love hearing the thundering of the hooves and heavy breathing first thing in the morning.”
There has been no shortage of memorable moments for Bourque, who has her assistant trainer’s license. Choosing just one, she admits, is nearly impossible.
“One of my favourite moments came at Hastings,” she recalled. It was the beginning of the season and everyone was shipping in. “Our van of two-year-olds had just arrived. They opened the door and there was this little grey filly staring at me, Habida. Her barn name was Cupid because it was love at first sight. I knew she was a something special. So I took her off the van and her journey began. She worked like a little firecracker.”
It turned out that Habida also had heart once the gates opened.
“She went on to be stakes-placed at Hastings, and won The Freedom of the City Stakes by seven lengths in 2013 at Northlands Park,” remembered Bourque. “She’s just one I will never forget. Another one is my big horse, Portree (Porter). He brought me on my first journey to the Queen’s Plate in 2015. It was so fun and exciting. Every time he runs, my heart races with him as he comes down the stretch. He gives it all he’s got. He could run all day and he’s a gentle giant, who gives you plenty of kisses. He’s such a love bug.”
It’s one more reminder for Bourque that the racetrack is precisely where she wants to be.
“What makes a day at the races special is when you bring a horse over race day and they give it all they got,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they won or run mid- pack. It’s just so rewarding to see them try, even when they are tired and have nothing left – they still dig in. It’s a great feeling when you see everyone’s hard work pay off.”
“I also pony in post parade on race days when I’m not busy running our own. It’s something different and you get to see everything from a different view. I’ve been riding since I was two, mostly just as a hobby, not many competitions. I love jumping and going on hacks. Horses are a big part of my life and I don’t know what I would do without them.”