Gary Boulanger, one of Thoroughbred racing’s most respected and resilient riders, has been named the 2017 recipient of the Avelino Gomez Memorial Award
He’s recorded over 3,400 career wins, including a memorable Queen’s Plate score in 2001 with Sam-Son Farm’s Dancethruthedawn, numerous graded stakes tallies, and a reputation for beating the odds on and off the racetrack.
It’s been Boulanger’s calling card since he first got a leg up in 1986, in the aftermath of the catastrophic injuries he suffered in an on-track incident 12 years ago, and throughout his time after returning to the saddle in 2013. It’s also why the Gomez honour has special meaning for the 49-year-old Alberta native.
“I was totally surprised when I found out,” said Boulanger. “I had no idea I was being considered. I’m just very honoured and elated to receive this award. You look at all the names of people who have won this and you feel very fortunate to be part of that group.”
Throughout his career, one that’s taken him across North America, Boulanger has managed to make his mark at each track he’s competed at.
Drama on the operating table
After beginning his career at Tampa Bay Downs in 1987, Boulanger took his talents to the Pacific Northwest, namely, Longacres Racetrack, where he won three straight riding titles from 1989-91. He also netted two riding crowns at Calder Race Course from 1994-95.
A scary spill on January 30, 2005, nearly ended Boulanger’s life. He suffered fractured ribs, a ruptured spleen, torn elbow tendons, a blood clot, and brain damage that required doctors to remove part of his skull to ease the swelling. On two occasions, Boulanger flatlined on the operating table.
No one in the sport expected to see him back in the irons, including the jockey, who eventually shifted his focus to training Thoroughbreds, starting in 2009.
But, after breezing horses for Hall of Fame conditioner Mark Casse, Boulanger miraculously made his way back to race riding. He rode his first race in eight years at Tampa Bay in 2013. Fittingly, his first win after the accident came on a Casse-trained horse.
A fixture at Woodbine since 2013, Boulanger, won 95 races last year – 88 of them at the Toronto oval – the most total victories he’s posted since 2004.
“I’ve always loved the sport,” he said. “When you were younger, you didn’t see some things the way you do now. There are certain aspects of being a rider – like not getting upset at the little things – that have changed over time. I’ve also really embraced the enjoyment of the bond I have with the horses I ride.”
Boulanger’s in the midst of another impressive season having won 18 races, including two stakes, at Woodbine. King AndHis Court, a Casse trainee, is a major contender for this year’s Queen’s Plate, set for July 2.
“To have a chance to win the Queen’s Plate, a Kentucky Derby or a Breeders’ Cup race – that’s what you always push for,” said Boulanger, who was inducted into the Washington Racing Hall of Fame in 2015. “I’ve always set the standards very high for myself. So to say that I won an Eclipse Award or a Sovereign Award, it would really be a great accomplishment.”
Robbie King, a former champion rider and Gomez honoree, and current Executive Director of the Jockey Benefit Association of Canada, is thrilled to see Boulanger recognized for his contributions to Thoroughbred racing.
“Aside from being a talented rider, Gary is also a great example of perseverance, dedication and determination,” said King. “His commitment to his craft, competitive drive and winning attitude all combine to make him a true professional both on and off the racetrack.”
The coveted Gomez Award is given to the person, Canadian-born, Canadian-raised or regular rider in the country for more than five years, who has made significant contributions to the sport.
Presented annually on Woodbine Oaks day at Woodbine (June 11 this year), the honour is named in memory of one of the sport's most heralded and loved performers. The Cuban-born Gomez died of complications after a three-horse accident in the 1980 Canadian Oaks.
To commemorate his contributions to the sport, a life-size statue of Gomez, who called Toronto home and raised a family there, keeps watch over Woodbine's walking ring. A replica is presented to each year's honouree.
Boulanger will soon get to work on his speech for the Gomez ceremonies.
“I never had the chance to meet Avelino, but when you listen to stories about him and read about all of his big wins, you understand just how talented a rider he was and how respected he was as a person,” said Boulanger. “To be recognized with an award in his name is definitely one of the biggest highlights of my career.”
Boulanger joins Ron Turcotte, Johnny Longden, Sandy Hawley, Don MacBeth, Chris Rogers, Jeff Fell, Lloyd Duffy, Hugo Dittfach, Robin Platts, Larry Attard, Don Seymour, David Gall, Richard Grubb, Irwin Driedger, David Clark, Jim McKnight, Chris Loseth, Richard Dos Ramos, Robert Landry, Francine Villeneuve, Sam Krasner, John LeBlanc Sr., George Ho Sang, Jack Lauzon, Robert King Jr., Stewart Elliott, Emile Ramsammy, Steve Bahen, Mickey Walls, Patrick Husbands, Quincy Welch and last year’s recipient, Gary Stahlbaum, as Gomez honourees.