By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)
WINNIPEG — For as long as he lives, trainer Jerry Gourneau will never forget a horse named Purrsibility.
A beautiful four-year-old gelding, Purrsibility has won five of the 10 races in which he’s been entered, finished second twice and third once — that’s eight of 10 entries in the money. He’s earned $45,004 in his career including $9,057 this season. He won last year’s $25,000 J.W. Sifton Stakes and finished second in last year’s Phil Kives Stakes.
And this past Monday night, he gave 2018 champion trainer Jerry Gourneau his 500th career victory.
Ridden by Rafael Zenteno Jr. and owned by Manuel Medeiros and John Clement, Purrsibility went into Monday night’s first race, a $14,700 allowance, as the odds-on favourite and did not disappoint.
He got out of the gate near the back of the pack, but Zenteno got him placed nicely in the third spot by the quarter pole. He forced the issue at the turn and took a short lead, then duelled Delvecchio with Kayla Pizarro aboard down the stretch. That’s when Zenteno opened things up at the eight-pole and drew away to win by a length.
Purrsibility paid $3.80 to win, $2.30 to place and $2.10 to show.
But there was no time to celebrate. Gourneau still had a big week ahead of him. In fact, the man who trains the ponies of one of Assiniboia Downs’ most popular owners, Texas businessman Henry Witt Jr., picked up a win in Race 4 on Monday with Witt Jr.’s Button Mushroom and then coaxed Witt Jr.’s Witt Seven across the finish line first in Race 6 on Tuesday to claim three victories and widen his lead in the Downs’ trainers’ standings.
Gourneau now leads the way with 16 wins, 19 seconds, eight thirds and $159,835 in earnings in 77 starts. Defending champion – and the six-time winner — Tom Gardipy Jr. had four wins this week and now has nine wins, 14 seconds, 13 thirds and $98,740 in earnings in 87 starts. Tim Rycroft is next with eight wins, 12 seconds, eight thirds and $105,933 in earnings in just 40 starts. Rycroft had a win, a second and two thirds in four starts this past week.
Gourneau is a veteran at the Downs and one of the finest trainers’ in ASD history. In fact, he’s been in the horse racing business for almost his entire life. In fact, even while completing his Masters’ Degree in Education, even while spending time as a school administrator and even as an administrator for a major National Science Council Grant in the United States, Gourneau has always kept his hand in the racing industry.
These days, however, there are no more distractions. Since deciding in 2009 to leave the education profession, Gourneau, 60, is a full-time trainer and for a man who has been working in the equine game for more than 40 years, it’s never been as much fun as it is right now.
Born and raised on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reserve, about 170 miles southwest of the International Peace Garden, Gourneau and his family would drive to Winnipeg to watch the horses run and then drive home on the same night – three hours both ways.
“My dad, Larry Gourneau Sr., got together with my older brothers, Dave and Bill, and they bought one horse,” Gourneau explained. “He was named Sima’s Award and we bought it from Assiniboia Downs in 1972 or ’73. My dad bought it to run on the bush tracks in Pheasanton, Towner and Rugby, N.D. Belcourt didn’t even have a track back then.
“The first good horse we ever owned was L.D. Ribot. My dad and my brother Dave purchased that horse here at the Downs for $1,100. He was a stone-cold winner. He’d win $15,000-$20,000 every year. We had him ‘till he was 11-years-old. When they bought that horse, I was 13 or 14 and I was working in the barn. Then, at 16, I started at Assiniboia Downs and I did everything.”
While going to school, Gourneau soaked up track life. He worked the barns, he groomed, he galloped horses and was even a jockey on the bush tracks. He’d come to Winnipeg after school ended and live in the No. 9 tack room. His first boss at the Downs was an old trainer named Burnell Rhone.
After college, he went on to university to get his Masters’ in Education. He worked his way through school by working for the family racing business, Gourneau Brothers Racing, and by hitting big bets at the Downs. In fact, he bet $100 on a horse called Crime Zone and won $2,750. It paid for more than a semester at school.
After graduating from university, he went on to become a schoolteacher and later, a school administrator. Meanwhile, he worked summers in the racing game. In 2009, he decided to go into the thoroughbred industry on a full-time basis and he has been a remarkable success. Now, one of the greatest Indigenous trainers in racing history he has a great chance to reclaim his 2018 trainers’ crown.
Live racing resumes on Monday at 7:30 p.m.