By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)
Jerry Gourneau is chasing something no other trainer in the modern history of Assiniboia Downs has ever achieved.
And although he was almost ready to sit back and just watch the 2023 racing season at the Downs, his love for the sport, his love for competition and his feeling of responsibility for his people in the racing game brought him back to his barn.
In 2018, Gourneau, who hails from Turtle Mountain Chippewa Nation in Belcourt, N.D., was the trainers’ champion at Assiniboia Downs. In 2019, it was another First Nations trainer, Tom Gardipy Jr. from Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation in Saskatchewan who won the title. Then, in 2020, Gourneau and Gardipy finished one-two in the standings as Gourneau won his second title in three seasons.
However, Gourneau then won the crown in 2021 and 2022 and this year, he could become the first ASD trainer to win four straight trainers’ championships. And he’s not wasting any time getting into the swing of things.
On opening night, Monday, May 22, Gourneau will have horses running in four races: Saturday Service (5-1), an Oklahoma-bred five-year-old mare in Race 2; G’s Turn (5-1), an eight-year-old Kentucky-bred gelding in Race 3; Witt’s Gris (4-1), a three-year-old Texas-bred filly in race 6; and Kim’s Texas Bling (12-1), a four-year-old Texas-bred filly in Race 7.
He’ll run five more on Tuesday and to coin a phrase, Jerry Gourneau’s barn will come out running.
“To have a three-peat like that, I almost thought about taking a break,” Gourneau said. “I was thinking about taking a year off. This level of competition, this eventing, this horse racing is stressful because I usually have 50-60 horses in my barn. So, instead of taking the year off, I decided to cut down and I now have 27 horses in the barn.
“Of course, part of that reason the barn is smaller is also because it’s tough to find the help. It’s tough to organize everything to make sure everything goes well. And I’m not the only person in that same boat. You have Tom Gardipy used to have 50-60 head, he’s cut back to probably 35-40. There are a few trainers who have picked up their horse count, but those of us who were at the level where we had a high number of horses, this year we’re trying to cut back so we have more quality instead of quantity.”
Last year Gourneau sent 288 horses to the gate and finished with 40 wins, 42 seconds and 52 third-place finishes. That’s a winning percentage of 14 percent and an in-the-money mark of 47 per cent. Those numbers easily made him champion trainer for the third straight year. His love of competition and the owners who love his work made “taking a year off” impossible.
“Growing up as a First Nations individual from the time you put on your first basketball shoes or your first football cleats or hockey skates, you’re committed, you want to be No. 1” he said. “You also want to prove to yourself that you’re trying the best that you can. Without trying the hardest you can, there is no success.
“My whole staff gives it 100 per cent every day no matter what. It starts with the grooms, the ferries, the jocks, the gallopers, everyone is involved in it and we all know we have to give it 100 per cent if want to be successful. All the individuals in my barn are striving to do our best and that’s all we can shoot for. My bosses, Henry Witt, Scott Horst and Mike Powers, they want me to pick up more horses because they like the show here at Assiniboia Downs. They like to watch their horses run and I get to do the work.
“Our success, I believe, means a lot to our people. Tom (Gardipy Jr.) and I were just inducted into the North American Indigenous Hall of Fame. We’ve both been doing this since we young people. I remember coming here in 1976. Our first time, we didn’t really know what to do, but I had a vision that I wanted to do this for my family and really be a part of this. We always looked at this business from the outside. We grew up poor, like most First Nation’s people do, and we came up through a rough kind of life, but we made some changes and as a family and from my father Jerry Gourneau Sr. to my mother Jeannette, to my big brother Dave who was always my biggest supporter, to my brothers Bill and Larry, even my sisters, Connie and Betty, we always wanted to do the best possible thing.”
Like most horsemen in North America, Gourneau started small and grew his business exponentially. But not before he succeeded in an entirely different line of work.
“I started out just wanting to do Gourneau Bros. Racing,” he recalled. “That’s how we started. I didn’t want to pick up more and more clients, it was just Gourneau Bros. We wanted to be the Gourneau family of racing. We didn’t care about winning trainers’ titles or anything like that.
“At the time, it was a seasonal thing for me. I was in the education business. I was a teacher, then a principal, then an administrator, then a superintendent of schools. But about 15 years ago, I said to my brother Dave, ‘I want to go out and do this full-time.’ I wanted to see how this would work out if I put all my energy into it.”
Obviously, it worked out. However, Gourneau will be the first to admit, that a meeting with a wealthy Texas horse owner solidified his career and his business.
Henry Witt Jr. made his money in the auto glass business and by working his 800-acre Texas ranch. Back in the early 2000s, he was a giant of southern dirt-track auto racing who ran horses on the side. Today, he’s a giant of the racing industry.
“I got lucky,” Gourneau said. “I struck it big by getting a client like Henry Witt Jr. We met about five years before we decided to run horses together. We met at Fonner Park (Nebraska). He was running a couple of horses in stakes races and we kind of clicked as friends and then one day he called me and said he had a couple of horses at Lone Star Park (Grand Prairie, Texas) and they were getting beat regularly. I told him, ‘Send then up here to Assiniboia Downs. I’m a horseman. I’ll take a look at them and see if we can get them running better.’ He sent me five horses and not long after we won six races. One of the horses won two.
“That’s when he said, ‘OK, I’m going to send you one of my better horses,’ and that’s when he sent me Witt Six. That’s where it really started. He won almost all of his races, ran second in the Manitoba Derby, second in the Canadian Derby and that sparked the closeness between Henry and I. Now, we’re like brothers, we talk so much.
“I said to him this winter I need to take a break and he told me to take a couple of months off and we’ll start up in the spring. Well, he sent me nine horses and on Monday night, we’ll be ready to go.”