Home » Sports » Gourneau in Front on the Stretch Drive

Gourneau in Front on the Stretch Drive

September 2, 2023 2:57 PM | Sports

By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)

Presented by:

Assiniboia Downs

Antonio Whitehall

Antonio Whitehall aboard Mano Dura with Jerry Gourneau in the foreground at Assiniboia Downs, August 7, 2023. (JASON HALSTEAD PHOTO)

It’s hard to imagine now, but at the start of the 2023 live thoroughbred racing season, Assiniboia Downs’ trainer’s champion Jerry Gourneau considered retirement.

After all, he and owner Henry Witt Jr., won the 2023 Manitoba Derby with Mano Dura and now, Gourneau is on the verge of doing something no other trainer has ever done in the long illustrious history of Assiniboia Downs.

He is on the verge of winning his fourth consecutive trainer’s title at ASD.

In 2018, Gourneau, who hails from Turtle Mountain Chippewa Nation in Belcourt, N.D., was the trainers’ champion at the 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 leads the trainer’s standings by nine wins with just eight nights of racing remaining.

“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 fewer horses in the barn.”

He might have a smaller barn, but he has made every effort to send his horses out to the starting gate.

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 per cent and an in-the-money mark of 47 per cent. Those numbers easily made him champion trainer for the third straight year.

This year, with three weeks remaining in the 18-week campaign, Gourneau has started 232 horses and has a record of 36 wins 34 seconds and 35 third-place finishes. He leads No. 2 Wendy Anderson by nine. Anderson has sent 146 horses to post and has 27 wins, 28 seconds and 24 third-place finishes. By sheer numbers alone, Gourneau should have little problem maintaining his lead. Jared Brown is third with 25 wins in 109 starts and Michael Nault is fourth with 22 wins in 80 starts.

This year, Gourneau’s winning percentage is better than it was last year. He’s won 16 per cent of the time and has been in-the-money 45 per cent of the time. Interestingly, his only stakes win in 21 starts was the $125,000 Manitoba Derby. Devon Gittens has been the big stakes winner with four victories in 14 starts.

However, to win a fourth straight trainer’s title – and fifth in six years – would be a remarkable achievement.

“To win four in a row is incredible, especially when you consider the heavy hitters who have been trainers at Assiniboia Downs since 1958,” said ASD CEO Darren Dunn. “And do it with the depth of trainer colony we have today – Tom Gardipy Jr., Wendy Anderson, Jared Brown, Shelley Brown, Murray Duncan – and I don’t want to leave anybody out because it is deep with talent. To win four-in-a-row is an amazing achievement.

“Above all else, this feat will be earned, not inherited. And to be able to work with a committed owner like Henry Witt Jr., who matches the passion, commitment and effort that Jerry brings to the job seven days a week, it’s not a surprise that the result equals success.”

While Gourneau is about to make history, one of his favourite jockeys and the man who rode Mano Dura to victory in the Derby, is about to lay claim to his third champion jockey’s crown in the past six years.

Derby champ Antonio Whitehall has an 11-win lead in the jockey standings with just eight nights of racing left on the slate.

Whitehall, 29, who arrived in Winnipeg from Bridgeport, Bahamas in 2016, started his career riding dressage horses and showjumpers when he was 15. These days he’s trying to win his third jockey title since 2018, the year he won his first. He won his second in 2020 and that was clearly the most remarkable year of his career.

In 2018, Whitehall won the jockey title with just 41 wins. However, in the COVID world of 2020, Whitehall finished with 74 victories, 54 seconds and 58 third-place finishes on a track-leading 299 mounts. He earned a whopping $705,869 for his owners.

However, he also finished second in the jockey competition at Edmonton’s Century Mile that same summer as he and a small group of jocks would fly back and forth between Winnipeg and Edmonton to race at both tracks. At Century, he had 251 starts and won 43 races with 31 seconds and 41 thirds. In Edmonton, he won $465,100 for his owners.

With 117 wins and $1,170,969 in earnings, he was easily the No. 1 jockey in Canada in 2020. In his career, Whitehall has won more than 430 races and over $4 million in purses in Canada during his seven seasons here.

“Antonio returned this year, more focused this spring than I’ve ever seen him,” said Dunn. “He was absolutely single-mindedly pointed towards winning the title again. Rather than just a verbal indication that anyone would make, you could sense something was different about him. He really, really had that look in his eye, that fire and desire. And early in the season, when the default position was on Carreno winning again, Antonio had that early success that gave him the resolve to win that title again. He hasn’t taken his foot off the gas pedal all season long.

“He is on his way to a title and I can’t say how well-deserved it is.”

This year, the numbers aren’t so big, but they’re good enough to give him the lead in the standings. After winning three races last week, Whitehall now has 44 wins, 37 seconds and 44 third-place finishes in a track-leading 242 starts. He’s been in the money 52 per cent of the time, tied for third among the track’s leaders, but no one has started even near as many races as Whitehall. Damario Bynoe, who is second, has 33 wins, 26 seconds and 27 third-place finishes in just 166 starts.

Meanwhile, the two-time defending champion, Jorge Carreno (2021 and 2022), is third with 29 wins, 25 seconds and 18 third-place finishes in 162 starts.

“Jerry and Antonio are bedrock players in our program at Assiniboia Downs,” said Dunn. “They are consummate professionals and they deserve the success that they’re achieving because it’s earned.”