Horsemen in their 80s still winning at Fraser Downs

Ray Gemmill's retirement puts spotlight on octogenarian trainers who are active in harness racing at Cloverdale's famed raceway this season.

Veteran horseman Ray Gemmill’s decision to retire this month has put the spotlight on the other trainers at Fraser Downs who are also in their 80s and still active in harness racing this season.

Until last weekend, with Gemmill’s retirement party, there were eight octogenarians working as trainers at the Cloverdale track, a phenomenon worth remarking on in an industry that can claim only about 100 trainers in British Columbia – many of them decades younger.

The departure leaves seven men in their 80s plying the sport, and, from the sounds of it, they’re not ready to follow Gemmill’s lead any time soon.

Remarkably, at the fine age of 84, Gemmill isn’t even the eldest of the elder horsemen at Fraser Downs.

That title belongs to Leopold LaBalle, 88, who got his first horse at 21 – launching a seven-decade racing career.

LaBalle has owned and raced hundreds of horses over the decades, so he says he’s learned not to get too attached.

He’s still proud, however, of a success that came nearly 35 years ago, in 1980,  when a horse bred from his stable became the first champion two-year-old filly in the California Sire Stakes.

A love of horses, and a desire to get out of the hose and keep his brain working, has kept B.C. Harness Racing Hall of Famer Bill Young, 87, well, young.

He drove his first horse at 29, after a stint in the Merchant Navy. He also ran a racing stable of dogs, and drove a truck in his home country of England. When Young came to Canada, he worked as a meat cutter – but he gravitated towards harness racing.

Bill and his late wife Marian Young, a B.C. Harness Racing Hall of Famer in her own right for innumerable contributions, and are considered pioneers who helped foster and grow the sport at Fraser Downs.

Vianney Archambault, 86, says harness racing is  “a reason to get up in the morning.”

Like some of the other men at Fraser Downs who are closing in on 90, racing was initially a sideline.

For him, it was a hobby while he worked in a machine shop.

His favourite horses over the years were Select Freedom, named Quebec Horse of the Year in 1956, and Pam Irish, who won 11 of 12 starts as a two-year-old.

Trainer Dan Ingram, 84, spent an impressive 30 years as a firefighter, and got his first horse at age 44. He enjoys working at the track with son Brian.

Like the others in their exclusive set, he recalls his first winner, Gamrun Ginger. Ingram’s best horse, he says, was Gamrun Dart, but his favourite was Gamrun Jake.

At 82, Marcel Bouvier is one of the consistent names on the Friday and Sunday race cards at Fraser Downs in the 2014 season.

According to Harness Racing B.C. executive director Jackson Wittup, Bouvier maintains one of the largest stables of the group, while the rest have scaled back to train one or two horses.

Bouvier got his first horse at 25, after working in the newspaper industry, and being involved with hockey, including the Brandon (MAN) Wheat Kings, and owning a Junior A team in Kenora, ON.

His first winner was Yankee Twister.

His best horse, he says, was Night Colt, the first North American horse to win an invitation to race the Interdominion Stake in Aukland, New Zealand, finishing fourth.

Magne Ness, 82, hails from Norway, where he worked as a groom for trotters as a lad, and he bought his first horse when he was just 10 years old. It was a foal who was still inside the broodmare, meaning Ness’s career as a horseman is closing in on seven decades.

He says he’s loved horses all his life, and the affection hasn’t dimmed after all these years.

For Richard Craig, 80, training Standardbreds is, “something to do.”

It began as a hobby, while he was working his way up to become a superintendent at Saskatchewan Energy.

Craig can easily recall his first winner: Widower Pat, with a time of 2:21.

Craig’s son, Nelson, is a second generation horseman who races at Fraser Downs, underscoring the multi generational appeal of a sport that continues to attract new blood.

– With files from Jackson Wittup, Harness Racing B.C.

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