Thanks to hard work and an association with the well-funded Determination stable of Montreal, Quebec native Luc Blais has risen to the top ranks of Canada’s trainers and may be poised to have a big stakes weekend at Mohawk.
by Paul Delean
A million dollars is a popular benchmark in harness racing, for horses and people, and it’s one of the reasons Ontario-based trainer Luc Blais is making himself hard to ignore these days.
Since taking over the Determination stable of Montreal information-technology mogul Serge Godin four years ago, Blais has produced one million-dollar winner, recently-retired Breeders Crown champion Intimidate, with another on the cusp, 4-year-old trotting mare Emoticon Hanover.
His 16-horse stable amassed an impressive $2 million in 2016, with eight separate horses topping $100,000 in earnings, and Blais finished third behind Richard Moreau and Casie Coleman in the vote for Canadian trainer of the year.
This year, despite little contribution from its expensive yearling purchases last fall, the stable has surpassed $1 million (Cdn) again, with several potentially lucrative paydays to come in both Canada and the U.S. This weekend, for instance, Blais has two finalists for Determination in the $400,000 Elegantimage Stakes for 3-year-old trotting fillies at Mohawk, Dream Together and On A Sunny Day, and another in the $593,000 Maple Leaf Trot for older horses, Warrawee Roo.
Emoticon Hanover (winner of the Joie de Vie Trot at Tioga Downs), Warrawee Roo (third in the Hambletonian Maturity), Dream Together (third in the Hambletonian Oaks) and On A Sunny Day (winner of a Casual Breeze division) all have more than $100,000 made this season, and 5-year-old trotter Lookslikeachpndale (victor in the Earl Rowe Memorial) and 3-year-old pacer Hurricane Beach (third in the Simcoe Stakes) are almost there.
“We don’t have many 2-year-olds racing this year… only a couple. The other four, we stopped. They’ll be good horses next year. You can’t push horses that aren’t ready. It’s okay. Our 3-year-olds and older horses have done the job,” said Blais, 55.
Blais’ patience with young horses is one of his distinguishing features as a trainer, said breeder Judy Farrow of Hemmingford, QC, who co-owned Intimidate with him. (Blais sold his share to Determination at the end of the trotter’s 4-year-old year).
“Luc has always erred on the side of caution when it comes to racing 2-year-olds,” Farrow said. “They have to really convince him they are ready for the grind. He would far rather bring them back early in the new year. He’s very caring of the horses. He won’t do anything to jeopardize them. It’s a different game when you have a barn of 20 pricey horses, but I think his basic philosophy and training habits remain the same.”
A self-described “ordinary guy,” Blais spent most of his 30 years in the business toiling far from the Grand Circuit in his native Quebec and eastern Ontario.
He worked several years for Canadian Hall-of-Fame horseman Yves Filion, who says he’s not surprised by his current success.
Filion said that when Godin opted to cut ties with his longtime trainer Dustin Jones in 2013 and called Filion to ask if he knew someone, “I suggested Luc. He’s been in horses all his life, he knows what he’s doing, and he’s very patient with horses. He’s a good trainer, a good man and a very hard worker. He’ll work all day to get results. He can be tough to work for, though, because he spends the time and he expects his grooms to do the same.”
A native of the western Quebec town of Papineauville, not far from Ottawa, Blais got the racing bug at an early age on the Quebec fair circuit, where his father — a salesman — raced his own horses.
Brief stints in banking and construction convinced him harness racing was his real passion, and he spent time in the stables of Rheo Filion, Doug Hamilton and Yves Filion before striking out on his own, eventually buying a farm in the village of Lochaber Ouest, QC.
Without ever being a dominant player on the Quebec circuit, he enjoyed some success with horses such as Unanimously and Gogogadgetgo, who both earned more than $200,000.
The Quebec racing industry was already in a downward spiral when Blais was approached a decade ago by Farrow with an offer to break and train a Tagliabue filly she had called Fabulous Tag.
“He’d bought a couple of yearlings I bred at the sales and I’d call him occasionally to ask how they were doing,” said Farrow. “That’s how we knew each other.”
Blais ended up buying a share of Fabulous Tag, who won about $50,000 for them until her career was cut short by injury.
Fabulous Tag then was bred to a new Quebec stallion called Justice Hall, and the resulting foal was Intimidate, the horse who would take them both on the ride of their lives.
Competing at Rideau Carleton Racetrack in Ottawa because Quebec’s tracks suddenly closed, Intimidate became a win machine that the two small-time owners from Quebec boldly decided to test against top 3-year-olds in the Simcoe Stakes at Mohawk. He finished second, at long odds, and the owners then risked the entire windfall to supplement him to the Breeders Crown, which the gelding won in a romp.
Intimidate would go on to win the Maple Leaf Trot and TVG final at 5 and twice capture O’Brien Awards as divisional champion in Canada.
His success significantly raised Blais’ profile, and Godin’s invitation to oversee the Determination string came the following year.
Intimidate “was the trailblazer for Luc” at the top echelon, Farrow said. “He was totally dedicated to that horse, with him all the time. And Intimidate just adored him.”
What Blais described as his “dream job” came complete with a 21-stall farm near Campbellville and a budget of up to $1 million a year for new equine acquisitions. Still, Blais — who had spent all of $20,000 at the yearling sales in 2012 — took a couple of days to think it over. It was an opportunity, but also a challenge. Under Jones’ direction, the Godin stable had won a couple of Breeders Crowns, with Martiniontherocks (2010) and Wheeling N Dealin (2012), along with a pair of Ontario Sires Stakes Super Finals with Prestidigitator.
“I was pretty sure I could handle the job. I’d worked at a lot of places,” Blais said. “The chance to train good horses wasn’t the deciding factor for me. It was who I was working with. (Godin) is passionate about horses, like I am.” (Godin, who rarely grants interviews, did not respond to questions e-mailed for this profile).
Intimidate carried the stable during Blais’ first year at the helm as few of the horses he inherited did much, but after slipping below $1 million in purses in 2015, Determination reached a new peak of $2 million in 2016. It will add a new dimension in 2019 with its first homebreds, foals of former stable stars Wheeling N Dealin and Prestidigitator, who began their stud careers in Ontario in 2016.
“We cleaned house, started over from scratch, and have a strong base of good horses now. It’s been a total team effort. We have horses that are competitive against the best, and that’s what I’m proudest of,” Blais said. “The thing is, in this business, you have to keep looking forward, not back, and regularly reassess. I enjoy my job, enjoy what I’m doing, but I take it one week at a time.”