Fresh air and sunlight

Sunny Billion outpaces alleged abuse known as “Occurrence #19-608”.

by Melissa Keith

(Editor’s note: The author became one of the fractional owners of Sunny Billion while researching this article).

In Bedouin legend, the first horse was formed from the air itself. In COVID-19 pandemic times, the return of live horse racing before other sports provided a breath of fresh air. The symbolism is too timely: The racehorse, of any breed, breathing deep and giving flight to dreams.

It can be a steep ascent for a horse already in flight from a disturbing past.

On Dec. 2, 2019, in race 3 at The Raceway at The Western Fair District in London, ON, seven 3-year-old male pacers found a place on the pylons in the first turn. Maching Time led the way to the opening quarter; behind him, moving second-over from fifth, was Sunny Billion. As the field approached the three-quarters, Maching Time deflected first-over challenger Sportslover’s bid for command; Sunny Billion appeared ready to tip three-wide, but instead began to gap cover, finishing fifth.

What happened after the race was seen, reported, and documented as “Occurrence #19-608” by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) Investigation and Enforcement Bureau. On Jan. 26, 2020, racing officials Dave Stewart, Emma Pote, and Doug Hopkins questioned trainer Frederick Bourgault about his treatment of Sunny Billion the night of Dec. 2. While the details were not made public, other trainers allegedly witnessed Bourgault “committing an act of cruelty or neglect to a horse” (rule 6.22), which was deemed “misconduct prejudicial to the best interests of racing” (rule 6.20 (b)).

February 1, ruling #SB 49647 stated that the trainer would be fined $2,500 and suspended 45 days (Feb. 17-April 1, inclusive; ruling #SB 49647), with conditions placed on his license for a full year, to begin April 2, 2020 (ruling #SB 49648). On Feb. 11, Bourgault and representative Dave Boughton requested a review of this decision before the Horse Racing Appeal Panel (HRAP), filing a Notice of Appeal and a Notice of Motion requesting stays of the rulings against him. The HRAP defines a “stay” as the temporary suspension of whatever decision has been made by a judge, steward or the registrar, allowing the racing participant to continue working until their appeal hearing takes place, or until another date specified by the HRAP.

At first, the registrar objected to allowing Bourgault the stays; however, they were allowed Feb. 18 following written submissions provided to the Appeal Panel. On March 11, dates were announced for the trainer’s appeal hearing: May 26- 28 and June 2-4, inclusive. Then came COVID-19, which led to the cancellation of Ontario race dates after March 19, as well as indefinite postponement of all hearings. When racing resumed at the provincial “B” tracks, Bourgault resumed working as a trainer. At press time, he was ranked #6 in Canada by wins this year (40).

Sunny Billion’s return to competition has not been as easy as that of his former trainer. When still racing for owners Michel Letarte of Boucherville, QC and Jean Allaire of Montreal in late January, the gelding was moved into the stable of conditioner Francis Guillemette. Sunny Billion’s final Ontario start was a lacklustre race 10, Feb. 23 at Rideau Carleton Raceway. He finished sixth of seven $7,000 claimers, at odds of 40-1. Before Rideau Carleton had even announced it was cancelling upcoming dates due to the pandemic, the 4-year-old pacer was posted for sale online. He was purchased and on his way to Nova Scotia before anything was clear about his future, or the racing season ahead.

Brad McCallum runs the Won’t Back Down Stable, a small fractional ownership group based at Truro Raceway. He had been following Sunny Billion online through early 2020, negotiating a price for the pacer who hadn’t hit the board in any of six Ontario starts this year. On Feb. 24, the deal was finalized.

The gelding’s condition was poor on arrival. From a physical perspective, he was 200 pounds underweight, partially the result of untreated dental problems. Mentally, the horse now nicknamed “Billy” was worse: trembling in the wash stall, barely interested in food; amazingly, not head-shy, although his face still bore the marks of a beating with a headpole. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he showed a preference for being handled by women. With Truro Raceway’s original early May season opener pushed ahead to June, there was no need for new trainer Gardner “Wink” McCallum to rush Sunny Billion back to the track; the horse was instead turned out at the farm of trainer/driver Darren Crowe.

In April, Sunny Billion was jogging five days a week at Truro Raceway, with light training on Wednesdays and a more intense training day on the weekend, followed by a day off on Mondays. He qualified May 31, finishing sixth, individually timed in 2:03.1h — an adequate effort, just ahead of Truro’s first seasonal pari-mutuel card on June 5. Brad McCallum admitted he was disappointed by the pacer’s opening-night debut for the Won’t Back Down Stable, in which he also finished sixth, timed in 2:02.4h, for driver Kenny Parker Jr. Sunny Billion showed no improvement for catch driver Ernie Laffin June 12, struggling home eighth. Laffin told McCallum that he thought the gelding might have had breathing difficulties during the race; a June 19 class drop seemed to confirm the notion when “Billy” could finish no better than another non-factor sixth.

On June 26, Sunny Billion landed post #7 for his latest class drop, this time into Truro’s non-winners of $401 in previous five starts. Switched from closed bridle to a hood with cups, joining forces with new driver Darren Crowe, he went off as 3-5 favourite instead of the usual double-digit odds. His latest driver would try different tactics this time, to see if the mild-mannered son of Sunshine Beach would match confident handling with equivalent confidence.

Instantly backed up to last off the gate, could the round-gaited pacer take air in the overland journey to the top? Crowe would find out, as he sent Sunny Billion first over from seventh when leader Putnams New Year reached the quarter pole. With fresh assertiveness in every stride, Sunny Billion just kept advancing, despite never seeing the inside path for the remainder of the race. Whatever had happened in Ontario seemed suddenly distant, as “Billy” stayed brave in the three-wide path for his first win of the year. The teletimer displayed a modest 2:02.1, a number irrelevant to anyone in the winner’s circle.

Summer will provide Sunny Billion with more confidence-building races, as he comes up for air at a track with no Lasix program. His former trainer’s appeal hearing will proceed on a date which should soon be announced; it will be an electronic hearing, in accordance with ongoing COVID-19 protocols as the HRAP reschedules the existing backlog.