Two years on, PEI native Ryan DesRoche still loving his extended vacation in Ontario

by Sandra Snyder

Two years ago, Ryan DesRoche made the trip from his native Prince Edward Island to Ontario for a two-week holiday. That holiday is now 104 weeks long, with no signs of coming to an end.

“I was coming up here for a two-week vacation, more or less to see what the tracks were like, and after I got up here I really enjoyed it and met a lot of people and I never, ever ended up going back to PEI,” said the 22-year-old DesRoche. “I go home a couple of times to see my family, but I like it up here.”

DesRoche was raised in a harness racing family, learning from his grandfather Elmer and father Philip. He drove his first race in the PEI Matinee program at the age of 10, had his trainer’s license by 16 and his driver’s license two years later. After graduating from high school he went to work for Marc Campbell and spent three and a half years learning from the Island’s top trainer/driver.

It came as no surprise to his family, or the PEI harness racing community, when the then 20-year-old never returned from his Ontario vacation in the summer of 2018.

“When I was on PEI everybody was kind of pushing me to come up here, you know, just to even try it, because being from PEI horse racing is more of a hobby than a career, because they only race for a little bit of money,” said DesRoche. “So there was quite a few people down there always pushing me to try and do better and make it to the next level.”

The path between the east coast and Ontario is well trodden by young horsepeople hoping to make a career in the business. When he decided not to head home, DesRoche started working for Jason Ryan, who he credits with helping make the transition a smooth one. He then spent some time working for Jack Harris and is currently expanding his knowledge about trotters with trainer Dustin Jones.

“When I was at Marc’s we had a lot of 2- and 3-year-olds, mostly pacers, but there was trotters out there, so it’s not like everything was brand new to me when I came here,” said the young horseman. “I like the young horses. It kind of gives you a little added incentive because you’ve got to teach them, too. If you can teach them, hopefully the better they turn out, right?”

All three men also gave DesRoche the opportunity to ply his skills as a driver. In 2019, he made 449 appearances in the race bike, recording 27 wins, 33 seconds and 53 thirds for earnings of $189,107. So far this season he has made 100 starts at eight different racetracks, logging seven wins, 13 seconds and five thirds for earnings of $59,452.

His earnings got a boost on Sunday, Aug. 16 when he piloted a pair of Jones trainees in Grassroots action at Georgian Downs. He landed 3-year-old trotting filly Protostar in the winner’s circle and finished third with Peppas Angel. The win was the reinsman’s first in Ontario Sires Stakes action and the drives were just his second and third in the provincial program. The result almost caused the cell phone tower in Innisfil to overload.

“Oh frig, my phone blew up. I drove one in the ninth and it was still going off after that,” said DesRoche, who scored the win in the fourth race. “I wouldn’t be scared to say I probably had 250 people congratulate me. It’s nice to kind of have people paying attention to you.”

The list of people DesRoche credits with having an influence on his career is long, starting with his father and extending to top PEI horsemen Campbell and Garry MacDonald, all three trainers he has worked for in Ontario, and the top drivers he followed as a youngster.

“Driving wise you probably learn the most talking and watching people, so [Marc Campbell] has been good to watch. I pay attention to people like Jody Jamieson, the boys at the Meadowlands, Dexter and Yannick and Brian Sears and all those guys,” said DesRoche. “But I could go on for days about people that have been an influence on my career.”

When it comes to horses, DesRoche said $447,009 winner Eagle Jolt (Village Jolt–Jazzy Jam) would top the list of former favorites, while 2-year-old trotting colt Fashion Frenzie (Archangel–Striking Fashion) heads up the current list.

“Eagle Jolt, I looked after him when I was at Marc’s. He was just a classy old horse and he taught me a lot. I drove him a couple times and he was good horse and he knew it too. His class always kind of showed through whenever he needed it too,” said DesRoche. “He was just one of those ones that, if you were having a bad day all you had to do was go and see him and things just kind of started to come back around.
“We have a 2-year-old Archangel colt, his name is Fashion Frenzie, he came from Quebec, from Francis Richard, and he’s got a great personality. He’s fast; set the track record his first lifetime start at Hiawatha. So he’s been kind of fun, he’s undefeated in his three lifetime stars so far. He’s a nice little colt, he doesn’t do much wrong. He can be a little goofy by times, but he’s very professional on the track.”

His fondness for each horse as an individual makes it difficult for DesRoche to envision a long-term career that does not involve the kind of day-to-day interaction you get showing up to the barn every morning, something that has never felt like a chore.

“I really enjoy it. When you wake up in the morning it doesn’t even really feel like you’re going to work,” said the current resident of Guelph, ON. “Of course everybody wants to be a driver, but I enjoy being in the barn too. You get to know the horses individually and you stay sharper, I think too, being involved at the barn because you can pick up little things and kind of put it forward to use it as an advantage.”

For now DesRoche is content to soak up as much knowledge as he can from the trainers and drivers competing in Ontario, taking advantage of every opportunity that comes his way.

“Right now I’m just kind of taking things in stride. I set goals mentally and when I achieve them I kind of just set new ones,” he explained. “You always try to make it to the next level and raise the bar one step higher each time. You never want to say, ‘Oh well, I’ve done everything I wanted to do.’

“People were asking me after I won the Grassroots, they said, ‘What’s it like to win?’ And I was like, ‘I’m not going to lie, I like winning every race’. It was a great experience and there’s no way to really explain how you feel, but there’s always, you’ve got to move on to the next, like turn the page and carry on, right?”

Stakes action Aug. 21 to 27

Aug. 21
– Woodbine Mohawk Park – OSS Gold Series (2cp)
– Grand River Raceway – Prospect Series (2cp)

Aug. 22
– Woodbine Mohawk Park 
– North America Cup & Fan Hanover eliminations
– Hanover Raceway – Balanced Image Final
– Hiawatha Horse Park – OSS Grassroots (2cp)
– Kawartha Downs – Prospect Series (2ct, 3fp)

Aug. 24
– Woodbine Mohawk Park – OSS Grassroots (3fp)

Aug. 25
– Woodbine Mohawk Park – OSS Grassroots (2ct)

Aug. 26
– Grand River Raceway – Prospect Series (2ft)

Aug. 27
– Woodbine Mohawk Park – Champlain Stakes (2ft, 2ct)

Ontario handicapping picks

A deep selection of handicapping picks for Ontario racetracks — featuring the talents of Garnet Barnsdale, Michael Carter and Melissa Keith — is available on the Ontario Racing website.