Marie-Claude Auger: Big track comeback

by Melissa Keith

On Aug. 15, 2022, Dark Moves wired the field in going-away style at Woodbine Mohawk Park (WMP), taking a new 1:54.3s personal best that remains the 5-year-old pacer’s lifetime mark. Marie-Claude Auger was in the sulky that night, taking part in a special race for female drivers. Although Dark Moves was the 6-1 fifth choice on the morning line, bettors were clearly familiar with Auger’s resume from Rideau Carleton Raceway and Dark Moves went off as the 8-5 favorite in the field of nine.

After the Mohawk victory, Auger suddenly went dark as a driver, her moves coming to a concerning standstill. She finally returned Nov. 10 at Rideau Carleton, her popularity as a catch driver undiminished by the absence.

March 9, she returned to pari-mutuel action on Canada’s biggest stage, taking part in her first race since the 2022 Rideau meet concluded on Dec. 18. Auger said she was thrilled to be back for Thursday’s International Women’s Day events, driving Always N The Money (race 1) and The Devil You Know (race 3) in the two races for female drivers, each with an eight-horse field of $7,000 claiming pacers.

“It’s a big deal for me to return to Mohawk for International Women’s Day,” Auger said. “Being at Mohawk, driving with the girls, it’s twice as special. Expect a nice competition.” (The Quebec native said she was most comfortable answering questions in French. Her responses were translated afterwards for this article).

Last year, favorite Mach My Kiss and driver Natasha “Nat” Day won Woodbine Mohawk Park’s International Women’s Day race, with 8-5 second choice Blink And Gone finishing second for Jessica Turenne. Auger closed for show with 13-1 shot Stargazing Cruiser. All three drivers were back in the 2023 renewals, competing in both races alongside Samara Johnson and Kayla Chappell. Maggie Jones, Julie Walker, Pam Forgie, T. Marielle Enberg, Anita Ouellette and Debi O’Brien Moran each had one drive (results unavailable before press time).

Now in her early 40s, Auger reflected on how she made the still-unconventional choice to become a catch driver. While she has trained horses professionally since 2000, collecting 258 victories in 1,731 starts, the Rideau Carleton regular has also won 524 of her 4,396 pari-mutuel drives over those years, winning $2,266,183 in purses since 2001.

“I grew up in the world of harness racing, but my career plan had not been driving,” Auger said. “I had one horse at the time. One day, on impulse, I decided to get my license, to be able to drive. The whole process was done quickly and I started to drive for other trainers afterwards.”

Auger started out on the circuit régional des courses de chevaux du Québec (CRCCQ), in a June 17, 2001 race, warmly recalled by her friend Ghislain Paquet, the multi-talented race caller, Passion Courses racing journalist, and Woodbine Mohawk Park handicapper.

“During my very first career race in 2001, in the sulky at St-Sylvère, I narrowly won the race with Marquisedeprovence,” Paquet said. “In the same race, Marie-Claude finished second with Cams A Lady Luck, while well-known owner Francois Morin [current owner of National Debt (p,3,1:49.4h; $641,006)] finished fifth with State Of Alarm. What a beautiful memory! I think it was the first lifetime drive for Marie-Claude too.”

Cams A Lady Luck (p, 4, 2:00.1h; $21,215) and Auger teamed up again for her first winning drive, on July 15, 2001, in a St-Edouard circuit regional event. Her UDRS of 0.395 that year hinted at the career path ahead. By 2006, she had more starts as a driver than as a trainer, competing mainly in Quebec before becoming an established catch driver at Rideau Carleton.

When she hit the wire with Dark Moves at Woodbine Mohawk Park last August, Auger savored the moment.

“No, it wasn’t my first win at Mohawk, although this win made me extremely happy,” Auger said. “I have already won with one of my trainees.”

That trainee was her own Sans Frontiere (p, 5, 1:52.4s; $219,567), who took a new lifetime mark at Mohawk on Sep. 28, 2012.

“Sans Frontiere is the mare who remains most special to me,” Auger said. “We have always won races together and races that weren’t easy. She was a hard worker. She is forever on my mind and in my heart.”

Auger shared that her three-month absence from the racetrack in 2022 was connected to an earlier racing accident.

“A few days after my victory at Mohawk last year, I had a thrombosis [a blood clot blocking a blood vessel] near my collarbone, which caused problems in my right arm,” Auger said. “I was hospitalized and I had to rest for three months.

“Which I found very long, by the way. The thrombosis would have been caused by an accident in which I was involved a few months before. Now I’m doing well.”

Auger has enjoyed past success in the Mildred Williams Series, which honored the pioneering namesake reinswoman with a touring competition for women drivers. At this point in her career, she can look back on multiple milestones as a trainer and driver.

“There are many races that are memorable for me,” Auger said. “The ‘Les Cinq Milles’ race is one.”

She was referring to the famous five-mile race that used to be held at Hippodrome de Quebec, which has since relocated to the circuit regional.

Auger became the first woman to win the race in 2016, capturing the 106th edition at Hippodrome de la Vallée in Saint-Aimé-des-Lacs, QC with pacer Three Rockets. She described it as “a show and a race that’s out of the ordinary,” evoking “good feelings” in participants and audience alike.

Expect no less when Auger returned to the big track Thursday night, a triumphant return regardless of whether her horses won at Woodbine Mohawk Park.