‘Our people are horse people’: First Nations trainers on track for success at Assiniboia Downs

By | August 27, 2020

Behind the bright lights of the Assiniboia Downs racetrack in Winnipeg is a community of First Nations thoroughbred horse trainers — and they happen to be some of the best in the business.

“Currently we are leading in the nation as the top leading trainers of Canada and we hope to keep that success going,” said Jerry Gourneau.

According to Equibase, a database which collects information and stats for thoroughbred racetracks throughout North America, Gourneau has had 460 starts this year with 80 first-place finishes. He is on the way to having the most wins by a trainer this year at the Assiniboia Downs.

Gourneau is from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota, and has been working with horses for most of his life.

As the director of the Jerry Gourneau training facility at the Assiniboia Downs, he spends most of the season — May 23 to Sept. 15 — working from sunrise to nightfall, making sure that both the horses and his team of trainers are on track for success.

Nine of the 10 people employed by Jerry Gourneau are First Nations people. During the season, the work day begins around 5 a.m. and wraps up around 11 p.m. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

“We have a First Nations team that is probably the best on the back side [stable area]. And the reason behind it is we are dedicated to the idea that we are horse people and we want to make sure that our horses are taken care of really well,” said Gourneau.

A trainer is responsible for getting horses into prime racing shape. Those responsibilities include feeding and maintaining the health of each thoroughbred, but also making sure that the horse is galloped (ridden and exercised).

Kirt Contois, Métis, is the track announcer at the Assiniboia Downs and also is responsible for handicapping the races (predicting the odds of who has the greatest chance of winning a race). 

Kirt Contois is the track announcer and handicapper at the Assiniboia Downs. He said that in order to become a trainer, you have to start from the bottom and work your way up. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

He said that being a horse trainer is a tough job that requires commitment and dedication, but more than anything, people really need to love horses. 

“This is not an easy game,” said Contois.

“It’s seven days a week, a lot of sweat and hard work. [But] if you have the work ethic, you can get in as a trainer.”

Getting more young people involved

Gourneau has been living in Manitoba for 30 years and as he gets closer to retirement, he said he wants to pass the skills that have made him a winner on to the next generation of Indigenous trainers.

As the team’s leader, Gourneau has hired mostly First Nations people to look after and help train the horses, with nine out of his 10 employees being First Nations people from Manitoba, Ontario, North Dakota and Saskatchewan. Most of the 44 horses that Gourneau trains are owned by Henry Witt Jr., and Mike Powers.

His assistant, Jennifer Tourangeau, is from Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan. Like Gourneau, she has been around horses all her life and is a third-generation thoroughbred trainer.

She said working with Gorneau’s team is like being with family.

“We all work as a team to look after the horses,” said Tourangeau.

Jennifer Tourangeau says working with horses is therapeutic. She plans on travelling to the Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto when the season at the Assiniboia Downs is finished. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

“You come into our barn in the morning and you hear laughter. There’s always people having fun here.”

Tourangeau’s husband and children have been working with Gourneau’s team this summer.

Gourneau said he hopes the young people working on his team will see it as a viable career option.

“We are really pushing to get more young First Nations people involved in this because it is a dying art, a dying trade that a lot of people are not picking up on,” he said.

He said he has taken two teenagers under his wing and expects them to be trainers down the road. One of them is 16-year-old Drake Peters from James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.

Some of Peter’s responsibilities include raking the shed rows, filling the hay, topping up the water and cleaning the horses’ stalls.

“We get to be with [horses] everyday. Instead of being at home doing nothing, sitting on the couch, you get to be here working, making some money, doing the thing I love,” said Peters.

Drake Peters says he wants to be a jockey. He hopes to work at the race track again next summer. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

He has been working with his dad and step-mom this summer and hopes to one day race under the lights of the Assiniboia Downs.

For Gourneau, he just wants to make sure people like Peters will continue to aspire to be involved with any part of the profession; be it racing, owning or training horses.

“Our people are horse people. They have always been horse people of the Prairies and we want to make sure that they continue on with that.”

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