05/11/2015 10:38AM

Bergman: Family now comes first for Luc Ouellette

Luc Ouellette was often behind top horses in the late 1990's, like $2.6 million earner Red Bow Tie.

When he answered the phone he said, “Do I know you?”

That was Luc Ouellette on the other side of the line and the feeling was mutual. The once budding superstar of the sulky set who will turn 50 in July has been but a fleeting memory around these parts for more than a decade. As quickly as he arrived on the scene and vaulted himself to the top of the ladder, Ouellette downshifted gears on the racetrack and in many ways vanished into thin air.

Success came fast and life was fast for Ouellette, a bachelor who admittedly lived fast and looked forward to it.

“I had no patience on or off the track,” Ouellette said from his farm in Campbellville, Ontario. “I looked so forward to every night at the racetrack I would speed around the turns in my car as I approached the Meadowlands.”

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Some 20 years ago, Ouellette was winning at a feverish pace driving horses on the racetrack. He was the leading driver at Yonkers and had branched out.  In 1995 he hit new heights with 726 victories. His mounts earned a bit over $5 million in 1995, but once he branched out and touched base with the top trainers his earnings exploded.

Between 1998 and 2002, Ouellette saw the value of his work take shape as he drove better stakes quality horses at the highest level. During that period his mounts earned above $9 million each year, with his career peaking in 1999 with horses earning $10.8 million.

“I still have their names in my phone book,” said Ouellette. “Monte Gelrod, Rich Banca, Linda Toscano, Carmine Fusco.” Those were some of the leading trainers at the time who routinely put Ouellette down to drive and he rewarded them.

Ouellette’s style was mostly front-end based. He was usually driving one of the top contenders, but you can’t win all of those races—especially the big ones—without having a fierce knowledge of the competition, and Ouellette was as focused as any driver we’ve seen during that period of time.

As a bachelor Ouellette called the shots during those peak times on the racetrack. Then he met his wife Anita, married and had a son, and life and goals shifted. There’s a sense in the racing world that when you go out of favor with trainers as a catch-driver you are doomed. It’s a reason why in this highly competitive field drivers will abandon everything else in life to travel and sit behind a special horse. Opportunities to drive the best are fleeting and missing one can lead to missing two and then three. The next thing you know the phone stops ringing.

In Ouellette’s case, he shifted his life and family to a farm in Ontario and expected to continue to drive on a regular basis but remain close to his wife and son.

“We just decided it would be better to raise a family on a farm and the lifestyle would be much different than in New Jersey,” Ouellette said.

With name recognition, Ouellette became an instant success on the WEG circuit when he and his family relocated in 2003 after the Meadowlands meet had concluded in August.

The phone was still ringing and Ouellette remained a force in Ontario as a regular. Though the earnings of his horses decreased some, the driver was still in demand and getting live calls on stakes horses north of the border.

   Luc Ouellette

In 2005 a phone call came that probably shifted Ouellette’s priorities faster than even he expected. “Dr. Ian Moore called me,” said Ouellette. “He had a two-year-old named Impeccable that he was very high on. The horse was in-to-go at Kawartha Downs and he said that I could drive him, and if I liked him the mount was mine for the year. I said yes of course and then I went home. When I told my wife she reminded me that it was (son) Luc’s birthday.”

The driver could have done what countless drivers have had to do in this sport for decades and that would be go to Kawartha Downs to drive Impeccable.

“I called Dr. Moore back and told him that it was my son’s birthday and I couldn’t go. There was silence on the other end of the phone,” Ouellette said. “I said, ‘Dr. Moore are you there?’”

The Dr. was there, but was obviously stunned to hear a leading driver choosing a first birthday party over a potential stakes horse.

“It’s a tough life. It’s not easy to balance family and horses,” said Ouellette.

For Ouellette and his family, son Luc (11) and daughter Isabelle (9), life has become a lot slower on the farm than it ever was. “I’m a different person,” Ouellette said. “I used to have zero patience on or off the track. I used to have a short attention span.”

Now with family close at hand, Ouellette and his wife live on a farm, have a training facility close by and breed and raise horses. “I’ve got five broodmares,” Ouellette said.

Winner’s circle appearances are far less frequent today than they were 20 years ago, but on Friday Luc showed up with Hava Kadabra, a veteran trotter that he pointed down the road in typical Ouellette style while shaking the lines in the stretch to get home at Mohawk. Hava Kadabra is owned by Ray Gingras and trained and driven by Luc. There was some form of irony as today Ray’s son Yannick is pretty much living the same life on the racetrack that Luc Ouellette did 20 years ago.

Generally what you do defines who you are and for quite some time Luc Ouellette was known as the leading catch-driver in the sport. “I had the fire in my belly,” said Ouellette. “But what’s the difference if you’re seventh or ninth in the standings. It stopped mattering to me.”

For Ouellette, being number one at home was far more important to him than missing that life to be number one on the racetrack. His bright young daughter recently spoke at her school on the subject of life on the farm. “They asked her to write about something that was special to her,” said Ouellette. “She wrote about how great it was to grow up on a farm.”

Some 20 years from his peak as a driver, the playing field may have changed slightly, but Ouellette still seems to be at the top of his game.

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