04/09/2014 12:14PM

Paladin Bay proves a real bargain for husband-and-wife team

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Michael Burns
Paladin Bay has proven to be a great investment as the first stakes winner for husband-and-wife team trainer Harold and owner Jessie Ladouceur.

ETOBICOKE, Ontario – Harold and Jessie Ladouceur were in the midst of a difficult season when an injured filly attracted their attention at the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society’s Canadian-bred September yearling sale at Woodbine in 2012.

“She was strong, had good bone, and something about her caught my eye,” trainer Harold Ladouceur, 47, said. “My wife and I had looked at her two or three times, and we kept going back to look at her. She had a great, big splint on her left front cannon bone, but I wasn’t too worried about it.”

Ladouceur bought Paladin Bay for $10,000, and his wife, Jessie, was listed as owner. Nineteen months later, Paladin Bay is a two-time stakes winner and a finalist for a Sovereign Award as Canada’s champion 2-year-old filly of 2013.

“We were thinking we were going to have to make a change because we had such a bad year the year before,” Jessie Ladouceur, 39, said of a 2012 campaign in which the stable went 0 for 21. “Paladin Bay turned out to be more than we could have ever imagined.”

Paladin Bay’s story began at Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm in Newmarket, Ontario, where her dam, Stormin Wife, lives under the care of breeder Ericka Rusnak, 34. Rusnak has worked as the farm manager of Hill ‘n’ Dale’s Vivian Division since 2004 and has managed Cedarow Farm for Nick Andrews since 2007.

Rusnak has been breeding Thoroughbreds since 2002 and has three mares in her broodmare band. She purchased two of her mares at the 2008 Keeneland January sale, including She Ain’t Much, a $4,500 purchase who produced Quick Code, Rusnak’s first stakes winner.

In 2009, Rusnak purchased Stormin Wife privately from John Sikura and bred her to Trajectory. The next season, she bred Stormin Wife to the Gardiner Farms stallion Sligo Bay.

Sligo Bay “has a beautiful female family and a good race record as well,” Rusnak said. “I’m big on a stallion’s female pedigree. I really like if they come from strong dams or strong relatives.”

The resulting foal was Paladin Bay, who has been the fastest of Rusnak’s strong 2011 crop, which also includes 2-year-old debut winners Bold ‘n Golden and She Ain’t Bad.

But as Rusnak was prepping for the CTHS sale in September 2012, Paladin Bay fractured her splint two weeks before she was to go through the sales ring.

“To have her do that before the sale was such a bummer,” Rusnak said. “I debated scratching her because it was going to bother people. But I opted to put her through because with the CTHS having the sales stakes, if she goes through, she’s eligible for those races. I thought that I’d let her go through and put a reserve on her to protect her because I liked her.”

Having both grown up in racetrack families, the Ladouceurs fittingly met at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1999. Harold was the house gallop boy for trainer Leland Meier’s stable, which sent horses to Assiniboia that season. Jessie, who hot-walked horses in the mornings before her classes at the University of Winnipeg, co-owned a horse who was getting away from the rider. Harold was asked to gallop Jessie’s horse, and their relationship blossomed from there.

After the 1999 Assiniboia meet, the couple found work breaking yearlings and prepping horses for the 2-year-old sales in Ocala, Fla., but before heading there, the Ladouceurs worked the Ontario and Keeneland yearling sales for Canadian consignor Michael Byrne. When they finally reached Ocala, the buzz about the introduction of the slots-at-racetracks program, and the Fort Erie Race Track in particular, was too much to ignore.

“Fort Erie was the talk of the town in Ocala,” Jessie Ladouceur said. “We had a little homebred horse named Ardent Eddy that was a decent little horse, and we thought, ‘Let’s go where the money is.’ We came up to Ontario, and we loved it.”

After taking out his trainer’s license in 2004, Harold took over training duties for Ardent Eddy that season. The gelding went on to earn close to $80,000 for the Ladouceurs. But with just one horse in the stable, Harold had to take freelance gallop work for other trainers, while Jessie worked for trainer Marilyn McMullen.

The Ladouceurs picked up a few clients along the way and finally received stalls at Woodbine in 2008. For the most part, the Ladouceurs do everything on their own. Harold trains and rides his horses in the morning, while Jessie grooms and walks the horses back at the barn. This season, the Ladouceurs expect to have 10 horses in the barn, including several 2-year-olds.

“We’re a mom-and-pop shop. We do it all,” Jessie Ladouceur said. “We have a little help here and there, but we pretty much do it all.”

When Paladin Bay finally got to the track last spring, Harold Ladouceur could tell very quickly that she was going to be special.

“Training in the spring with the other horses, she was just a cut above,” he said. “We didn’t know she was going to be this nice, but we liked her, and she was better than the other horses.”

Paladin Bay finished fourth in her debut, and by her third start, she was facing stakes company as a maiden, finishing in the money in three sprint stakes. But Paladin Bay found her best form when the 2-year-old races stretched out around two turns.

“She just improved and got better and stronger and faster,” Harold Ladouceur said. “It’s a little bit hard to believe that she lasted that long and stayed that good, but the way my wife looked after her was immaculate.”

Paladin Bay won her maiden in her sixth start after dropping back down to face Ontario-sired maidens. After a six-week layoff, the care and attention Paladin Bay received led to her first stakes win – and the first stakes win for the Ladouceurs – when she captured the $250,000 Princess Elizabeth Stakes for Canadian-bred 2-year-old fillies.

“It was awesome,” Harold Ladouceur said. “It’s unbelievable. She’s good, a good horse.”

Paladin Bay went on to win the $150,000 Ontario Lassie Stakes and finished second in the $125,000 South Ocean Stakes. She finished her nine-race campaign with three wins and eight in-the-money finishes, earning $378,500.

For the Ladouceurs, the season was their best in terms of earnings. The money Paladin Bay earned will allow them to stay in the sport and went toward the purchase of a new family home in Keswick, Ontario.

Paladin Bay’s success also provided a boost to Rusnak through breeders’ awards totaling more than $40,000. Rusnak said she’ll be able to pay expenses with the additional income and has purchased a new truck and bred Stormin Wife to Take Charge Indy.

As good as Paladin Bay’s 2013 campaign was, it could very well be topped before the end of the summer. After spending the winter at Highwood Equestrian Center training in an arena with Polytrack, Paladin Bay is back at Woodbine and is working toward her 2014 debut. She’s considered a leading contender for the $500,000 Woodbine Oaks in June and will prep for that event with starts in next weekend’s $125,000 Star Shoot Stakes and the $150,000, Grade 3 Selene Stakes on May 18.

“All we can do is hope for the best. It’s horse racing, right?” Jessie Ladouceur said. “We didn’t expect to be here a year ago, so who’s to say [it can’t happen]?”