Veering off a paved city road I pull onto a dirt pathway leading to the stables at Woodbine Race Track. The rustic country aura of barnyard life hits me instantly – a breath of fresh air in comparison to the rest of Toronto’s city bustle.
John LeBlanc Jr., a trainer and my guide for the day, meets me at the security gate as promised. I smile at a mounted webcam for my “guest access pass” and I am officially in the presence of some of the best equestrian talent in North America.
These stables house LeBlanc’s prized chestnut mare, Moonlit Beauty, who has won upwards of $790,000 for her owner.
It’s 6:45 a.m. and LeBlanc has already been up for two hours – a dedicated horseman, he is.
A navy blue riding helmet with dark shaded goggles rests on his head – underneath, a white bandana. His blue eyes gleam with a subtle excitement, and I decide he is an equestrian gangster.
In true horseman fashion, LeBlanc wears full dark brown leather riding chaps, broken in perfectly with two orange patches.
We walk back to our cars together. The stables are still a drive away. “Follow the speed limit,” he says. “Horses always have the right of way.”
Motor vehicles and horses live harmoniously in this tiny stable town, complete with stop signs and streets named after veteran racers.
My scope of sight is limited to LeBlanc’s brake lights and the silhouettes of riders on horseback against the dark blue sky.
We park at his barn and the crisp air is suddenly filled with eau de manure. A wooden sign tacked to the outside reads “J. LeBlanc Jr. Racing Stables.”
Surrounded by horse tender chitchat and guided gallops, LeBlanc talks about his break into the equestrian world. “I started in 1992 as an official trainer, and prior to that I worked for other trainers, riding horses for them. They would hire me to exercise horses in the morning.”
Inside the barn, disheveled straw lines the floors and curious horses pop their heads out of metal gates.
He gets ready to take a horse out on the dirt course and I follow him through stable yard back alleys. All the outside walls are in various stages of decaying white.
Speaking for the Woodbine stables, he says, “we have about 2,000 to 2,500 horses, but because of turmoil with the government we don’t get many more.”
He trots along.
He advises erring on the side of caution while wandering the stable grounds. “Every horse kicks and every horse bites. Never walk behind a horse, always in front.”
Dodging the mud and dung mix on the ground, I follow him through a tunnel. The lighting provides a hollow elegance, illuminating all horse people and their companions.
“This is perfect weather,” he says, “when they’re hot they get a lot more mellow but when it’s weather like this … they’re ready to train.”
Splitting up, LeBlanc heads to the practice course and I eagerly wait.
The spectator side was lined with benches and bus shelter-like covers. The two-toned pink and blue sky fell gently on the brightly teal-coloured roofs of the track building in the distance. Upon closer inspection, the track was made up of choppily ground dirt nuggets. Fresh hoof imprints marked the paths of earlier riders.
A striking white horse passes me, straight out of a fairy tale. In a rush to find a princess from a different world.
LeBlanc comes around the bend kicking up dirt and displaying his horsemanship – I am impressed.
Exiting back through the tunnel, we meet at a crossroads on the street. His horse looks at me, tongue hanging out of its mouth; a look that you just can’t take seriously on anyone.
He makes his way back to the barn and I trail along.
Inside the stable LeBlanc introduces me to Moonlit Beauty, a majestic creature with a striking white stripe down the front of her face. She pokes her head out over a metal gate and I notice her name engraved on a gold plaque attached to her halter.
By now the stables have come to life with horses and people on the move.
A man appears in the stall calm and collected, wearing a navy sweater, jeans, running shoes and a baseball cap. The non-equestrian friendly footwear is a clue to his business at Woodbine.
“Ron Gierkink,” he says shaking my hand.
He’s LeBlanc’s good friend and a writer for the Daily Racing Form, a newspaper covering horse races and results in North America. Additionally, Gierkink’s father is the breeder of Moonlit Beauty.
Leaning on the wooden guardrail, Gierkink explains how everything began.
“My father, William Gierkink, managed a big breeding farm north of Stouffville where I grew up back in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. After 30 years of doing that, he got his own farm where he has been breeding horses for the past 25 years.”
Eight years ago, they planned a mating for their mare, and were looking for the perfect stallion to compliment her. A year later, Moonlit was born at the legendary Windfields Farm (potentially the most famous farm in Canadian racing history) in Oshawa, Ontario, he explains.
Ironically, Moonlit Beauty was not thought to be “well-bred”, and they didn’t think she would bring in much money – so they ended up keeping her.
Moonlit Beauty was a home-bred, one of two that Gierkink’s dad bred that year. “The one horse sold for only $5,000, so when he went home to talk to his wife (Moonlit Beauty was to sell a few days later), she said, ‘We only got $5,000 for this one, we may as well just give Moonlit Beauty to John.’” They laugh at the thought now.
LeBlanc sips his coffee and explains the beginnings of their partnership. “He watched me work with different horses that I was training and liked what he saw so he asked me to claim a horse for him.”
Claiming horses is an integral part of the horse racing industry; it’s a tier-type system that keeps everything fair. In the lower levels of racing, horses can be bought straight out of a race.
“The owner has no choice. Once your horse is in that race and goes into the starting gate, as soon as those doors open, that horse is mine,” LeBlanc says.
This system stops the higher-end racehorses from going into competitions with those on a lower level. John says, “by putting her in a cheap race I could lose her for very little money, which doesn’t make sense because she has such a strong earning potential.”
Eventually, after training a few other Gierkink home-breds with moderate success, Moonlit Beauty fell into LeBlanc’s reins.
“I think John’s done a really good job of developing her in terms of giving her time to mature,” says Gierkink. “She was a hyper horse when she was young. He gets on her every day and works her so he’s gotten to know her really well – she’s been a real sort of late-bloomer.”
LeBlanc is a trainer anomaly. “There’s not many (trainers) who ride and train. Most of them are pointers and they just supervise. Some are more hands on and then there’s a few that actually ride the horses, such as myself,” he says.
Our conversation continues as LeBlanc intermittently glances at his watch. It’s almost Moonlit Beauty’s track time. He launches into a mini equine lesson.
“It’s a bit of a numbers game. You see a lot of strong influence, a strong line, from the father’s side – the stallion,” says LeBlanc. “That’s why when we talk about the mare we always say what her father line is, and for each one we do a family tree.”
Trying to see who lines up with whom and what the odds are of having a good horse, is all part of the game. Economic feasibility is equally as important.
“Moonlit’s father didn’t do much. She’s by far the best – she’s doubled more than anybody else,” says LeBlanc.
He enters Moonlit Beauty’s stall and runs his hands along her mane. The connection between horse and trainer is palpable.
“One thing I love about her is that her strides cover a lot of ground very easily and she doesn’t hit the ground hard when she runs, she has a very smooth stride,” says LeBlanc. This winning style allows her to continue racing at the late age of seven. “In the industry, you’re lucky to make it past four years of age.”
In her last race, Moonlit Beauty ran a mile and a quarter, but today LeBlanc trains her for a shorter 7/8ths of a mile race. “I have to try and tease her brain and get her speed up to a shorter race because we are not going for an endurance run. So that’s what I will be toying with,” he says.
Moonlit holds her head high, presuming (correctly) that we are boasting on her behalf.
Downing the rest of his coffee, LeBlanc says, “after her workout we’ll have to give her a little tranquilizer because she gets so wound up.” Gierkink chimes in, “she has adrenaline like a little kid . . . she’ll have to go for a 45-minute walk just to calm down afterwards.”
The main racetracks are a drive away, unless you have four-legged transport. Following Gierkink to his car, we talk about the stable community. Greetings from passersby give a friendly impression, but horse racing is highly competitive. This leads me to believe that for some, the fondness doesn’t run too deep.
“They’re rivals right, in a lot of races you have friends and you have enemies,” Gierkink says.
We arrive at the main building and I follow him up to the press box, from which we’ll watch LeBlanc and Moonlit.
Walking through corridors lined with framed pictures of icons, past winners, and horse-related art, we finally arrive at the press box. Even from above you can tell that the track is finely manicured. The words “Woodbine” trimmed into the grass run parallel to the innermost track. From this height, various depths of the Toronto city skyline can be seen, illustrating the blend of urban and rural landscapes.
The press box is multilevel and empty, lined with windows for a panoramic lookout. Cubicle desks border the back wall, giving it a sort of vintage library feel.
“If you want a better view you can go stand out there,” Gierkink says, pointing to a glass door leading outside. “It’s where people step out to smoke.”
A small platform, wide enough for one person, protrudes outside of the building – I walk the plank.
Looking to my left I see Gierkink’s head pop out the window staring through a pair of binoculars. He points to where Moonlit and Leblanc will be starting, and as we watch the training, our conversation turns introspective.
LeBlanc is a unique trainer, there’s no doubt about that. Speaking on behalf of the Gierkink family, he says, “We liked the fact that he got on his own horses every day and got to know them well. Not many trainers do get on their own horses, and some of them who do aren’t that good.”
If not for LeBlanc, Moonlit Beauty may not have been able to reach her true potential. “If she’d gone into a barn trainer with a lot of horses she may have fallen through the cracks, and may have not gotten as much personal attention,” Gierkink says.
Going beyond the standard duties of a trainer, LeBlanc meticulously puts together feed programs. “He tinkered with Moonlit Beauty’s feed when she was a bit of a finicky eater.”
An equestrian meal plan connoisseur.
From the press box heavens, it was hard to tell who was who on the racetrack below. “Moonlit Beauty just ran a half-mile in 48 seconds, now that’s a fast morning workout,” Gierkink says proudly.
Heading back to the barn, we stop at the lounge and stare at a flat screen TV.
My curiosity got the best of me and I wondered: how does someone get into horse race writing.
“I took journalism at Centennial College, with the hope of getting into sports writing, specifically writing about horse racing if possible,” says Gierkink. “I worked at a magazine just out of college, then I got hired by the Daily Racing Form publication.” For 25 years he has been writing stories and handicapping races, which means doing selections, writing recaps, and other things of that nature.
“Every new race is kind of like a handicapping puzzle. It’s a puzzle that you try to solve – who’s going to win the race? Should you wager?”
Gierkink is the epitome of passion in employment.
Through the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame we proceed. Equestrian legends done justice, in a hall of murals and cherry hardwood flooring that has deepened to a reddish colour over time.
Back at the barn, running water forms shallow puddles around my feet. Moonlit Beauty is in the middle of a post-training hose down. Two handlers are surrounded by 12 buckets of water in varying degrees of fullness. A sponsor-stenciled grey cover is draped over the beauty’s back, and she remains calm as they wipe and wash her from mane to hoof.
LeBlanc sees to it that Moonlit Beauty is taken care of, with a better regimen than most professional human athletes. Horses are top performers and can earn $100,000 in just under two minutes.
“We can win races by a whisker – so a little thing can go a long way,” says LeBlanc.
“All my horses have an acupuncturist that comes in 48 hours before a race. He checks them over for muscle fatigue or sensitivity and tells me what he’s finding. From that we’ll proceed with whether I want acupuncture done or not.”
Moonlit Beauty also has a masseuse. Talk about a specialty profession.
Inside the barn, a mint infatuation is being fuelled, as Moonlit eats from Gierkink’s hands.
The metal gate to her stall is open and a hard blue plastic rope hangs to discourage her from leaving. Looking at the horse, LeBlanc reminisces, “When I first got her as a two-year-old at Woodbine, I had maybe 15 or 16 horses in training. I couldn’t ride that many in a day so I rode her for a few weeks and thought she was safe so I put on another rider,” he says. “But she went over backwards on him.”
A “flipper” for all others – LeBlanc was the only one that put her at ease.
“That was it. I started riding her, and I was the one who rode her from then on,” he says.
Moonlit Beauty’s racing skills lay undiscovered until her debut.
“It was her very first race that showed promise of exceptional ability. It was a short distance race, and I told the jockey that she wasn’t quick out of the gate,” says LeBlanc.
After being 15 lengths behind the rest of the horses, she finished second. “She was flying like she had rocket jets on her tail pushing her along, the way she flew down the straightaway to finish the race,” he says.
It was then that LeBlanc knew he had a star.
“She didn’t win her first race until she was three years old, and her first win she was disqualified. She bumped into another horse leaving the starting gate and had to be placed behind the horse she interfered with … who was last,” he said.
Two starts later she won first place and her racing career exploded.
Even though Moonlit Beauty is on the older side for a racehorse, her future looks promising.
“Her legs are super and her appetite is right where we love to see it. As long as she continues on this path I see no reason why she shouldn’t come back to be just as good next year,” says LeBlanc.
Disappearing to get another horse, he comes back ready to exercise another elegant muscular racing machine. Just like the writer loves to write, the trainer loves to train.
“Training these tremendous athletes to be the best they can be is the most rewarding part for me. There’s just too much work involved, so you have to love it,” LeBlanc says.
Trotting off to the next practice, he says, “I wouldn’t be able to survive without the money, but it’s watching horses like Moonlit Beauty develop that’s the real prize.”
It’s 9:30 a.m. as we all part ways and I head back through the barn, taking in the scene.
A jockey in a Rastafarian themed outfit passes me on horseback, enthusiastically complimenting my boots. Nostrils of a horse flare up as she licks the doorway of her stall – seeing and tasting something beyond my understanding.
Away from the lights and glamour of racetrack entertainment lies a colourful community that thrives on passion, athletic ability, and meticulous care. LeBlanc and Gierkink live and breathe horse racing – a life truly committed to equine.