SARATOGA SPRINGS – On April 27 of last year, Stephane Bouchard crossed the finish line at Saratoga Casino and Raceway to more fanfare than usual.
And there was good reason: Bouchard, born and raised in Canada, had just notched his 8,000th professional harness racing victory, a gigantic feat in a sport that has been waning in popularity over recent decades.
On top of all the accolades he’s earned as a driver, he and his wife, Sue Bergeron, have a small stable at the track consisting of four horses that the couple trains and races.
“You really have to focus in this sport,” Bouchard said outside of his stable on Monday. “You have to work really hard, otherwise you’ll get left behind.”
Bouchard has grown into one of the top drivers in the sport, coupling all those wins with more than $70 million in purses over his career. It was in the summer of 1999 when Bouchard moved from Quebec down to the New York City area to ride full time at Yonkers Raceway and Monticello, where he won multiple riding titles at both places. He occasionally raced at Saratoga over the years, before moving his family to the city in 2013 for good.
Spanning the years 2000 to 2008, Bouchard notched at least 489 wins each year, topping out at 814 victories in 2007 with $7.7 million in purses. Simply put, Bouchard is one of the top drivers in the sport.
He won’t, however, downplay the importance of hard work.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “You have to hook up with the right people so you can get as many starts as possible. There’s a lot more to being successful in racing than just having talent and being the right size.”
Bouchard rode his first horse in 1989. He is the son of a barrel racer, and said he spent a lot of time around horses and other animals when his father was working. He enjoyed it so much that he dropped out of college to get himself in the industry, starting off as a groomer.
From there, he earned his trainer’s license before eventually landing his driver’s license. The rest, as they say, is history.
The 48-year-old knows his way around a horse, but said the main thing when racing a new horse is to listen to what the owner and trainer tells him.
“It may be the first time the horse has ever raced, so not everyone knows about him,” he said. “The horse might not like to be touched, or may have some bad habits. Sometimes, an owner will even tell me that I shouldn’t touch the horse at all. But no matter what I am told, that information only works 25 percent of the time. There’s a lot of improvisation involved.”
Even though he’s won so many races, Bouchard said that after a victory, he starts preparing for the next race. He added that he can enjoy it when the night has completed.
“I have to get ready for the next race in 20 minutes, so I don’t think too much about it right away,” he said. “Sometimes after the night is over we will go out to dinner, but it’s really the owners who get the most excited to see their horse in the winner’s circle.”
Since he has moved to Saratoga, Bouchard said he has grown to thoroughly love the area. While he said it was nice to live near New York and have such a gigantic city at his fingertips, he likes that there’s nowhere near the hustle and bustle up here.
“It’s not a big city here, no, but everything is really close, so it’s not a big deal,” he said. “My son likes to ski and so do I and we are very close to a lot of great skiing.”
At the end of the interview, he spoke about being a trainer and a driver.
“We are all self-employed,” he said. “You always have to hustle, always. It’s always changing in this sport. You have to get out there and get your horses because nothing is free or given to you.”