From a humble start racing horses on weekends at dirt tracks in Alberta, Gary Boulanger had built a prosperous career for himself as a jockey, until the race that nearly killed him.
Thrown to the ground and trampled when In Hand, a five-year-old gelding, broke down at Florida's Gulfstream Park in January of 2005, Boulanger fractured his ribs, ruptured his spleen, tore elbow tendons and suffered brain damage so severe, doctors had to remove part of his skull to ease the swelling and repair a blood clot.
Twice, he flatlined on the operating table. Now, he lives with four steel plates in his head, each the size of a silver dollar.
No one expected him to race again, not least Boulanger himself. Year by year, though, he became stronger and began to get the itch while exercising horses in Florida, including his own on a five-acre farm in Ocala.
Last winter, he heard trainer Mark Casse needed someone to breeze his horses on a nearby spread. One thing led to another and he raced again at Tampa Bay Downs in February, then, in March, won his first race in more than eight years, on a Casse-trained horse at Ocala.
"Never even a second thought," Boulanger said, interrupting an obvious question halfway into it being asked. "The day I'm scared is the day I'll quit. That's when I'll walk away. Never ever was there a fear thought in my mind."
Casse invited Boulanger, who was raised in Whitecourt, Alta., to race at Toronto's Woodbine racetrack this season. And Thursday, the trainer self-described as "the most-hated guy" in the room, announced in a voice cracking with emotion Boulanger would ride for him in the 154th Queen's Plate on Sunday.
"I like the guy and just feel for him," Casse said in an interview, again pausing to collect himself. "It really, really bothered me when he got hurt. I don't really know why – a lot of riders have been hurt. In our business, it's tough, we're competing all the time and there's not a lot of love lost. … I just always looked at Gary as one of the top guys."
Perennially the leading trainer at Woodbine, Casse has never won the Queen's Plate and admits victory in North America's oldest continuously run stakes race had become his primary career goal. The math is stacked in his favour, with four entries for three different owners in the 12-horse field.
Boulanger, 45, is to be aboard Spring in the Air, one of the two fillies in the race. At the draw Thursday, the favourite, Up With the Birds (2 to 1) out of Sam-Son Farms, drew the seventh position and the other filly, Nipissing (7 to 2) of Chiefswood Stable, the ninth.
Spring in the Air (10 to 1) and third-seed Dynamic Sky (4 to 1) are both owned by John Oxley and trained by Casse. He also trains Kaigun (20 to 1) – his wife owns a 25-per-cent interest in the horse – and Jagger M (20 to 1).
Oxley's stable committed Sunday's ride to North America's leading jockey, Joel Rosario, several months ago. If either horse is scratched, Boulanger would be bumped out, but simply making it this far justifies the Memorial Hospital East doctors' nickname for him: Miracle Man.
From 1987, he accumulated 3,104 victories and $60-million in prizes until the catastrophic accident. Boulanger couldn't walk post-surgery, let alone strap into a saddle atop a 1,000-pound thoroughbred.
"First three years, pretty brutal," he said, sporting a long scar where his skull was reattached. "I went through some excruciating migraines, balance issues, vomiting, for a long time.
"The body is an amazing thing; it heals itself over time. There was no permanent brain damage, just seizures from the nerves being cut when they had to remove my skull. It was a whole reconnection thing. Once they all healed, it started coming together. The migraines dissipated, the balance got better and better, I got physically stronger and it kept pointing me back to riding."
On his comeback, he's won 20 races, 18 at Woodbine, and $1.09-million in prizes. He returns to the Queen's Plate 12 years after steering Dancethruthedawn to a blueprint-perfect victory in 2001, with an opportunity to "show everybody I'm still the same guy who won big races before" and to deliver to Casse that cherished notch in the belt.
"This is the one that escaped him. This is the one we all want, this and the Kentucky Derby," Boulanger said. "If you don't want these kinds of races, you shouldn't be in the sport. It would be a great story."