Friday, 15 December 2017 20:24

Chouinard a visionary for Alberta horse racing

Written by Curtis Stock
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Chouinard a visionary for Alberta horse racing Images from barnoneranches.com

Lynn Chouinard, who passed away last week, made it to the finish line seeing his dream fulfilled. Just a month before he died at the age of 74, Chouinard saw one of his many horses, Surging Star, win an allowance race at Balzac’s Century Downs racetrack. Because of his declining health, it was the first and only time Chouinard was able to visit Century Downs, the track that everyone appears to agree would not have been built if it wasn’t for him.

“It was a wonderful day; it was perfect,” said Jennifer Mundy, one of his four children - the others are David, Michelle and James. “It was really important for him to see Century Downs to fruition and for him to have a horse of his win on the day he was there was just icing on the cake.”

Chouinard was never supposed to live as long as he did. In 2005 he was diagnosed with liver and lung cancer. He was given just three to five months to live. But tenacious as always, Chouinard, refusing to give up, fooled them all. He got a second opinion at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Clinic in Houston, Texas where two major surgeries removed 60 per cent of his liver and half of one of his lungs.

“Less than a week after the second surgery he wanted to go home,” said his friend Max Gibb, owner and operator of the Rocky Mountain Turf Club in Lethbridge and also a driving force behind UHA, the United Horsemen of Alberta of which Chouinard was the largest shareholder. UHA is a partner with Century Casinos and holds the racing license.

“He said all my mares are having foals right now. I want to see them and I want to see my children.” Jennifer isn’t surprised. “He swore to me that he was never going to die until (Century Downs) was built. As always he kept his promise."

“He wanted so much for horse racing to stay in Calgary and he tried to help as much as he could. He was the most motivated person I’ve ever seen,” continued Gibb. “When it came to thoroughbred racing, to me he was the most enthused and positive guy I’ve ever met. Without Lynn Century Downs would not be up and operating today. I know that for a fact."

“Whenever I needed interim funding, he just wrote a check. He was set on having a track in southern Alberta after Calgary’s Stampede Park closed its doors following the 2008 racing season. He made it happen; it’s why we have it today. He kept his dream alive.”

Bob Giffin, a past president of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, couldn’t agree more. “Nobody did more for racing in this province than Lynn Chouinard. He was one of the original investors in UHA and when things went bad he hung in there. If it wasn’t for him there would be no Century Downs.”

“Lynn was a visionary,” said Horse Racing Alberta’s CEO Shirley McClellan. “His commitment and tenacity saw Century Downs built. The horse racing industry certainly owes him a debt of gratitude, particularly the thoroughbred industry.”

It was far from just Century Downs where Chouinard carved his large niche into thoroughbred racing. Originally partners with Brian Bonang of Able Farms - when Ron Burrell trained his horses - in the early 1980’s Chouinard and his wife Cheryl, who was his best friend and who passed away four years ago, started up Bar None Ranches. Starting with just a dream and a handful of horses, the Chouinards built Bar None into a world-class facility.

“I have been to horse farms across the world and Bar None is as good as I’ve ever seen,” said Giffin. “It is the best farm in Canada. Everything is state of the art. Everything is neat and tidy.”

Ron Grieves, who took over the training for Chouinard 23 years ago, said there are 225 indoor stalls, three barns, an aqua pacer, a hyperbaric chamber and a five-eighths of a mile racetrack at Bar None which is located in DeWinton.

“But the most impressive thing about Bar None is how well it is always landscaped and manicured. The infield at the training track is as nice you’ll see anywhere,” said Grieves. “There are gardens, a gazebo, fishing ponds and play grounds. It is really something you have to see to understand.”

Grieves estimates that ‘conservatively’ Chouinard owned 1,500 horses over the years. “He was so sharp; he knew every one of them,” said Grieves. “He was on top of everything. He would have had about 50 horses every year and when he called he asked about each one of them individually."

“The first year I trained for him - in 1994 - he had six horses. The next year he had 18. The third year he had 30.” And it would grow from there.

“He had a great deal of passion for horse racing,” said Jennifer. “I don’t know where it came from or where he got the fever but once he started there was no stopping. He just fell in love with horse racing. “He had a great love for horse racing and Bar None - especially the people he was surrounded by at Bar None.

“Until the day he passed away he worked every morning in his office. Then he would drive around the farm on his mobility scooter checking out the horses, the gardens and, in the spring, watching the horses train on our race track. He had some fine-looking foals that amounted to nothing and he had others that might not have looked as good but turned out great.” Mostly, it seemed were the latter.

Just some of the ‘great’ horses Chouinard owned were Code Name Fred, Silver Baubles, Cash On The Run, Lynn’s Dream and Miss Double Dip. As gritty as they come, Code Name Fred was first or second in nine of his 11 appearances of 2,000 including the $100,000 Speed to Spare Championship when he dug down to outlast Yaletown by a nose.

Only a neck loss to Run Joey Run in the Spangled Jimmy prevented Code Name Fred from winning five in a row.

Silver Baubles, a colt who Chouinard raised out of a mare he also owned, won the 2013 Journal Handicap.

“Cash On The Run was an exceptional animal,” said Grieves. “If you asked Quincy Welch today who was the best horse he ever rode he’d probably say Cash On The Run. He won his first five starts as a two-year-old winning at 3 1/2 furlongs, six furlongs, six and a half furlongs, a mile and then a mile and a sixteenth. The last three were all stakes.”

Lynn’s Dream went into the 1999 Canadian Derby with three straight stakes wins - the last two (the Ky Alta and the Count Lathum) by a combined total of 17 1/2 lengths. Miss Double Dip marked Grieves first stakes win in 1994 when she won the Princess Margaret destroying her opposition in an 8 1/2-length victory in the mud.

Then there were stakes winners like Provocative Prince, Just a Knockout, who won the Stampede Futurity, Gone In A Flash, Gone in a Flash, Ding Dong Dandy and his brother Fuhr Ore, who both won stakes on the same Alberta Fall Classic afternoon - Ding Dong Dandy winning the Beaufort and Fuhr Ore defeating older horses. 

Over the years, Bar None had over 660 wins and $8.3 million in earnings. Even this past year, Bar None was Alberta’s leading owner. “So many good horses,” marvelled Grieves.

While Chouinard claimed a lot of his horses - and had a lot of horses claimed off of him - “One year he claimed 48 horses and we had 45 horses claimed from us; he saw racing as a business,” said Grieves - he also raised many, many of his own. “Bar None currently has 27 broodmares; five years ago we had 55,” said Grieves.

“His broodmares are now throwing Grade I stakes producing broodmares.” One of the stallions that Chouinard brought to Alberta was Gilded Time, who won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in 1992. The sire of Silver Baubles, Grieves said Gilded Time, who is still alive at the age of 28, was the leading sire in Canada when he got to Alberta.

“He just loved to watch his horses run but I think he took more pleasure in watching his babies grow up. Even at the end, he would sit in his office and watch them train through his window.” In a Horse Racing Alberta video filmed this spring Chouinard said “I find horse racing addictive because of the animal itself… Watching them run, watching the born, watching them grow up as babies. There is nothing as beautiful when they are in full stride coming down the stretch."

“The farm was a hobby that got out of control,” said Chouinard, who also loved salmon fishing and once caught a 64-pounder. “I’d like to be remembered as someone who made racing very competitive; I want to win.”

“He did love to win but he never expected to win,” said Jennifer. “He knew it was a game of chance. I admired that about him. I know I will never take losing as gracefully as he did.”

A financial advisor with Merrill Lynch and then CIBC Wood Gundy for 45 years, Grieves said “I have been told that he was Canada’s No. 1 financial advisor for 31 straight years. “He was a very sharp businessman but he was also a very thoughtful guy. He thought about others. He cared about his employees; he cared about other people.”

“My dad was an amazing man. He always kept his promises,” said Jennifer. Now, as president of Bar None, Jennifer said Bar None will carry on as long as possible. “Hopefully forever,” she said. “That is the plan. That is the legacy he wants to leave.”

A gentleman in all senses of the word and a great family man, Chouinard was also a religious man. “He had a love of God and a love of horses,” said Jennifer. Chouinard went so far as to take a small chapel from Okotoks, St. James Chapel, renovate it and move it onto the Bar None property.

The chapel, which would draw some 80 people for mass every Monday, Wednesday and Fridays where a retired Catholic priest would do the services, is now part of Bar None Ranches Memorial Gardens which is where he was buried on Dec. 16.

“He will always be on the ranch, making sure we are all doing our jobs,” said Jennifer.

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