Times are changing, and the era when men race on weekends on the small prairie ovals in Western Canada has slipped away. Racing is big business, and the old-time horsemen, the ones who race for fun, and who own, groom and gallop, train and paddock and climb into the gate with their horses are slowly disappearing.
John Poirier, with his plaid shirt, suspenders, trousers, a ball cap shading his lively eyes and an ever-present toothpick is one of a disappearing breed of horseman.
John has three horses stabled at Rocky Mountain Turf Club in Lethbridge. He's 81 years old, and with a current cancer diagnosis, he's putting his stable in order to make sure his horses are in good hands before they move on for the summer meet at Grande Prairie.
John agreed to meet to talk about his lifelong love affair with horses. "A horse saved my life, once, you know," he states in the cool shade under the grandstand, "and I guess they're still saving me."
John grew up in northern Alberta on a farm by Cold Lake. When he was 13, he was driving the team pulling the threshing machine and he lost his balance. He fell off backwards, and his spine hit the pin, breaking his back. His dad got him to the Grande Centre hospital, and the doctor strapped him to a board and sent him by train to Edmonton. Unfortunately, the doctors in Edmonton could do nothing for the paralyzed, terrified boy, and they sent him back home. He might get better. He might not.
"I thought I was done for, and that it would have been better to have died. I couldn't move, and all I could see was a life of misery in front of me," he says. "My mother moved my bed to a little room by the kitchen where there was a window. At least I could see out and she was close by. We had a family friend, a man who worked for us during harvest, and he used to sit with me. He knew how much I loved horses, so he put up a little corral right outside that window, and he brought me a palomino horse to watch. He told me that if I got better and learned to walk again that I could have that little palomino."
That was all the inspiration young John needed. The family set up a system of pullies above the bed, and he slowly began using his arms to lift himself out of bed. It took two long years, but the bones healed and the nerves weren't damaged and he learned to walk again. And then he learned to ride again, on the little palomino he'd named Goldie. Two years of agony and misery faded away and John and Goldie won ribbons and over 55 trophies at gymkhanas and horse shows and rodeos.
"Goldie was quite a horse, he was athletic, and he'd do anything. I've still got the newspaper clipping from when we won an endurance ride in the Cypress Hills. 255 miles of tough riding, but Goldie was tougher," smiles John. 'I loved that horse," his eyes mist over, "He saved my life."
Our conversation turns to thoroughbreds. John has been racing on and off for 52 years. Equibase shows that he's officially had 1,450 starts, 252 wins, 254 seconds and 200 thirds. He spent a lot of time at Marquis Downs in Saskatchewan but he ran his first horse and had his first win in Grande Prairie. "My first win was with Holly Loseth, she was just a wee little girl, and I remember telling her to 'just hang on'!" he chuckles, eyes twinkling, "boy, when you think about what that little girl has been through and how positive she is it makes me stop complaining about my troubles."
John tells me about his best Stakes win, the Saskatchewan Derby in 1992 with Solid As A Buck. He was a longshot for the race, but John had a lot of confidence. More confidence than the betters, who had him on the board at 20-1. John couldn't get a jockey, and it was the first time Arturo Rosario rode him. "I told him he was going to win, and I think he thought I was crazy! But I knew Buck was sitting on a big race. He went to the lead and the field was coming, I was holding my breath waiting for the wire and he just held on to win. That was a good race."
John had a horse hauling company and he picked up and dropped off thousands of thoroughbreds from racetracks, training centres and breeding farms all over North America. He's been to Woodbine, Gulfstream, Santa Anita and Hastings Park and all points in between. He made up to 45 trips a year and can't count the number of times he loaded and unloaded. "I've seen some nice horses go on and off the trailer, and I loved being at the sales. I loved Ocala and Keeneland and Barretts. When I got my first cancer diagnosis in 2005, I decided it was time to retire. So, I sold out the trucking company and moved down here to Lethbridge. I thought I'd get a few horses and train for as long as I was able. The horses have been good therapy, and I've been pretty healthy since that first bout. But it's back again now, and I have some bad days."
John has had some good wins during his time in 'retirement' – most people would not think that running a racing a barn can be described as retirement! John has trained a few Quarter Horses, and modestly jokes that he "had a little luck" with them. His biggest and most memorable Quarter Horse win was with KR Streakin Version in 2013, when he won the $36,000 Bank of America Championship Challenge race at Evergreen Park. Teagan Oulton was in the irons, and John says "I love a tough little girl jockey. They've got grit!"
John turns serious when he talks about his current surgery and treatment schedule. He is having surgery in July and then there's chemotherapy to get through. John is hoping to sell two of his horses to trainers who will take them to Grande Prairie for the summer meet, but he's decided to retire the best horse in his stable.
She's It Again (Cape Canaveral, out of She's Italian) is one of his all-time favourite horses. He looks straight ahead with a penetrating gaze and his voice thickens with emotion, "She's my reason for staying alive right now."
"I get to the barn in the morning, and she starts talking as soon as she hears me. She likes to tell me about her day, and I tell her about mine. She's got so much personality, and so much heart. I've had her for six years and she's part of my life."
"You know, she's won 20 races. Stakes races, claiming races, spring, summer and fall. She tries her heart out every time we go to the paddock. She's as dedicated to me as I am to her," he pauses, takes a breath, and says "she's my family."
John's eyes well up as he continues, "Dano (Dan Oberholtzer) is going to take her and put her in his broodmare band. I need to retire her to a good home, and I know Dano will treat her right. I love her, and she's given back tenfold any love I've given her."
"I'm happy knowing she's going to a good place, maybe be a good broodmare for him. Dano helps me out when I'm not feeling well, and some days he feeds and trains for me if I can't get here. I've got lots of racing friends who have become family. I think it's because we all think the same, we think horse."
We decide that I should meet She's It Again, and we cross the now empty apron and dusty paddock. We have to move a stack of racing programs before I can get into the passenger seat. John hasn't exaggerated, as soon as we start down the shedrow in the barn a pretty bay head pops out of a stall. Nodding her head up and down, she starts whickering, she nickers and chirps and blows nonstop until John finally gets up to her. He quietly asked about her day and if she was ready for dinner. She curled her neck down to him, wrapping herself around him. In the dim afternoon light of the barn, time paused. John reached up and patted her neck. She begins to talk, nodding her head at him again. "Isn't she a beauty?" he asks, "She's sound as a dollar and just as pretty."
John's philosophy with his horses is simple. You get back from them what you give to them. He thinks if you treat a horse right, and give them good food, good exercise, good care and lots of love, they will return that care with their whole heart. It is old-fashioned horsemanship. On a hot spring day in a barn in Lethbridge, it is easy to see the boy who survived a broken back because of the love of a horse. He's turned into a man who still lives for and loves his horses.
"Horses are my life. They've always helped me heal, and having this girl is all the therapy I need right now. It's hard to get too down when there's a good horse in the barn."