Growing up poor, Gilles Gendron turned to Standardbreds as a possible avenue to success, and for the talented reinsman, it was a great choice. TROT turned to Gilles, and his good friend Murray Brown, and asked them to reminisce about the old days a little, and share with our readers some of the things that the now-retired Gendron did to earn his hall of fame status. By Chris Lomon.
Enjoying life and succeeding in it has always been par for the course for the man known as ‘Le Chef’ (translated to English: ‘Leader’).
His winning days spent in the Standardbred race bike have now been replaced by sitting at the wheel of a golf cart, but the name Gilles Gendron will always be associated with the sport he dominated for years.
“So many great memories,” started Gendron. “The people and the horses… I was very lucky to have been around so many great ones. Racing is something that will stay a big part of who I am.”
Born in Saint-Eustache, about a 45-minute drive west of Montreal, Gendron grew up in a modest household. Eventually, he gravitated towards racing and became enamored with the idea of driving pacers and trotters.
“I never had any goals when I started. I came from a poor family and I knew driving was going to be my life… I wanted to make the most of it. What I did think was that I wanted to be one of the best. I felt that I could. I believed in myself and other people in the business believed in me too.”
Murray Brown certainly did.
The man originally from Quebec who would work 52 years for Hanover Shoe Farms, including 37 of those years as the General Manager and Vice President of the Standardbred Horse Company, heard plenty of talk back in the day about the talented young kid from the off-island suburb of Montreal.
“Gilles was working for Marcel Dostie, who was the head trainer and driver for the Miron Bros. outfit in Quebec, the largest racing outfit in Canada at the time,” recalled Brown. “Marcel said Gilles was the best groom he ever had. I remember it as if it were yesterday. He was using Gilles to drive along with him when he was training horses. I’m pretty sure Gilles had never raced competitively at that time, and Marcel said, ‘This kid will be a great driver one day’. This was a kid who had never even driven in a race, but Marcel said he had great hands and was a great judge of pace, and that horses liked him. He was very right.”
The first time Brown and Gendron spent time together is a story in itself.
It involved an eventful road trip from Quebec to the Buckeye State and time spent in front of a judge - not a racing judge either.
“Adrien Miron was looking to buy a horse to race in the Little Brown Jug,” remembered Brown. “He loved to race, but he loved the Jug in particular. About three days before the race he bought a horse by the name of Red Carpet. He was in the Jug, it was a Tuesday night, and he wanted Gilles to take care of the horse. He [Gilles] didn’t speak a word of English back then and I barely got by in French.
“But I was assigned to drive Gilles to Delaware, Ohio. I had my driver’s license for about six days at the time. We stayed over in Cleveland the first night and I got my first speeding ticket going there. I got my second one going from Cleveland to Ohio. If I remember correctly, in Delaware, the cop took us right to the judge. I had to follow him in his car. Finally, we got to the racetrack. That was the first time I spent any time with him. We didn’t speak very much - we couldn’t.”
What wasn’t lost in translation was Brown’s realization that Gendron was going to be a driving force in the sulky.
It was 1967 when the up-and-coming 22-year-old began his career in the race bike.
Gendron learned early on, it was those he partnered with on the racetrack who held the key to his success. It was the horse.
“You have to understand your horse. I’m not the athlete, the horse is. You have to put the horse in the best position to succeed. And every horse is different in what they need. Wherever they need to be in the race, that’s the first priority. Sometimes, how the race goes isn’t how you expected it to be, but your job is to give them the best chance to win.”
And that’s exactly what Gendron did over a magnificent career.
In all, he drove in over 37,000 races and recorded 7,053 victories, accompanied by 16,880 top-three finishes and $36.9 million in purse earnings.
Gendron was a driving force at Blue Bonnets during the 1970s and 1980s, the go-to driver for the racetrack’s top horsepeople.
But it wasn’t only in his native Quebec where he made a name for himself.
Five years after he launched his racing career, Gendron travelled to Windsor Raceway for an event that featured the top stars in the sport, contemporaries who had established themselves as all-time greats.
While the odds only suggested he had an outside shot of coming out on top, he did just that when he was crowned the winner of the Challenge of Champions, besting Herve Filion, Ronnie Feagan and Carmine Abbatiello, just to name a few, en route to victory.
“I went to all the driving competitions, all over the place. I won a car one time. It was always great to be able to go up against the best. They were great drivers but also great people too. There were a lot of very talented drivers, so to say you were a part of that is a very nice feeling.”
Back home at Blue Bonnets, Gendron topped the standings 10 times between 1972 and 1984. For 14 consecutive years, he notched more than 200 victories and ranked in the North American top 10 seven times.
In 2009, he drove a pair of winners at Rideau Carleton to put him at 7,000 career wins to join Quebec natives Herve Filion, Michel Lachance and Luc Ouellette in the select group of North American drivers from ‘La Belle Province’ who had posted 7,000 career wins.
“When I think back to my career, the first thing that came to my mind was driving in 37,000 races. That’s a lot of races and a lot of horses. You sit down and think, ‘Wow. That’s a big, big number.’”
Of the many talented pacers and trotters that he teamed with, hall of famers Grades Singing and Garland Lobell immediately come to mind.
A trotting daughter of Texas, Grades Singing racked up 81 wins and nearly $2.2 million in earnings over her outstanding career.
Bred by Bay Jean Farm and Stable Ltd., of Les Cedres, Quebec, Grades Singing won three Breeders Crown championships, established seven world records, and earned numerous Canadian and USTA championship titles.
“The first time I ever qualified her, I told [owner] Gastien Deschenes that she was something special. She was one of those horses that you dream of driving. And she was one of the best.”
Gendron has similar lofty praise for Garland Lobell.
A son of ABC Freight, the trotter was purchased for a paltry $7,200 at the 1982 Liberty Bell yearling sale by Ricardo Saccomania and his brothers. The colt won 14 of 63 starts and over $345,000 and won the first heat of the 1984 Kentucky Futurity in a stakes record time of 1:55.3.
Garland Lobell was even more impactful beyond the racetrack as a standout stallion.
He sired top-shelf trotters Angus Hall, Cameron Hall, Conway Hall, Andover Hall and Justice Hall, just to name a few.
“He was fast like hell. When I went 1:54 with him in Lexington I told the guy, ‘Leave the horse here one week and I’ll go in 1:52, and it will be a track record’. And we did. Horses like those ones, they are the ones who brought me to the hall of fame.”
There is a light pause when he mulls over what he is most proud of in his career.
“I started from nothing. I remember the first time I drove, I couldn’t afford to buy a driving suit. A guy, Charles Poulin, he told me that he would fit me for a suit and I told him I would stick with that. I was asked, ‘What colour would you like?’ I said, ‘Whatever you like’. It ended up being a ‘V’ with green and white. That’s the way it started.”
Now, 56 years after it all began, Gendron will soon take his rightful spot amongst the most distinguished names in the sport, horse and human, in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
An honour not lost on Gendron.
“It’s a good thing, a good achievement. This was my life. I’m very happy to have a good career. I’m very happy. It’s not for me as much, but more for my sons. Maybe in 10 years I’ll be gone, so it’s more for them. But I’m still in pretty good shape.”
Gendron is keeping busy, working part-time at a golf course not far from his home.
While his golf game doesn’t yield many successful rounds, he’s enjoying the outdoor life, much of it at his own pace.
“I’m not that good at golf, but my son is very good. I work and play once in a while. I take care of the golf carts. I work three days a week. I start around one and then I’m done when everyone is finished playing. The course is only six kilometres from my place. I don’t even need a car, so I take my bike.”
Sometimes, during those rides, Gendron will think back to his days on the racetrack, the times when he was a dominant driver, paired with the top names in the sport.
The recollections always produce a wide smile.
“When I started to drive, I never thought I would achieve the things I did. I hoped that they would happen, but you just don’t know. And now, to be in the hall of fame, I am so grateful and happy. A lot of people from the States and Canada reached out to congratulate me. It makes you feel funny inside. I didn’t know I was that good.”
Gendron no doubt was.
His good friend Murray Brown knows that.
“We still keep in touch. I look back and I remember just how great Gilles was. He always listened to people, and he was always prepared. He knew a horse instantaneously, even if it was the first time he drove it. He gave the horse the trip that it needed, and he rarely used the whip. He looks like he’s in great shape and that he’s enjoying life.”
Now, he’s in his rightful place, according to Brown, who was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2003.
“I don’t know if it had any effect, but for the past seven or eight years I’ve been promoting Gilles to be considered for induction. Thank goodness, he finally made it.”
This feature originally appeared in the June issue of TROT Magazine. Subscribe to TROT today by clicking the banner below.