Massachusetts horseman has been a model of consistency throughout his career
interview by Tim Bojarski
George Ducharme is one of the best developers of young trotters in the business and will forever be remembered for his 2013 Hambletonian victory with Royalty For Life. But that was only one moment in time for Ducharme, as the USTA director’s career commenced long before that triumph. The Norfolk, Mass., resident has amassed more than $14.48 million and collected more than 925 wins since the USTA began tallying statistics in 1991.
It’s safe to say Ducharme’s success didn’t come without hard work, sacrifice, and the desire to be the best, and this small-town horseman from southeastern Massachusetts embodies those traits.
HB: When did your career get started and how did it come about?
Ducharme: In 1975, my grandfather and uncle each owned a horse racing at Foxboro Park. We lived in nearby Walpole and my parents would take us up to the kiddie stand to watch the races. It wasn’t long before I started hanging around the barn and eventually it turned into a career. I was the only one in my family that got involved in this end of the business.
HB: Who did you first work for?
Ducharme: I started to work for a man named Greg MacDonald in the early 1980s, who was a trainer from Nova Scotia. He raced most of the “Miles End” horses, some of which competed at The Meadowlands. I groomed for him first and then eventually started training at Foxboro Park.
HB: When did you decide you wanted to run your own stable?
Ducharme: Probably the mid-1980s, I ventured out with a few of my own.
HB: What tracks did you compete at in the early years?
Ducharme: I raced mostly at Foxboro and then all over Maine. If I had a decent horse I would go to Yonkers, but for the most part, I stayed in New England.
HB: Did you drive much back then?
Ducharme: I really never drove much, maybe in four or five overnights. I did have quite a few starts in the Massachusetts Sire Stakes at the fairs back in the early ’80s when there were maybe only one or two horses in a race. Some of those horses were dangerous, but I knew them from training them so I would drive. We would go miles in 2:15.
HB: From 1991 until 2000, your starts dwindled considerably. What happened during that time?
Ducharme: Foxboro Park closed twice in the ’90s and I got out of the business. A lot of people did. I had my wife and kids to worry about and a mortgage and bills to pay so I wasn’t going to chase horses all over the country. I worked a variety of day jobs during that period to make ends meet and then just tinkered part time at the track. But it all worked out.
HB: Things picked up for you in 2001. What changed?
Ducharme: When Plainridge opened in 1999, racing came back to the Commonwealth and the opportunity to get back in and train presented itself for me. In 2001, Roger Slobody [who owned Sawmill River Farm and whose father was part-owner of Cardigan Bay] asked me to take some horses for him. Then Chip Campbell and Paul Fontaine, who I had been training for, got more involved again now that there was somewhere to race. Then it just went from there.
HB: Did you always concentrate on developing young horses?
Ducharme: Yes, I’ve always had babies, but early on they were just homebreds to race at the fairs and the sire stakes. We always had overnight horses racing then to make a living because the stakes weren’t worth anything. The Massachusetts-bred horses back then were some bad horses; people would breed anything just to get a horse because everyone loved to race at the fairs but there was no money to be made.
HB: When did you move your base of operations out of Massachusetts?
Ducharme: I didn’t want to leave home to train until my kids graduated from high school, so I was at a farm near Plainridge for years and then trained at Plainridge over the winter from 2011 to 2013. Then I started going to Vernon [Downs] in the spring of 2013. And I have been wintering in Florida, breaking babies every year since 2014.
HB: You’ve had a long relationship with Ray “Chip” Campbell Jr. Talk about that a bit.
Ducharme: I first started training for Chip back in the early ’80s when his father was alive, so we’ve been doing this together for a long time. It’s been a really good relationship and we’ve had plenty of success. But through the years we were always on the same page about how and where to race his horses and I think that’s what made it work.
HB: The biggest race of your career was winning the 2013 Hambletonian with Royalty For Life. Let’s talk about him. Describe how he developed.
Ducharme: When we broke him, he was a very nervous horse; we had to take our time with him. When we got him going, we knew he had a lot of speed, but at the time we just planned on him being a good New York Sire Stakes horse. Racing in New York, we learned early he struggled on the turns on the half [-mile tracks].
In the New York Sire Stakes final at Yonkers [Raceway as a 2-year-old], he made a break but came back strong to finish fourth. I called Al Ross, Chip [Campbell], and Paul [Fontaine] and told them I really wanted to take this horse to Lexington and try him on a big track and they agreed with my opinion, even though he had just gotten beat. It worked out well, as he won his division of the International [Stallion Stake] in 1:54.2 petty handily. After that, he finished second in the elimination and final of the Breeders Crown at Woodbine and we knew we had something.
HB: During his 3-year-old campaign leading up to the Hambletonian, did Royalty For Life continue to show the ability to win that race?
Ducharme: We brought him back at 3 and paid him into all the big races. Unfortunately, that was the year they had the herpes outbreak at Vernon. I got stranded there and couldn’t race the horse for the month of May, so we missed the early races and when we finally started him, he was making breaks. He broke in the Empire Breeders Classic and the Beal. I was making changes to his rigging every week trying to get him to stay flat. Finally, he qualified in 1:51.3 at The Meadowlands and never broke again the rest of the year. He won the Dancer, Hambo, Zweig, and the Canadian Trotting Classic.
HB: What were you feeling in the winner’s circle after you won?
Ducharme: Relief—a lot of relief. Obviously, I was ecstatic, but a lot of it was relief. The pressure was getting to me mentally because it took so long to get his year going and then when it did, he just kept making breaks. I was scratching my head wondering what I was doing wrong.
HB: Did winning the Hambletonian change your life in any way?
Ducharme: Personally no; business-wise, yes. All of a sudden, you’re recognized and I started getting outside owners. And people watch to see what you’re doing now. Obviously, before that, nobody knew who I was coming from New England and being based at Vernon Downs. You don’t pick up owners on the top circuit from those kinds of places. So, clearly, it advanced my career a lot.
HB: You have made a good living racing in sire stakes programs. When did you start competing on the New York circuit?
Ducharme: I’d say the late ’80s, early ’90s. I had one or two compete then. But I have been competing on that circuit ever since. I had two trotters who were 2-year-old divisional champions there with Donttellmywife who went undefeated in 2008 and Allerage Echo in 2015. They both made more than $200,000 at 2.
HB: You have dominated the Massachusetts Sire Stakes most of your career, developing champions like Onangelwings, Muscles Jared, Hashtagmadeyalook, Bag O Chips, Simple Kaos, Ithinkthatsmine, Life Is A Feast, Without A Warning, and Crystalline. What are your thoughts on the growing program there?
Ducharme: I love the program. I think it’s such a good thing for everyone involved, and it’s getting bigger and better each year. And I think it will continue to gain outside interest if we can generate a little more money. It’s a great thing for the owners. You can race your primary stake and then come to Massachusetts in October and generate another $20,000-$100,000 in earnings at the end of the year. It really is a great year-end bailout for owners and that keeps people interested in it.
HB: Aside from Royalty For Life, who do you think your best horse was?
Ducharme: I’d have to say it’s close between Wings Of Royalty and Without A Warning. Wings Of Royalty was second in the New York Sire Stakes final at 2 and 3 and was the Massachusetts champion at 3. He was undefeated in the series. He’s also earned just under $900,000 lifetime with a mark of 1:51.4. Without A Warning finished third in the New York Sire Stakes final at 2 and 3 and was a two-time undefeated Massachusetts champion. She has earnings of just over $400,000 in only two years.
HB: How did you deal with all the challenges of 2020 with the delays in racing due to COVID-19?
Ducharme: It was a little frustrating not knowing when they were going to schedule the races up and down the East Coast. But everyone was in the same boat and it was just a matter of trying to manage the horses and keep them ready without overtraining them. And then when it did start, it was a pretty condensed schedule with a lot of traveling one day after another. But I’ve got a good group of people working with me and we fought through it. Hopefully, we’ll be on a normal schedule when we start [later this] year.
HB: What does your stable look like in 2021? How many horses do you have and where will they be racing?
Ducharme: I’m going to be around 40 [head] and I think they will be racing in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. And some of [the horses] are dual-eligible in Massachusetts and Kentucky. That dual-eligible thing really helps.
HB: Where do you see your stable moving forward?
Ducharme: I don’t want to grow anymore as I have plenty of horses. If I can keep the crew I have now, I’ll stay around this number each year. But I’m pushing 60 [years old] now and might consider cutting back a little if the workload gets to be too much.
HB: Since 2010, you’ve had an average UTRS of .382 and during that time have been at .400 or higher four times, including the last two years. What do you attribute your consistency to?
Ducharme: I think the owners I have really let me manage and classify their horses, so we try to put them in the best spots to win. Like in New York. Everyone would just love to be in the sire stakes racing for $50,000-$100,000 every week. But if we have an Excelsior horse, that’s where we’re going to put him if that’s where they can win. And then really in Massachusetts over the last few years; we’ve done so well it’s pushed my percentage over the top.
HB: Are you looking to accomplish anything in the future, like winning a certain race or a second Hambletonian?
Ducharme: I’ve never won a Breeders Crown and that’s been one of my goals. I’ve only raced in one with Royalty For Life. But I’m realistic about it. I don’t want to just be in one if I have no shot to win it, just to say I was in it. I’d like to have a serious contender and be competitive and have a chance to win.
Tim Bojarski, past president of the U.S. Harness Writers Association, is a freelance writer living in New York. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.