The Gleaner
Agriculture

Where Are They Now: Valley horseman finds success in Ontario standardbred racing

A former Valley resident, Jeff Courchesne, is currently based in Cambridge, Ontario where he and his wife, Gabriella Sasso, train and race standardbred horses as Sasso-Courchesne Racing. They have 15 horses in training and three broodmares. Four horses from their stable are currently racing.

Courchesne comes from a family that has worked with horses for generations. Both his father and grandfather worked with them, and he grew up with an interest in them as well. He was also involved in organizing the horse racing at the Ormstown Fair. Unfortunately, the racing industry in Quebec did not appear to be able to sustain a career. “When I was in high school, the racing industry kinda collapsed, so I had to do something else. So, I did school, and the office job, but I was still keeping an eye on [racing] a little bit,” explains Courchesne. He visited Ontario, where there was more of an industry remaining; eventually, he decided to take the plunge and give racing a try in that province.

Taking the time

One of Courchesne’s horses, “SUNSHINEATTHEBEACH,” had a big win at Flamboro Downs in Dundas Ontario in 2022 with a time for the mile of 1:54.3. “Sunshine” was born in Ontario but was sold to a farm in Delaware, where she stayed for about two and a half years before coming back to Canada. The win was her first since returning. “We got her home and gave her a bit of time off. We raced her a few times at Mohawk, which is a little tougher than Flamboro … She had a few starts for us, she just hadn’t had a win. But then she had a win at Flamboro, and then two races later, she won again,” explains Courchesne. He adds that they have a partner, Martwest Racing Stables, that owns 50 per cent of their horses.

 

Sasso Courchesne Racing s pacing filly SUNSHINEBYTHESEA takes her first win after her return to Ontario PHOTO provided

 

Though the pacing filly has done well, Courchesne points out that she is not their best horse. That title goes to “Armor Seelster” who was the 2021 Ontario Sires Stakes 3-year-old pacing colt champion. Courchesne adds, “He raced in the summertime; he had wins at Mohawk, at Grand River Raceway, and Rideau Carleton in Ottawa.” He was the first horse that Sasso and Courchesne bought together and was the one that started their stable. Sasso had looked after “Armor” with another trainer when he was very young, but he was eventually sold. His new owners were not impressed with him and ended up selling him to Sasso and Courchesne. “We took our time with him, and he ended up having a really good three-year-old season for us. He made like $100,000 and won the Ontario Grassroots Championship. He took a mark of 1:49.1.”

Another one of their horses, “Jeronimo,” is a more recent addition to the team, and has already managed to snag two wins. “Jeronimo is one we bought as a yearling in the fall of 2021. He started his career this spring, and won his first lifetime start, and followed up with another win a couple weeks later.” Both wins took place at Woodbine Mohawk Park. The second win was a record time for Jeronimo; he scorched the mile in 1:57.2.

Training athletes

The winter racing schedule looks a little bit different from the summer schedules. Courchesne explains that “In the summertime it’s a set schedule for the stake races. These horses that race in the wintertime are too old for that. The stake races are for two- and three-year-olds.” Stake races close their nominations many weeks in advance, whereas in the winter the races are overnight racing, meaning the deadline to participate is much closer to the actual race. He adds that in the winter, “We try to race them three weeks on, and give them a break for a week.”

 

A former Valley resident Jeff Courchesne is currently based in Cambridge Ontario where he and his wife Gabriella Sasso train and race standardbred horses as Sasso Courchesne Racing

 

Courchesne says that training horses is like training people for sports. “It’s the same as developing a young athlete. You work with their strengths and weaknesses and see what works for them and manage their workload.” He finds this job fulfilling and says his favourite part of being immersed in this community is “the competitive nature, [and] the animals and watching them develop – especially the young horses that grow from not even knowing what a harness is.”

If you are interested in hearing more about Courchesne’s journey, he was recently on the internet show Passion Courses, which is a series that profiles Quebecers in racing. Overall, Courchesne says, “We’re pretty lucky. I get to work with my wife every day; we get to spend a lot of time together. We have good partners on our horses – they’re really, really good to us, and I think we make a good team.”

In terms of racing in the Valley any time soon, Courchesne says “It’s tough to commit to racing there as we have a 14-horse stable right now and it’s a six-hour ship, but for sure I’d like to race one there someday.”

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