Some might know of 'The Black Cat' as the fictional character in comic books published by Marvel Comics - but in the world of harness racing there's only one Black Cat and his name is Richard Simard.
The Montreal native is probably a bit luckier than your average cat though. Since first climbing into the sulky back in the 1970s Simard has well and truly used up more than his nine lives – but the 51-year-old is as tough old boots and seems to shrug off career threatening injuries as if they were mosquito bites.
“If I broke my leg I would be back in the sulky the following day – plaster and all – I couldn’t afford to take a day off. The horses needed to be worked. In our game a day lost is a day wasted, and with so much opposition out there it never made sense for to me to sit back and suffer injuries. I have always been one to just get on with the job,” Simard told Harnesslink.
But ironically Simard’s nickname has nothing to do with his spate of injuries. 'The Black Cat' (Le Chat Noir in his birth province of Quebec) dates back to when he would volunteer to drive roughly-gaited or aggressive horses - and later, for his driving colors which are predominantly black.
“But my mates were spot on nicknaming me ‘The Cat’. I have had a few injuries and have used up more than my fair share of lives over the years,” he added.
Simard has broken both shoulders, ankles, his knee, his wrist, his fingers and ribs in a driving career dating back to 1981.
But there’s more.
Last year Simard checked himself into a Florida hospital due to lingering pains in his stomach.
"I hadn't been feeling good since Christmas. I thought it was the flu," said Simard. "Then I started to get these shooting pains. For me to go to the hospital on my own, well it had to be pretty bad."
Doctors quickly determined the problem was his appendix, and within hours, he underwent an emergency appendectomy. After six days in hospital, he was released.
But Simard definitely used up one of his nine lives on that occasion.
“It was early February by the time I got to the emergency ward and when I got there they told me I was about six hours from being severely poisoned and possibly dying," Simard explained.
Simard, a seven-times champion driver at Windsor Raceway in Ontario started his career at Blue Bonnets Raceway ((later named Hippodrome de Montréal) but has been campaigning intermittently in Florida for 20 years, which he says has been interrupted on a few occasions by returning home to Canada to be with his cancer stricken father.
Simard was also the focus of a USA work permit and green card application case successfully forwarded by Windsor attorney Sam Burgio.
It was a case that received extensive coverage in the city's daily newspaper - The Windsor Star - by reporter Bob Duff.
Burgio, was himself an avid owner and harness racing fan.
He successfully argued that harness drivers are in fact specialized athletes that should be permitted to work in both countries on the continent.
“Unlike a lot of the people who make it in harness racing these days, I was not born into a harness racing family and never got a head-start because of that. It took me about six years before I even started to get established.
“I actually wanted to be a jockey because my grandfather always took me to thoroughbred racing when I was young, but when I went to Blue Bonnets Raceway the thoroughbreds had finished for the season and I accidentally fell into harness racing.
“I was a groom for much of my teens and in my first year of driving I never drove a winner, and then in 1982, I only won one race. It’s a lot easier for the young to get into the sport today – especially when they come from well known harness racing families. I served a lengthy apprenticeship,” Simard stressed.
In fact Simard found it so tough entering the industry that when he gave away a well paid printing career his father Robert stopped talking to him.
He wanted what was best for me and he was disappointed that I gave away a good paying job for a job that paid virtually nothing. But he soon came to accept me and my decision to become a horseman,” Simard said.
Simard spent three years getting a printing degree and had a job with his father in the printing department of shipping for the nation-wide Avon Company.
But when Simard was in his teens he got a holiday job working as a groom and then at 15 he drove the mini trotters.
That’s when he became hooked on harness racing and no matter how good the printing job was or no matter much Avon paid, Simard had only one desire.
“In the early years I learnt everything about the industry from Henry Filion – Herve’s brother. What he said went - without question or query! There were no arguments. I listened and obeyed and had to wait what seemed like an eternity to get my first drive.
“But he was a great horseman – some even say better than his brother. I will never forget the grounding he gave me. I am the horseman I am today because of him,” Simard said.
Simard also worked for Jacques Bruyere and drove his first winner at Blue Bonnets Raceway in 1982.
“Before the Meadowlands opened in 1976 that was the biggest race track in North America. It was the place to drive.”
Simard then trained and drove in Quebec from 1983-85 and then returned to Blue Bonnets in Montreal from1985-1994. Thereafter he relocated to Windsor Raceway in Ontario where he won several driving titles before heading back to Montreal from 2000-2005.
Throughout his career Simard has travelled to and from Canada to Florida to drive. When Harnesslink contacted him Simard was plying his trade in Florida.
“I enjoy coming here. We race from September to August here in Florida and I travel home for six weeks in between seasons. To be honest it’s too cold in Montreal for me these days and with all my broken bones and injuries I work better in the warmer climates.
“I’ve done well since I started coming here and while Bruce Ranger has been off the scene with injuries I have been the number two driver in Florida behind Wally Hennessey. I’m getting plenty of drives and I like the racing here - and unlike my early days in racing I no longer have to prove myself any more. The lifestyle treats me well,” Simard said.
Since 1982 Simard has driven 5,404 winners from 35,233 drives. He’s also placed 8,940 times for $29.6 million in career purses.
His most successful year was in 1997 when he won 418 races and stakes-wise there were no years better than 2002 when he banked just over $2.3 million in purses.
So far this season Simard has won 59 races and $290,011.
He also trains one pacer – Awesome Way and one trotter – Cheers To Chip (see video) – in Florida.
Since 1992 he has trained 272 winners and won $1.2 million in stakes. In 2011 he has so far won eight times as a conditioner.
He said winning the $300,000 La Coupe Des Eleveur (Quebec Breeders Cup) with Desse D’Orleans was one of his career highlights, while the fastest horse he had reined waspacer Oye Vay.
Simard’s partner is Manon Gendron. They are not married but have been together for 26 years and have one daughter named Krystel – who like her Dad, loves horses.
Away from the track Simard said he loved golf and fishing.
“I used to play hockey but I’m too old and too injured for that now. I have to look after my body these days. I might be nicknamed 'The Black Cat' – but cats only have so many lives and i want to preserve the ones I've got left!” joked the French-English speaking horseman.
By Duane RANGER (editor)
(1) Richard Simard’s last winner – Little Rooster at Pompano Park on Saturday July 9, 2011:
(2) Richard Simard winning behind Hard Carbon at Pompano Park on Wednesday July 6, 2011:
(3) Richard Simard winning behind Remington Style at Pompano Park on Saturday July 2, 2011:
(4) Richard Simard winning behind the trotter he trains - Cheers To Chip at Pompano Park on Wednesday June 29, 2011: