Sports

After 35 years, trainer George Ducharme finally gets shot at harness racing’s top prize

George Ducharme has trained Royalty For Life since the colt was born at a Belchertown, Mass., farm. On Saturday, Royalty For Life will run in the Hambletonian, harness racing’s biggest event.
George Ducharme has trained Royalty For Life since the colt was born at a Belchertown, Mass., farm. On Saturday, Royalty For Life will run in the Hambletonian, harness racing’s biggest event. Credit: Ann Mari Daley/USTA

There used to be a harness racing track in Foxborough.

George Ducharme remembers it from when his father would take him there to see harness racing, the kind where a driver rides in a cart behind the horse.

“I loved going to the track, I enjoyed seeing the horses and loved the competition,” Ducharme said.

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His interest in harness racing led to a job at the now-defunct Foxboro Raceway.

“Just the summers and some nights in high school,” Ducharme said. “Typical cleaning and maintenance jobs, working in the stables, helping on the grounds. Then I got into working overtime and more hours. I learned how to run with them and put harnesses on them. I started training after high school. I jumped into it full time and have been training ever since.”

There’s also a harness racing track in East Rutherford, N.J., called The Meadowlands, and on Saturday, Ducharme will be working there. That’s because they hold the biggest harness race of the year there, the Hambletonian, and after 35 years of training horses, Ducharme finally has one that can race for his sport’s top prize.

Royalty For Life was bred and born at Chip Campbell’s Belchertown, Mass., farm, and put in the care of Ducharme.

“[I have] trained him since he was a baby, I was the first one to put a harness on him,” said Ducharme, who lives in Norfolk and trains horses near Plainridge Racecourse.

Royalty For Life has since won nine races, including a major Hambletonian prep race, and nearly $500,000. The three-year-old colt, whose sire, RC Royalty, raced in the 2006 Hambletonian eliminations but didn’t reach the final, will be among the favorites Saturday. Alfred Ross and Paul Fontaine, who both have connections to New England, own the horse along with Campbell.

“When he was younger, you would not have picked him to be such a great horse. He really came into his own when he saw there was a finish line and he wanted to be there first,” Campbell said. “There are a lot of horses who aren’t as determined, when they see another horse getting close to them they will give up, but not him, he always wants to win. He is playful but determined, he’s young, but slowly becoming a professional and learning the craft.”

Royalty For Life is based near Syracuse, NY, for much of the racing season to be close to harness racing action. In his final prep race Saturday, Royalty For Life won easily at Vernon Downs.

Ducharme knew he had something special when the horse was two.

“It was in the late spring of 2012, when he was a two-year-old. That was when he showed he had exceptional speed and the exceptional will to win,” he said.

For Campbell, the process of getting to the top of his sport began with RC Royalty.

“That was the first time we had bred that caliber of a horse; everything we did with him was always new, we were moving a lot faster,” said Campbell. “We are a little bit more deliberate now. [The two horses] are similar; they’re both very tough, they both like to compete and they both like to win.”

Harness racing is a way of life for Campbell.

“[Our breeding farm] is a family farm, from my mother and my father down to my children. We all take pride, not just in dollars made, but to be proud of a horse that is a top contender on a world stage from a small part of Massachusetts. It’s really fun to watch him succeed.”

Ducharme is savoring the moment.

“This would be incredible to win, it’s the biggest race in our sport,” he said. “For a little guy like me from Massachusetts, it would be a dream come true.”

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