TORONTO, June 25, 2022 – Sport brings people together over shared passions and interests. Hello Friends, a competitor in tomorrow’s Ballade Stakes for Ontario Sired Fillies and Mares four-year-olds and up, tells a tale of new friends through an intersection of baseball and horse racing.
The daughter of Court Vision is a Maggie Leblanc homebred trained by her husband, John. She is special to the Leblancs not only for her on-track success, but because of the friendship she forged for them with retired Toronto Blue Jays radio broadcaster Jerry Howarth.
“My wife is a huge (Blue Jays) fan, and when she and my son went to Florida for spring training, they got to meet Jerry Howarth,” said John Leblanc. “My wife then came up with the name of the horse, because that was how Jerry opened every broadcast; ‘Hello Friends, and welcome to Blue Jays baseball’.”
The filly was named prior to her racing debut, which came as a three-year-old in 2019, but it was not until the fall of 2020 that the former voice of the Blue Jays learned his trademark phrase was getting a regular airing at Woodbine Racetrack.
“I ran into Steve Buffery, a sports columnist with the Toronto Sun,” recalled Howarth, who encountered Buffery at the Etobicoke farmer’s market. “Steve said, ‘Jerry, I just heard that a horse called Hello Friends, named after you and your signature call, won a race at Woodbine’.”
Buffery connected Howarth with the Leblancs, and that’s where the story took flight.
“Within days, I reached out to Maggie and John,” said Howarth. “And we have been close friends, just like family, ever since.”
It was a reintroduction to horse racing for Howarth, whose first experience with the sport was at 10-years-old growing up in San Francisco and attending races at the Bay Area’s Santa Rosa County Fair with his mother.
Howarth, and his wife Mary, scheduled a visit to the Leblanc’s farm, to meet their mixture of racing stock, retired racehorses, and broodmares, but Hello Friends was stabled at Woodbine and scheduled to race in three weeks’ time. The Howarths then made plans to join the LeBlancs at the Rexdale oval for the race.
“We went to Woodbine to enjoy the whole day with Maggie and John and we saw Hello Friends and darn it, didn’t Hello Friends win,” said Howarth. “We’ve seen Hello Friends win twice more over the last two years, and it’s just become part of our family.”
Family is a recurring theme with the connection that Hello Friends has created. The Howarths are now close with Maggie, John, and the Leblanc’s son Doug. All the more appropriate given that Maggie became a Blue Jays fan because her late father, also named Doug, had season’s tickets.
“To know not only do we have a have a Thoroughbred farm, and racing horses at this calibre, but also, that we know Jerry Howarth as a personal friend, he would be over the top,” said Leblanc of his father-in-law.
As a matchmaker Hello Friends is a master, and on the racetrack she’s also quite accomplished. The six-year-old mare has a record of 4-3-3 and over $190,000 in earnings from 20 starts.
The Ballade will be her second time in stakes company. Last season she was sixth in the black-type Eternal Search. Emma-Jayne Wilson, who has guided Hello Friends to three of her four career victories, gets the mount. She drew the four post in a field of 13.
“There are a couple of tough horses in there, but the way the race may develop we’re dangerous,” said Leblanc. “She’s a very versatile filly who can be positioned well, and there’s speed in the race we can stalk. Emma knows her and will position her accordingly. Hopefully we have enough to run them down.”
Howarth and his wife did not miss a race all last season, and they will be there Sunday, hopefully standing in the winner’s circle to celebrate not just Howarth’s namesake, but a friendship horse racing helped create.
“The Leblancs are a tremendous family and we just, when we meet it’s just easy communication and love for each other,” said Howarth. “It’s turned out to be a wonderful part of my life here, and it’s been a wonderful friendship. It will be for the rest of our lives.”
Click here for a full list of entries into the Ballade Stakes.
The Ballade Stakes is an Ontario Sired Stake, part of Ontario Racing’s Thoroughbred Improvement Program. For details on the program, click here.