PUSLINCH, August 29 – The burden of the Covid-19 pandemic on health care workers is difficult to understand for those not directly affected. For Nicole Bourgeois-Stocker, it was her everyday reality. So, after two years on the front lines, she returned to her first love, working with standardbreds.

At mid-morning on a beautiful Tuesday in August, Bourgeois-Stocker is wearing casual athletic wear and a smile on her face in Rick Zeron’s barn at Classy Lane Training Centre, in Puslinch, Ont.

The resident of Guelph, Ont., is working as a caretaker, a job she reprised in March of 2022 after 10 years in health care.

“Obviously over the last couple of years, things in health care have changed drastically,” said Bourgeois-Stocker. “For my own mental health, I wanted to go back to something that was very familiar, and also because of my love of the animal.”

It’s 10:30 a.m., and her day began four and a half hours earlier. Her work includes turning out horses, mucking stalls, preparing horses to jog or train, accompanying horses to the racetrack, and putting horses away when their work is done.

“My favourite part of my job is getting to be hands on with the horses,” said Bourgeois-Stocker. “But I love everything from cleaning the stall, to taking care of the horses, and seeing the results on the racetrack from week to week.”

Bourgeois-Stocker’s co-worker in the Zeron stable is also going about his tasks this morning with a smile on his face.

He’s wearing a grey baseball cap, a long sleeve t-shirt, and making jokes. It’s Rheal Bourgeois, a lifelong horseman, Bourgeois-Stocker’s father, and the person who encouraged her to return to the horse racing industry.

“My dad said to me, ‘I am working for Rick, and I love my job’,” said Bourgeois-Stocker. “He said, ‘It would be awesome to work together again, because we do get along so great.’ And you don’t get those opportunities too often to work with your family like that, so I took it.”

Father and daughter Rheal Bourgeois (L) and Nicole Bourgeois-Stocker (R) with Hawaii.

Rheal has nearly 600 training wins, over 800 driving wins, and 4,000-plus starts in each role. He gave Bourgeois-Stocker her first job in racing, after she began her equine career swimming horses for therapy at Argyle Farms.

“My dad is an amazing father, and an amazing horseman as far as I am concerned,” said Bourgeois-Stocker. “So, it’s nice, because we get along so well. A lot of people don’t like working with family, but I consider it a pleasure.”

The other pleasure Bourgeois-Stocker is enjoying since her return to the horse racing business is the connection with her horses.

Picking a favourite is tough, but she has a special relationship with Hawaii, a four-year-old trotting daughter of Justice Hall, and runner up in the 2021 OSS Super Final. Hawaii is currently standing calmly on cross-ties in the barn.

“Hawaii has my heart,” said Bourgeois-Stocker. “She’s just a special mare because she has to trust you. I had to earn her trust and respect. She was nasty at first, and wanted to kick you, but once she got your trust, she has been an absolute pleasure to be around.”

As Bourgeois-Stocker leads Hawaii out to the grass for a photo, it’s not just Hawaii who looks content, but her caretaker as well.

“It’s a privilege to be able to work with animals,” said Bourgeois-Stocker. “Some people take it for granted. I have taken it for granted. But, coming back, it reminded me how special the horse is and how therapeutic it is. I am so glad to be back.”