Rae Croteau Jr. knew that he had his work cut out for him to win the Battle of the North Championship.
Racing off of barrel No. 4 in the championship final heat in Dawson Creek, B.C., on Sunday, Croteau figured that he was in for a challenge to beat the likes of competitors Jamie Laboucane, Chanse Vigen and Chance Thomson.
“It’s been a long-time coming this season,” said the emotional 41-year-old reinsman from Rapid View, Sask., after capturing his first World Professional Chuckwagon Association show title of the 2023 season. “We finally got our nose in there at the wire. I think it was the best race the crowd’s seen all week. There’s three guys right at the wire and it came down to inches, so it was an amazing race.”
To edge out Laboucane by just 14/100ths of a second for the win, Croteau had to race two-wide around the track before his Cinch Oilfield Hauling/Pioneer Offroad Rentals/Pioneer Sanitary Solutions/Jeff & Julie DeSutter outfit kicked it into high gear down the backstretch and across the finish line.
“The horses were super ready,” said Croteau, who inched his horses as close as he could to the chalk line before the horn sounded. “We come in and parked and we actually had to move them ahead a little bit further and get in tighter just because I know I needed every inch to try to get out there. They jumped a little bit and we got reparked. As soon as the horn went, they punched it and I just reached for the line and turned them.”
Although he has used right leader Bentley and left leader War together quite often, Croteau teamed them up with right wheeler Law and left wheeler Teegone in Dawson Creek for the first time this season.
“That group, we just put them together when we got here,” he said. “It sounds crazy because you’ve been racing all year and juggling horses and trying to find the right combination. Finally we do and they ran their hearts out going two-wide here.”
The move paid off as the four horses worked extremely well together, while outriders Brendan Nolin and Tyler DeSutter performed their jobs admirably aboard River and Fuse respectively.
“The lead team I drove together before, but it was finding the right combination of wheelers that went in behind them that would start and work, but still give them time and space to do their job up front,” said Croteau, while adding it was nice to finally win a show title in Dawson Creek after coming close earlier in the season in both Grande Prairie and Bonnyville. “Sometimes it takes all year. It kind of did this year. We had a lot of good runs and opportunities to win shows. You’re always looking for redemption or just to find some consistency. Finally, it just kind of lined up for Dawson Creek.”
In addition to thanking his sponsors and his outriders, Croteau commended his family members and barn crew for all the work they’ve done this season to get him to this point.
“Emotions seem to get the best of me when there’s something that you invest so much time and energy in,” he said. “It truly does take a small army to get down the road and to keep horses healthy and happy and everything like that. It’s a lot of work and it takes a lot of heart and soul out of a solid group of people to win a show. It truly does. There’s a lot of unsung heroes. They see me or see people in the picture, but there’s 20 other people who should be in the picture as well from different towns or communities and everything behind the scenes and they don’t get the recognition, but you have to be relentless. It’s a never-give-up sport.”
Thanks to his impressive showing up north, Croteau moved into seventh place overall in the World Standings behind Laboucane, Vigen, Jason Glass, Evan Salmond, Chad Fike and last year’s overall champion Layne MacGillivray.
Croteau has put himself in a great position to qualify for the Winners’ Zone Showdown Round that will take pace during the WPCA World Finals at Century Downs Racetrack and Casino from Aug. 23-27.
“When that momentum comes, you just try to keep pace and stay ahead of everybody and try to keep winning as much as you can because it’s one more dollar in your bank account before the end of the season,” said Croteau, who would like nothing more than to gallop to another show victory in Rocky Mountain House at the Battle of the Rockies, which runs from Thursday to Sunday.
The top 12 drivers in the WPCA World Standings – which currently also includes Obrey Motowylo, Kris Molle, Ross Knight, Wade Salmond and Kurt Bensmiller – after this weekend’s races will qualify for the Winners’ Zone Showdown Round.
Over the first four days of the Century Downs World Finals, those 12 drivers will compete under a specific playoff point system. Of the 12 drivers, the four with the most playoff points will advance to race in the Winners’ Zone Series Final on Aug. 27 and the $75,000 Dash for Cash.
Before that, Croteau will concentrate on maintaining his momentum in Rocky Mountain House, where he’ll have considerable support from two of his main sponsors.
“TOMCO Group of Companies, which was my sponsor for half a dozen years and they’re really involved with the team, they’re head office is here and a lot of people there are still like family,” Croteau said. “It’s just good to come and see those people. Now my new sponsor, TeKh Group, they’re from Eckville, so they’re not far away and this is basically their home show. They’re involved a lot too, so it’s exciting to have all those people around just to be able to hang out and visit and for them to be able to come spend time with the horses and take in the races with us.”