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 June, 1999

Generous heart comes before win, place and show for once down-at-the-heel Deschenes

Sports Reporter, Toronto

John Morstad/ The Globe and Mail

Victor Deschenes just can't sit still. His friends call him Stressman. More stress is coming this week. Big stress. He owns a Queen's Plate contender.

Deschenes, a Mississauga philanthropist, has never been part of the Queen's Plate scene before, In only three years, he's gone from cheap $6,000 claiming races to the most prestigious horse race in the land. And established trainers have been lining up to buy Deschenes's Queen's Plate horse, Lenny the Lender, offering as much as $250,000 for a horse that cost all of $40,000 in a claiming race nine weeks ago.

For a week, Deschenes felt confused by this sudden change of fortunes. But then the 48-year-old businessman knew what he had to do. "It's a dream of ours to win the Queen's Plate," he said. And besides, he couldn't bear to sell the horse out from under trainer Rita Schnitzler. In Deschenes's book, money is one thing, but heart is a better thing.

Schnitzler deserved a shot at a good Queen's Plate, he thought. After all, she spotted the promise in the horse while the rest of the trainers on the backstretch seemed asleep. Her claim slip for Lenny the Lender, on behalf of Deschenes, was the only one in the box.

And she had fallen on misfortune, too. When she split with partner Norm McKnight after last season, most of their owners stuck with McKnight.

"It was like I was starting over again after being in the business for 27 years " she said. Schnitzler was left with only four or five horses for this season. She wasn't sure how she was going to pay her mortgage, until Deschenes came along.

Deschenes is just the sort of person who loves coming to the rescue. He knows what it's like to have had nothing but his wits for collateral. He grew up in the tough Toronto city core, the son of a CP Rail wavbill clerk and a waitress.

A hyperactive child, he was well on his way to flunking kindergarten, but his parents moved him to another school. He straddled two worlds: silk stockings and skint. He charmed local politicians, who sent their limousines to his humble abode so he could work for them as a caddy on the golf course. He even spent a week at Stornoway in Ottawa when John Diefenbaker was Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons.

But at age 12, his school kicked him out after he stole its United Way money. Since then, it seems that he's spent his life paying the debt back. Now, he gives away more money every year than what it costs him to pay his mortgage, he says. He won't say how much.

It easily runs into tens of thousand of dollars. "I've never run into anybody like him," says Bill Stephenson, sports director at CFRB, who met Deschenes through radio charity fundraisers. "Most people don't operate that way."

Deschenes started by buying hundreds of baseball jackets for a school full of disadvantaged kids from the city's core. He takes as many as 5,000 children at a time to Toronto Blue Jays baseball games at the SkyDome, paying for their tickets. He's bought 400 to 500 bicycles in one swoop to give to youngsters who had none. Thousands of children benefit, now and again, from Deschenes's treat of Swiss Chalet dinners.

For the past year, Deschenes has helped sponsor the cross-country trips of former heavyweight boxing champion George Chuvalo for his speaking engagements at schools, urging children to avoid drugs. He underwrites the Harbourside Playhouse in Mississauga. In March, he rescued seven Ukrainian dwarfs who were stranded in Canada without work promised to them and unable to speak English. He paid their flights home, including the transportation of more than 1,000 pounds of luggage, gave them each $500 and sprung for wedding dresses, shoes, gloves and jewellery for two of the troupe's women who were engaged to be married. One of them burst into tears when she saw herself in a mirror, decked out in her new finery. That was reward enough, said his wife, Roseanne.

Deschenes is able to commit largesse because the former street kid built an auto and computer-parts delivery service during the past 15 years that generates current annual revenues of about $9-million. The first time his wife saw him in his work environment, he was juggling calls from four telephones at once.

His energy is limitless. His delivery company, Expedite Plus, made $80,000 in revenues in its first year, $6-million the second year and $9-million the third.

He has a mind like a computer, magically retrieving and calculating numbers that he requires without pen or paper. He doesn't need a telephone book; he dials numbers by memory. "I boggle people," Deschenes likes to say.

And right now, Deschenes is boggling people with his Queen's Plate preparations. Getting seats at the Queen's Plate late in the game is like finding goldfish in the Sahara. Somehow, Deschenes has managed to get a tent large enough to hold 200 people.

He already has his traditional morning suit, right down to the top hat, tails, spats and cane, ready for sport-of-kings splendour on Sunday. In spite of the fancy garb, his own outrageously down-home Queen's Plate party is just about to begin. He's revelling in it.

"It's like going to a royal wedding," he said. "I'm the new kid of the boys' club - and I have a woman trainer."
A female trainer has never won the Queen's Plate, the vestige of old-world royalty. Deschenes would love to break the old moulds.

Copyright 1999, The Globe and Mail Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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