This is about Mr. Chill. Not just about the Mr. Chill that is Trevor Ritchie, the harness driver garbed in black and white, happy on a two-wheeler. But Mr. Chill, the pool-hall prodigy who found his way into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, against all odds.
We last saw Ritchie in action at Legends’ Day at Clinton Raceway in early summer, coming out of a five-year retirement to drive against legends. Clinton head honcho Ian Fleming had been trying to persuade Ritchie for years to dig out his colours and have a go against the best there was on this special day, but Ritchie always demurred. “I’m not in the Hall of Fame,” he said, reasoning that he wasn’t really a legend. Never mind that he had won the Hambletonian, the race he calls the “Holy Grail”, the highest honour possible to a sulky driver; or that he had won the World Trotting Derby with a horse that liked to plow over people and horses in front of him; or that he had won seven Breeders’ Crowns, three of them in one wickedly fun night.
But last summer, he felt he belonged. He was to be inducted, after all, an idea that never entered his mind when he stomped down the first snow in the backyard of his mother’s home in London, Ont. He’d spray water onto the flattened snow and turn it into a rink. And like many other Canadian boys, he donned a blue and white hockey sweater and stickhandled his way around his little stage, almost oblivious to the shadow of Western Fair Raceway looming behind him.
They say location is everything. For Ritchie, it was. If his backyard wasn’t in Western Fair Raceway’s back yard, we might never have heard of this kid. If he had never met the inestimable Bill Herbert there, we might never have heard of him. If he had decided to follow through on his imperative that he would never drive again after his very first race, when he squandered a five-length lead to finish last, we might never have heard of him.
Harness racing wasn’t on Ritchie’s mind from the start. He was definitely not from a horse racing family that could have fostered knowledge and opportunity and thrown him onto a jog cart as a toddler. His father, Albert, worked in a quarry somewhere, and left the scene soon after Ritchie started public school. His mother ended up being a single mother, known as “Mom” with four mouths to feed: three girls (Judith, Marie and Cora) and the youngest, Trevor. Actually, his mother’s name was Lillian Mary Joan Ritchie, and she supported her family with menial jobs wherever she could get them. Cashier anyone? She’d take it.
When Ritchie was a young lad, say 10 or 11, he used to walk by a hobby shop on the way to school and back home again, too. He’d peer into the window, fascinated by its model cars and trains and planes. His life changed one day when he walked in, wandered to the back of the store, and saw an open door. On the other side, a magical vista opened up. He saw a massive slot-car track that took up the entire room.
“Wow,” Ritchie said.
“I had to have one of them slot cars.”
It was beyond his mother’s ability to ever buy him one of these miniatures, guided by hand-held controllers that talked magically to low-voltage electric motors hidden within the cars. So Ritchie realized he had to raise some money somehow to buy one. He can’t even remember how he did it, but he ventured next door to Western Fair Raceway and started washing race bikes, jog carts and harness.
One of his sisters used to babysit for horseman Peter Thibodeau, and she suggested to her brother that he might need some help on the weekends. So there he went. Ritchie became enough of a fixture in the Thibodeau barn that he spent a week with them in their house trailer parked at the Mohawk Raceway backstretch, a 12-year-old on an adventure.
And he did get his slot car. Ritchie became quite adept at guiding it around the curves of the track as fast as possible, hopefully without it careening over the side of the track. The shop had racing competitions in the evenings once a week. Ritchie was in them, going up against players much older than he and they were serious indeed. “You used to spend a fair bit of money fixing them, because you’d send them over the edge of the track,” Ritchie said. “And these guys knew how to hop their cars up so they could go faster, with slicker wheels.
“I got so that I was half-assed competitive with some of them, even at that age,” he said. “But that didn’t last long.”
Ritchie graduated to the local pool hall.
He discovered he just loved playing snooker. And while he was at it, playing hooky, too. As he describes it, he became a professional hooky player. He’d spend all day, every day, at the pool hall. By this time, he was in grade 9.
His plan: he’d take the bus to the A.B. Lucas Secondary School on the northern outskirts of London – almost out in the country then – and show up for the first class. That’s where the teachers took attendance. After that important first class, Ritchie would just simply walk out of the school to the highway and hitch-hike his way back downtown. A local horseman would pick him up. And Ritchie would head straight to the pool hall.
The owner of the pool hall didn’t intend to throw out such a dedicated customer, no matter how young. He told Ritchie that if he wanted to come to this hall on the main street of London, he had to follow one rule: once you are there, DO NOT walk out of the hall until noon, when it was not out of the ordinary to see children outside school environs. “He didn’t want the cops seeing a juvenile walking out of his pool hall,” Ritchie said. “He’d get into trouble for harbouring a juvenile.”
Ritchie could leave at noon for lunch break, but if he went back at 1 p.m., he was told he could not leave until 4 p.m. when school was out.
“Both were fine with me,” Ritchie said. “I stayed all the time out there.” It became his classroom. His home away from home.
One school day, Ritchie was at his actual home at 9:30 a.m., and the phone rang. It was his mother.
“What are you doing home?” she asked him.
He used one of the oldest saws known to youth trying to wriggle out of things: “I don’t feel very good. I’m feeling bad and I don’t want to go to school.”
Mom had been at work and the school principal had called her. The gig was up. Really up.
“The principal said you are away from school more days than you are there,” his mother told him. “And when you are there, you are a troublemaker. So he doesn’t want you to come back.”
This wasn’t bad news for Ritchie, only three months into Grade 9. “At that point in my life, it was the greatest day of my life,” he said. He never really liked school, or authority for that matter.
He loved his life. He did whatever he wanted. His mother was always out working. She never seemed to be around. He had no discipline. “Life was great,” Ritchie said. “I have no complaints about my childhood. I got to play in the pool hall whenever I wanted. I got to race my slot cars whenever I wanted. Now, I wouldn’t want to bring up my own child that way.”
Troublemaker? “Apparently, I was,” Ritchie said. “I don’t really know. I do remember being at the office, but I think it was more for skipping school. [Teachers circled the days he actually went to class, rather than the days he missed.]”
He does remember getting the strap a couple of times in public school in the old days when corporal punishment was allowed. He got caught one winter day “bumper jumping.”
Bumper jumping was a cost-free form of recreation undertaken during the winter when there was a lot of snow on the roads. Kids would grab onto the back bumpers of cars in motion and skid along for a couple of blocks to get from one place to the next. If the driver got perturbed, the kids would just run into somebody’s backyard, knowing they wouldn’t be pursued by a driver who really didn’t want to leave his car unattended.
One day, Ritchie grabbed the bumper of a car to get to the next block and when the car stopped at a stop sign, the driver got out. Ritchie recognized him. He was one of his teachers. The next day, he was up in the principal’s office, getting the strap. “Actually he was the only teacher I liked.” Ritchie said. “For some reason, I liked him, even though he gave me the strap.”
But with school behind him, Ritchie didn’t lose any time taking the next big step in his life. Within an hour of his mother’s fateful telephone call, Ritchie was at the stables at Western Fair Raceway and he’s pretty sure he got a job that day. Not too long after that, he gathered up his belongings from his mother’s house and moved into a tack room at the track. And at age 15, his professional career as a horseman began. He was on his own, an adult in teen clothes.
Fortunately for Ritchie, the tack room wasn’t all that bad. It wasn’t a rat-infested dive penetrated by snow and rain. The raceway had just constructed a new third-floor dormitory with about 20 rooms and double bunk beds to house four to a room. It was tiny room, only 8 feet by 10 feet, but it had its own community washroom, showers, washer and dryer, a game room with pop machines and table and chairs for playing cards. The rooms were rarely full.
Ritchie’s first job about 1971 was with Ab Gilmour, who was related to the charismatic Hall of Famer Buddy Gilmour. He had two good horses, Away Spangler and Argyel Charlie. Working for Gilmour was “wonderful,” Ritchie said. That summer, Gilmour sent Ritchie to Greenwood Raceway to jog and groom his two stable stars, and Bud Fritz would train them when they needed it. Ritchie spent the summer at the big leagues of Greenwood, away off in Barn 11, the furthest barn from the stable gate. He was in his mid-teens, and looking like public-school kid.
When the horses came back to London, Gilmour could do the work himself and didn’t need Ritchie, who quickly found other horsemen who wanted to hire him, one of them being Dr. George Boyce, a veterinarian who used to get Jack Kopas to train his horses, namely the splendid Super Wave, a Hall of Fame inductee that was Horse of the Year in Canada, and at age five the richest and fastest pacer in North America. Boyce eventually went out on his own, with Kopas advising him. At the time, Kopas had an enormous stable.
Boyce owned some nice horses, but the following spring after the Western Fair meet was over, he headed to Buffalo and told Ritchie he was too young to go with him. Ritchie really wanted to go. He was disappointed.
Ritchie also worked for Don Corbett, whose best horse was Hurricane Lisa, a filly that gave Ritchie his first stakes win as a groom on the Ontario Jockey Club circuit. He felt he’d really hit the Big Time. Ritchie remembers Corbett particularly because he had one of the most spectacular accidents ever at Western Fair. The racetrack had a tunnel that went under the track on the far turn. Corbett went over the fence and landed on the pavement in the tunnel. He lay there for a long time before the ambulance got to him.
Ritchie’s life changed after one New Year’s Eve when the work was done and everybody was sitting in the tack room, celebrating with some spirits. Corbett was drinking straight whisky with no mix. Ritchie preferred rye and Coke. Corbett, noting Ritchie’s taste, said: “If you were a man, you’d drink it straight. You can’t be mixing it with Coke.”
This was a challenge that a teenager couldn’t resist. Ritchie started drinking whisky straight. And got absolutely toasted. The next morning, he woke up, genuinely ill, and just couldn’t pry himself out of bed. “I was in no shape to do anything,” Ritchie said. At about 10 a.m., one of the other kids in the stable came running up to the room and delivered a message from Corbett that had an urgent tone: “If you’re not down in 10 minutes, you’re fired.”
“Well, I guess I’m fired,” Ritchie thought, because he was unable to function. He couldn’t move.
Finally, at about 2 p.m., Ritchie emerged, and hobbled down to the shedrow, where he began to collect his things (helmet, etc.) from a trunk and put them into a plastic bag.
“What are you doing?” Corbett said.
“Well, you said I’m fired,” Ritchie replied.
“Get to work,” Corbett told him.
So it was clear Corbett didn’t really intend to fire him. But Ritchie was miffed enough that he thought of such a thing, that he left anyway.
It was the best thing that could have happened to Ritchie.
Shortly afterwards, perhaps even the same day, Ritchie encountered Norm McKnight Jr., who was at the time a first trainer for Bill Herbert. “Bill Herbert needs some help,” McKnight told him. “You should go and see Bill.”
Herbert hired him. Ritchie had just stumbled into a fork in his road and taken the best path. “That was my big break in my professional career, bar none,” Ritchie said. “And likely in my life, to be honest. I was not hanging around with the best people and was heading in the wrong direction for sure.”
Ritchie was a hard-slogging worker for Herbert. And Herbert took a liking to the mop-haired kid. When McKnight quit, Ritchie became Herbert’s right-hand man, moving up from cleaning stalls and harnessing horses and bathing them. Every assistant trainer had about six horses, with a caretaker to look after them. From Herbert, Ritchie learned everything he knows about horses. Herbert taught Ritchie to be a horseman. Herbert was the ultimate horseman.
“I got so that I wanted to learn,” Ritchie said. “I was just like a sponge.” He’d go to the blacksmith shop (run by Ernie Murphy, farrier extraordinaire,) with Herbert, even if the shoeing didn’t concern a horse in his little string. He’d sit and listen. “Bill would get chatting about horses and how to do this and that, and what the horse was doing,” Ritchie said. “All the time, Bill was teaching me stuff.”
Herbert was unique in his operation. He had his own farm, his own stallions, his own broodmares. He trained and drove his horses, shod them too. And in those days, you could be your own veterinarian, as well. Herbert always knew what to do.
Herbert always had internationally competitive horses, starting out with All Right, Roanie Lee, The Heiress, and Trixie G. His foundation broodmare was Singing Herbert, who was unraced but who had 16 foals, all winners. Some of her offspring included Betsy Herbert, the first Canadian-bred to contest the Roosevelt International Trot, Dean Herbert, aged pacer of the year in Canada in 1964, Sis Herbert, a double-gaited horse that was best on the trot, Becky Herbert, Rip Herbert, Bucky Herbert. And her final foal was Sing Away Herbert, a daughter of Nevele Pride. Bill Herbert wasn’t afraid to breed to the best.
Other Herbert stalwarts were Tanya Herbert, Tamcee Herbert, Bold Herbert, Brisco Herbert, Bobby Herbert, Joe Herbert, Sonny G. Herbert. Jack E. Herbert, Seedling Herbert, Replica Herbert and the magnificent Blaze Herbert, who held the track record for aged trotters at Western Fair Raceway for many years. Bill Herbert was inducted in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1977. He gave up driving in 1976 when he turned 75. But between the 1930s and 1980s, the name Herbert was magic in the business.
Herbert knew horses so well, he could have been involved with any breed: thoroughbred, quarter horse, show jumper, Ritchie said. Ritchie swears he could talk to horses. He could certainly understand them and what they wanted, and what they were thinking.
For instance? Ritchie was trying to cool out a horse and back in those days, it was customary to allow a horse only eight swallows of water, then walk him for 10 minutes, then allow another eight swallows, another 10 minutes of walking etc. It took about an hour to cool out a horse. But Ritchie just couldn’t get this horse to take any swallows of water at all.
Finally, Herbert walked by, and he could see Ritchie’s quandary.
“Here, give me the bucket,” Herbert said. The horse drank.
Exclamation marks danced in Ritchie’s head. He couldn’t believe it. But Herbert had noted that Ritchie had liniment on his hands. He could see that the horse wanted to drink the water, but just couldn’t abide the smell of the liniment.
“Bill spotted that,” Ritchie said. “He knew and I didn’t. He knew what horses were trying to say by their reactions or actions.”
At one point, Ritchie was the caretaker for Arrochar Wendy during the first year of the Ontario Sires Stake program. It was the only horse the Ritchie knows that Herbert trained for an outside owner. A 3-year-old, she was one of Ritchie’s string of six young horses.
“I just loved that mare,” Ritchie said. “We just got along. And it just felt like me and her were buddies. When I came to the stall, she was right there, no matter if she was lying down, she’d get up and come to me. If she was in the stall, eating hay, she’d come to me. She heard my voice, she’d come to me. I could stick my hand down her throat and she would never bite me. I’d get right behind her, with my face behind her back feet and paint her hooves, and I just had all the trust in her and she with me.”
But then the owner decided to sell her. Ritchie knew that meant she would leave the shedrow. “I was absolutely devastated,” he said. “She hadn’t raced yet, but I knew she was a good mare, just training her down.”
He wanted to buy her, but didn’t have any money. He tried to figure out a way to buy her, but couldn’t. Instead, Dave Wall bought her and she became one of the top Ontario Sires Stakes filly pacers of her year.
Ritchie spent four years with Herbert, and not only did he teach Ritchie to be a horseman, he taught him to be a better person. “No question about it,” Ritchie said. “He had little sayings: ‘If you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all.’ He drew me away from the crowd that I was heading towards.”
Ritchie considers Bill Herbert his second father, the father he never really had. And he felt that Herbert thought of him as a second son.
Bill Herbert did have son Jack, who took over the driving duties when his father stepped aside. A big man, Jack had earlier served as the bouncer in his father’s London inn, the Brunswick Hotel. Bill had to release Jack from these duties because he bounced inebriated patrons with a bit too much enthusiasm.
Ritchie learned first-hand about Jack’s strength one day when he had a little tiff with a Herbert employee, a wonderful older man called Carl Belt. For some reason, Belt called Ritchie “a young punk.” Ritchie countered by calling Carl “an old man.”
Jack walked by just as he overheard Ritchie calling Carl an old man, and he made his feelings quite clear. He grabbed Ritchie by the neck with his big hands and lifted the pint-sized kid up against a wall. “So I’m lucky to be alive,” Ritchie said.
No matter what happened, Bill Herbert always trusted Ritchie absolutely. Once a young Ritchie wanted to claim a horse for $10,000, but he had only $4,000 in the bank, saved diligently. He went to Herbert and asked to borrow $6,000. “He never asked a question,” Ritchie said. “He said: ‘No problem,’ and said that he’d bring a cheque the next day. He didn’t say when I had to pay it back. There were no conditions.’
It’s the kind of thing you would do for a son.
With cheque in hand, Ritchie was able to put in his claim for the horse. But as luck would have it, he didn’t get him. The horse eventually proved to be slower than molasses in a fridge. Ritchie paid Herbert back his money. But it was the thought that counted and that still rings in Ritchie’s memory.
The Herberts even named a horse after Ritchie: Trevor Herbert.
“He wasn’t great but he was okay,” Ritchie said. ”I loved him because his name was Trevor Herbert.” Trevor Herbert was Ritchie’s project. He trained him down and he won in 2:11 3/5 in 1976. “I loved that horse,” Ritchie said. Ironically the horse spelled the end of Ritchie’s career with the Herberts.
(More recently, Ritchie had another horse named after him: Captain Trevor, which won in 1:49 2/5 at Lexington, Ky., last fall as a 2-year-old. This because Ritchie had befriended Myron Bell, racing manager of Brittney Farms. Tony Alagna trains.)
At the time that Trevor Herbert was in the stable, Ritchie was rubbing the talented trotting mare Sing Away Herbert. She was a bit cantankerous, but Ritchie could handle her. However, when it came time to ship her to race in the Hambletonian in Illinois, the Herberts decided not to take Ritchie. He was heartbroken. “Just devastated,” he said. “I wanted to go so bad. I’m her caretaker.”
He realizes now that he was left at home because the barn needed more manpower there. And as it turned out, the race was rained out for two days, which would have put even more stress on the stable left at home. They needed all hands on deck. But all the same, Ritchie vowed that as soon as Trevor Herbert won an Ontario Sires Stake race, he was quitting.
Trevor Herbert won a Grassroots race that fall at Flamboro Downs. Ritchie quit that night after he cooled the horse out, good to his word.
Herbert continued to be a long-time fan of Ritchie, as he watched the kid succeed in spades in the following years. Ritchie was by Herbert’s bedside the day before he died. And he was a pallbearer at his funeral.
Bill’s wife Ruth was just as important a part of the stable as all the rest and the lady of the manor. She had been head of obstetrics at the Chatham General Hospital, and although she retired from this job when she married Bill, she would say that it helped her deal with all of the foals born at the 100-acre Herbert farm near Lambeth, Ont.
Even after he left the Herberts, Ritchie would visit Bill and Ruth at their farm at Christmas. And for many years after Bill’s death, Ritchie made it a habit to pick up Ruth and take her to her favourite restaurant near London to mark that holiday: The Seven Dwarfs Family Restaurant, a Disney-themed eatery. A sign out by the street showed Dopey with welcoming arms. The restaurant boasted a sunken dance floor, 220 seats in the main dining room, and hundreds more seats in two banquet rooms, a destination for wedding receptions and such. Celebrities such as Johnny Cash, Nat King Cole, Rudy Vallee, Della Reese, Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito also dined there. It no longer exists.
“She loved the place,” Ritchie said.
In the years post-Herbert, Ritchie worked for driver-trainer Gary Payne and he also befriended and owned horses with trainer-driver Jack Darling, who also helped set him on the right path of life. It was a horse, Success Grant, that he had claimed for $2,500, all of his life savings, that gave Ritchie his first win as an owner.
Ritchie entered him in a claimer for $4,500, which was a four-class increase. Everybody said: “You’re a young kid. What do you know? Are you NUTS?” But in his first start for Ritchie, Jack Darling drove him and won. His confidence in the horse had been spot-on.
Later on, Success Grant gave Ritchie his first drive. And it was memorable. The horse wore goggles. He was spooky. He was leading half-way through the homestretch. He had a five-length lead. Maybe even a seven-length lead, depending on Ritchie’s memory. The horse was almost home and cooled out. “I could have jumped off the cart and he’s going to win,” Ritchie recalled.
But then the horse’s ears popped straight forward. “He’s got his eye on something and I just thought to myself: ‘He’s going to lose his focus here and slow up,’” Ritchie said. “So I’ll just get his attention back.
“So I just turned the whip. I didn’t hit him, but I laid it on his ass. Just basically rubbed his bum with it. But didn’t I goose him and he makes a break.”
They finished dead last.
It took place at Western, and Ritchie made that anguished trek up to the second floor, up the ramp, pulled off his helmet and tossed it to the shedrow floor. “I will never drive another horse!” he vowed.
It was momentary angst. Over the next 40 years, Ritchie drove in 25,000 more races. Ritchie lost Success Grant in a claiming race for more than he paid for him.
Ritchie’s first win as a driver came while he was working for Payne, who had too many horses and not enough stalls at Western Fair, so he shipped some to Flamboro Downs, with Ritchie handling the satellite group. In the stable was a horse called Royal Butler.
Payne couldn’t show up one night when a blizzard got in his way, so Ritchie got to drive Royal Butler. However, that afternoon, Ritchie went out skiing at a local hill for the first time in his life. And he fell a lot, as one does when they are learning.
“When I got back to the track, my thumbs were so swollen from continually falling and bracing myself,” he said. “And I’m panicking because I’m thinking that if the owner [Ed Sahely] saw these thumbs of mine, he’s not going to let me drive this horse because he’s going to be scared I won’t handle him. And this horse was a bit aggressive.”
Let’s face it, Ritchie didn’t look much like Arnold Schwarzenegger. He weighed 110 pounds soaking wet.
So he sat in his tack room at Flamboro and he was rubbing Ben Gay on his thumbs, trying to ease the pain, when Sahely came striding in. “Just the last person I wanted to see me do this,” Ritchie said.
Happy ending: Sahely didn’t set Ritchie down. “Royal Butler went to the chooch [lead] and stayed there. And win,” Ritchie said. He was 21 years old.
Ritchie got his second win the next week with a horse he absolutely loved: Top Gear GB from Payne’s stable. “He was fantastic in the barn and I got along with him on the racetrack,” said Ritchie. “He was a bit of a tough horse, but I just seemed to click with the horse. I just loved him, on and off the track.”
He won quite a few races with the British-bred pacer. And he got his first driving lesson with him the very first time he drove at an Ontario Jockey Club track. Top Gear had early gears – he could leave pretty well. But in the race, Mel Corbett was to Ritchie’s inside with the favourite and he parked the young kid. The whole mile. “I only had about this much to go [Ritchie shows a distance that was about the width of a shedrow trunk] to clear him at the eighth pole and it never changed,” Ritchie said. Corbett won the race. “That was a devastating night for me,” Ritchie said.
After working for Payne for two years, and with his bank pot built up high enough, Ritchie decided to form a partnership with Sahely, who by day was a steam roller driver. Ritchie and Sahely pooled their resources and bought four horses and shared all the expenses equally. The partnership was successful at claiming and selling horses. They focused on improving their stock. Horizon’s Dancer, claimed for $17,400 at Mohawk, set a track record of 1:59 2/5 for aged mares at Flamboro: Ritchie’s first sub-2:00 minute mile.
Thus, Ritchie formed his own stable, adopting the Herbert black and white colours, breaking off from the giant iceberg and forming his own little ice flow. By the time Ritchie had moved to Windsor to race, he would sometimes slip off to Greenwood to claim a horse or two, going there with an empty van, hoping to have something in it when he came back. He loved Greenwood.
“Greenwood was just so beautiful,” Ritchie said. “You had that beautiful grandstand and those beautiful trees, the poplar trees all lined along the backstretch. And when you were in the grandstand on a summer evening, you would see the poplar trees blowing in the wind against Lake Ontario. And back then you’d get crowds. There was action in the air. You used to have to line up [at the windows] and do your handicapping while you waited.”
But they were long nights, especially with the four-hour drive back to Windsor. He’d have to get up early the next morning (or maybe not: Ritchie has never been a morning person) to jog four of his horses and train the other two. He did it all the Bill Herbert way. “The way Bill [Herbert] did it, you had to strip the horse down between each trip, wash off the harness and hopples between each trip, and I didn’t have a sidekick,” Ritchie said. “It was all me. At four o’clock in the afternoon, I was still cleaning stalls. It was work, no question about that. I learned so much.”
Was it tough for a young lad, starting out in the world, juggling all the road cones? Not for Ritchie.
“I was ultra confident,” Ritchie said. “I had no doubt in my mind that I was going to do good. I never had a fear of going out on my own. I just wasn’t worried in the least. I knew I was going to do good. And we did do good.”
So from the beginning, he was Mr. Chill. “The more money he goes for, the more you’d think he’d be wound up about it,” said Cal Campbell, whose horses gave Ritchie a lot of wins on the Ontario Jockey Club circuit in later years. “But he’s just so relaxed out there.” Ritchie was never one to nervously pace about before a major race, anywhere. He’d have dinner, show up at the right time, unruffled, and figure out his game plan. A little like Bill O’Donnell, who could fall asleep before a big race.
“He thinks under pressure really well,” said Doug McIntosh, trainer of Yankee Paco that Ritchie drove to Hambletonian victory in 2000. “He never melts under pressure.”
Ritchie also picked up a new client, Dan Smith, who eventually was to become a major figure in Canadian racing. He had horses with Payne, but eventually, Smith moved all of his horses over to Ritchie, who felt badly for Payne. At first, Ritchie told Smith he just couldn’t do that to Payne. But when Smith said the horses were going to leave Payne whether Ritchie trained them or not, Ritchie approached Payne and asked him if he minded.
“Don’t worry about it,” Payne said. Shortly after that, Dan Smith started investing in good horses for Ritchie, and they all were on a roll. “We had a lot of success until we didn’t,” Ritchie said. The partnership with Sahely eventually broke up, but Ritchie continued with Smith. “Dan helped, but I was confident I was going to be quite fine,” Ritchie said.
Actually, Ritchie’s big dream in the business wasn’t to be a crack driver. It was to be a trainer. “I wanted to look down that shedrow and see both sides of the shedrow full of black and white harness bags,” he said. “In the old days, you’d look down [Bill] Wellwood’s shedrow or one of the top guys there, and I’d say: ‘Wow, that’s what I want.’”
Ritchie ended up at Flamboro, which has really short shedrows. The effect wasn’t quite the same, but it was good. He had an entire Flamboro shedrow together at one time. It didn’t amount to more than 10 or 15 horses. “But at least I could look down and say: ‘That’s my shedrow down there,” Ritchie said.
If Ritchie did have a driving idol, it was Ron Feagan, who electrified racing on the Ontario Jockey Club circuit during the 1960s and 1970s, becoming the first driver to win more than 200 races in a season (he kept breaking his own records). Feagan handled the reins for Gilmour’s Argyel Charlie, a horse that Ritchie loved. And Feagan was only 24 years old when he drove his own H.A. Meadowland to an upset win in the 1966 Canadian Pacing Derby at Greenwood Raceway, setting a track record of 2:00 1/5, the fastest mile ever in Ontario to this point. Feagan had bought the horse for $1,300 at an Ohio sale. Feagan dominated and sparkled for years on the circuit before his death at age 36.
“He was the guy for me when I was a kid,” Ritchie said. He marvelled at the idea that H.A. Meadowland was the only horse at Western Fair Raceway to warrant a double stall, at least until Feagan moved him to Toronto. Ritchie may have been paddocking Herbert star Blaze Herbert one night at Greenwood when Feagan told him: “You must be a pretty good groom because every time they bring down a good horse, you’re the one who is with the horse.” Ritchie never forgot that, that a guy with the status of Feagan had given him a compliment out of the blue.
At Flamboro Downs, Ritchie crossed paths with Bob McIntosh, a young trainer whose shedrow backed onto his. “I met Trevor in 1979,” said McIntosh, who was later to become a seven-time leading trainer in Canada and a top trainer in the United States, too. “We were both kids. Both just starting out, really. We became good friends and he drove my horses for a few years there. And then in Windsor, too, until he moved to Toronto. “
Ritchie lived in a tack room at Flamboro, while McIntosh rested his head in a coach house in nearby Dundas, Ont. The McIntosh residence wasn’t as fancy as it sounded. It had no air conditioning and the flooring left a lot to be desired. “It was quite a dive,” he said. “But it was cheap.”
From the beginning, McIntosh could see that Ritchie was a very good trainer. He used Bill Herbert’s methods, and McIntosh incorporated a few of them into his own training regimen. “[Ritchie] could have made a living doing that [training], but he was an exceptional driver,” McIntosh said. “He had big-time talent. A natural talent, I would say. He could drive any kind of horse. Nobody could make a horse live on the outside like he could. I haven’t seen anybody to this day who could.”
Ritchie was just like his colours: black and white, McIntosh said. He had principles and he stuck to them. There were no grey areas about him. “If he didn’t agree with you, he didn’t agree with you,” McIntosh said. “He and I never had a bad moment. And we are good friends to this day.”
Back in those days, although Ritchie was in his early twenties, he didn’t look more than 12 years old. After he moved to Windsor, and he was driving for McIntosh, they took a holiday in Las Vegas, along with Jack Darling, back in 1981. At the black jack table, Ritchie asked a vital question: “What’s this insurance?” (Insurance is a side bet to help out if the dealer’s chance at a black jack is high and is treated separately from the main wager).
The dealer didn’t even look at Ritchie when he replied: “Call Allstate, kid.”
“We had a lot of good times,” McIntosh said.
Ritchie eventually left Flamboro for the bright lights and bigger purses of Windsor Raceway in 1979 and before he knew it, he had dethroned Windsor kingpin Bill Gale in the drivers’ race. The Detroit News noticed this 25-year-old that looked half his age, and was the runaway leader in the driving race at Windsor. The Windsor Star called him “Trevor Terrific,” especially after he drove five winners in one night, in a race to beat Greg Wright’s meet record of 84 wins set in 1970. Ritchie ended the meet with 86. He also set a record for most wins in a season (242) smashing the old mark of 199 set by Gale in 1976.
Two of his best horses were Hieway Bandit that raced in the invitationals and Annett Slipper, winner of six in a row, while owning the mare’s open division. R.J. Ready was another good one. Ritchie had worked his way up the ladder and people had started to notice. He began to get a lot of catch drives. That way, he could spend more time with his small, select stable.
In 1982, Ritchie decided to move to the Ontario Jockey Club circuit, “because of the challenge it offered,” he said. His horses were also getting too competitive for Windsor. And the Ontario Jockey Club offered year-round racing.
He got seven stalls at Greenwood, but the catch-drives dried up as Ritchie tried to establish himself, and the Greenwood/Mohawk trainers had already solidified partnerships with other drivers. But gradually it came, in fits and starts.
In about 1983, Ritchie got a big break when McIntosh had horses good enough to send to Toronto. And he wanted Ritchie to drive them. McIntosh eventually formed one of the most powerful stables on the continent. (His stable earnings of almost $5-million in 2001 led to him being ranked third among all money-winning conditioners in North America.) Ritchie racked up the wins with top-class horses such as Savvy Almahurst, the very speedy Lustra’s Big Guy, Homemade Lovin, Armbro Bewitch, Omaha Girl.
In 1983, Ritchie even got a chance to drive Baltic Speed for Jan Nordin in the 1983 Champlain Stakes at Mohawk Raceway. Baltic Speed won the race enroute to being chosen U.S. top 2-year-old colt trotter of the year.
“Bob in my early career was very important,” Ritchie said. “He got me on the scene a little bit with those horses.”
In 1983, Ritchie also picked up catch-drives for the stable of Ernie Spruce, who warmed up his horses in lime-green colours decorated with a pine-green spruce tree spread across his broad back. The Spruce Man was widely known for his frugal ways. He’d find and use equipment that he fished from discard bins at the track.
For a time, Spruce was highly successful at The Meadowlands in New Jersey, but also at home. He had a pacer called CU Bye that was to race in an Ontario Sires Stake race in Sudbury. CU Bye had the six-hole. “All the way up, Ernie Spruce is telling me we likely shouldn’t be leaving with this horse,” Ritchie recalled. “And I’m just kind of listening to him.”
But when the starting gate wings folded, CU Bye left like the wind and was about a half length in front of everybody else. “I wasn’t planning on leaving,” Ritchie said. “But I changed my plans and I left.”
He was parked the entire mile and the horse got no part of the purse. Spruce and Ritchie had originally intended on staying in Sudbury for the night. “But we got in the truck and drove all the way home,” Ritchie said. “There wasn’t a word said all the way home between me and Ernie Spruce. He was not a happy camper. I might have got fired.”
He had been on the OJC circuit for only a few years when he suffered a series of spills. Once he broke an arm and a leg on the same side of his body. “That was kind of different,” he said. Another more serious one happened at Flamboro Downs. He was off for two months with compression fractures of three vertebra. Within an instant, Ritchie’s height dropped to 5-foot-4 from 5-foot-4 ½ ”which I couldn’t afford,” he said.
That accident came back to haunt him again and again over the years. Ritchie would miss driving for a couple of weeks here and there because of his wonky back. “For years, my back was on and off. Sometimes it was really bad and I couldn’t even get on a cart,” Ritchie said. “Most of the time it was bearable.”
Ritchie had some pretty good horses in his barn, but that Flamboro wreck made it difficult to get on track and pay attention to his stable. “I was kind of half-crippled and trying to recoup from stuff,” Ritchie said. His stable was made up mostly of claimers, and as people claimed from him, he wasn’t replenishing his stable. “I kind of let my stable run down,” he said.
When he returned to driving, he decided to let the dust settle, and not bother claiming any for a while until he “got good and sound,” he said. But the driving side of his business took off, and Ritchie decided he was doing fine just as a driver. And that he really didn’t need a stable.
He packed up his trunks, cleaned everything up and sold it all. And he became something different. As Bill Wellwood told him: “You’re one of those whipping, shiny boot guys.”
In other words, back in 1984, Ritchie was probably the first full-time catch driver who made his living without training a stable at all. At the time, Doug Brown and Steve Condren maintained stables.
He landed a lot of wins with a couple of trotters that he loved: Armbro Agile and General D. Brook.
Armbro Agile, trained by dairy farmer Black Bennett from small-town Ontario, ended up close to Ritchie’s heart for all sorts of reasons. The story goes that Bennett used to hook up a screen to the jog cart of Armbro Agile to drag the track, so that as his trotter trotted, the screen smoothed the way behind him. Bennet scores points for efficient use of his time. And Armbro Agile never seemed to mind.
As for Armbro Agile, the trotter was gentle in a post parade. “You almost had to give him a kick in the ass to get him to do anything,” Ritchie said. “But you turn him behind the gate and he would just turn into an animal. He was all racehorse when he saw that gate. He knew what was going on.”
He was a warrior. “He gave 110 per cent,” Ritchie said. “He could be dead tired after the race was over, but when you turned him to pull up, his ears would be forward.” Ritchie loved his attitude.
He won 55 races in his long career, and even sent Ritchie and Bennett to the Elitlopp Trot in Sweden. “The Elitlopp is like racing in another league,” Ritchie said. He finished third in an elimination, nowhere in the final, but he did finish second in the Copenhagen Cup in Denmark. In Sweden, Bennett and his farm animal were stabled right next to Stanley Dancer’s fancy trotting mare in the Elitlopp, a contrast in styles.
Ritchie met Dancer for the first time at several functions before the race, enough to know that Dancer was fastidious about everything. Everything was in place and shining.
In the very next stall was Armbro Agile. “Blake is just a farmer and everything is going all over the place,” Ritchie said. Bennett had tied a lead shank snapped on one end to Armbro Agile’s halter, and the other end to the metal post in the stall – right by the water bucket, allowing the horse to drink whenever he wanted to.
At the time, that sort of practice was frowned upon. It has changed since. But back then, it was just something you did not do. “You could see [Stanley Dancer’s] eyes rolling,” Ritchie said.
“Then Christ, we went out there and beat his horse.”
It was one of Ritchie’s prouder moments when Dancer asked if he would train an Ontario-sired horse for him. When the horse arrived, he stood about 18 hands high (perhaps a slight exaggeration) and just couldn’t handle the half-mile tracks. He raced him only three times and he broke stride every time. Finally Ritchie told Dancer the horse was too big and gangly at this point to have any shot at getting around the smaller tracks. But it had been a vote of confidence from a member of the harness racing elite.
Armbro Agile could not defeat another top Ontario-sired trotter, General D. Brook, however. Driven and partly owned by Ritchie, General D. Brook “just beat up on the free-for-allers up here pretty handy,” Ritchie said. General D. Brook swept the three-race Tie Silk Series in 1985 and earned the spot to represent Canada in the Roosevelt International Trot. He was in against the talented French trotter, Lutin d’Isigny and top U.S. entry Sandy Bowl. Ritchie and General D. Brook sat third early, and took the lead to the quarter in the 1 ¼ mile race. But the Canadian trotter backed up through the homestretch and finished near the back of the field.
Two or three days later, General D. Brook foundered and had to be euthanized. “That was a real blow,” Ritchie said. “You hate to see that happen to any horse, especially one that has just put their heart and soul into a race like the International Trot.”
Ritchie’s biggest break came with a longshot pacer trained by a mechanic from Parkhill, Ont. Claire Porter and his wife Linda dabbled in a few horses, and bought Quite A Sensation from an Ohio sale for $5,500 as a weanling. Quite A Sensation faced the starting gate as a 30 to 1 shot with Ritchie in the bike for the 1986 North America Cup at Greenwood, but when the dust had settled, they had nipped favoured Amity Chef by a nose to win, setting a track record of 1:54 2/5.
Quite A Sensation propelled Ritchie into the Big Time. He thinks it’s the first time he ever drove in the race. It was his first Grade A win. “He likely kickstarted me as far as people saying that he can have some luck in the bigger ones,” he said.
Ritchie remembers the race as if it was a movie. John Campbell – Ritchie is a huge fan – drove Amity Chef for Blair Burgess. On the backstretch, Ritchie shifted off the rail and sat on Campbell’s back. Campbell was first over, Ritchie behind that. “I just said wow. My horse felt great. I really didn’t believe I was going to win that time,” Ritchie said. “I didn’t really think the horse was good enough to beat Campbell’s horse, but I knew I was in the right spot.”
Around the turn they went, and Ritchie’s horse still felt good. As they turned into the lane, Ritchie hadn’t even tipped him yet, waiting for the opportune time.
By this time, Linda Porter was sitting on a pail and covering her face with a blanket, too nervous to watch.
From this vantage point, Ritchie began to feel that he had a shot to win if he just moved him over. And he finally moved Quite A Sensation. “He just surged forward and I got the job done,” Ritchie said. “That was the greatest thing at that time for me. Winning that race was just wonderful. It was a wonderful day.”
For the little group, a mechanic from Parkhill, Ont., and a pool hall prodigy from London, Ont., it was an amazing win. “I just couldn’t believe winning this race,” Ritchie said.
It opened doors for Ritchie. “I think people find it more comfortable to put somebody down that has a track record of being able to get the job done in the big ones,” Ritchie said. “I obviously wasn’t one of the top guys. There were the Campbells and the Bill O’Donnells of the world at that time, but they could only drive one horse in a race.”
So the next year, Blair Burgess came to Ritchie to drive his next star, Frugal Gourmet. And it all led to Ritchie earning Driver of the Year honours in Canada that season. The following year, the national harness awards were called the “O’Brien Awards.” And Ritchie eventually won one of those as Canada’s top driver-of-the-year, too, in 2000.
“Frugal Gourmet was a wonderful horse to drive,” Ritchie said. “He was not that good on a half-mile track. The turns hurt him a bit. Other than that, he drove just perfect. You could back him up. You could say go. You could sit in a hole. He was good-gaited.”
Frugal Gourmet lost the 1987 North America Cup by a nose to Jate Lobell, just failing to catch him in a torrid stretch drive, but he turned the tables on the U.S. star and won the Meadowlands Pace and the Prix d’Ete and Provincial Cup, too.
“And Blair was a great guy to drive for,” Ritchie said. “I used to love driving for Blair. In my opinion, he’s a really good horseman. He’s not scared to change anything. We would win the Meadowlands Pace and he would change something on that horse if he thought or I thought it would make him better. We would hash it out after the race. He wasn’t scared to try anything, even after a big win. A lot if people, if they win some big race, they don’t want to change anything.”
In 1989, Burgess put Ritchie on a 2-year-old colt pacer that ended up giving the driver his only win in the Metro Stakes. But the win didn’t come easily.
“We were going to be one of the favourites with Road Machine in the Metro Final,” Burgess said. But early in the week before the Final, Ritchie drove a horse for Spruce, when Spruce was at the tail end of his career.
“He [Ritchie] was driving a pacer that probably needed to be shod badly, and the horse caught a shoe going behind the gate and down he went in a big wreck,” Burgess said. “It was a single horse accident, but Trevor got cracked up pretty good.”
Actually, Ritchie broke a couple of ribs. And it was painful. The day before the final, Ritchie told the Burgesses (Including part-owner, father Bob) that they had to find another driver for the Metro Final. “I couldn’t move, breathe, laugh, cough, sneeze, the works. I couldn’t get out of bed.”
But on race day, Bob Burgess called Ritchie, and said: “No, no, no. You can drive him. “
“I’m telling you, I can’t drive him,” Ritchie said.
“We begged him,” Blair Burgess said. “All week. You’ve got to drive. I don’t want to lose my driver for the Metro.”
They talked Ritchie into showing up. Ritchie was off almost all of his drives, but the Burgesses put him on a horse the race before the Metro. “He’s got a shot. He drove a horse called Jessee Purkey,” Burgess said. And he won.
With the Metro Final up, Burgess said Ritchie just took the lines of Road Machine and didn’t speak. “He was all green in the face,” he said. “He was in a lot of pain. He still drove the race. He never used the whip. He’s coming down the stretch and he’s not even moving. He won that race on strategy only. He was motionless in the bike. And he came to the winner’s circle. He wasn’t there very long. He was throwing up. He could hardly breathe.”
“I could hardly get on the cart,” Ritchie said. “And Christ, if he doesn’t win. And I’m in the winner’s circle and I’m in so much pain, and I had another mount in the next race.”
Yet another drive for another trainer/owner. “I’m all curled up in the bike, and I just went to the back and finished last,” Ritchie said. “I apologized to the guys. I said I’m sorry.”
His wife Gemma drove him home but the judges stopped Ritchie before he left through the stable gate and chastised him for driving, citing safety issues. Ritchie said he wasn’t allowed to drive for a few weeks. But he came back and picked up where he left off.
“He was tough,” Burgess said. “Ernie Spruce took him down.”
Over the years, accidents have taken their toll on Ritchie. Just as Ritchie was starting to fly in 1986, reality crashed him to earth with another big wreck, this one at Mohawk Raceway. It was Ritchie’s worst accident, ever. He can’t remember anything about it. “Nothing at all,” he said. “I was knocked unconscious. My helmet must have got sheered off my head.”
He was carted off to the Milton hospital, where doctors put 18 staples in his head. He had suffered yet another severe concussion, all of them seemingly causing a loss of memory. “I’ve lost kind of the middle part of my life a little bit,” he said. (Two years ago, he had one of his sisters drive him around London to his old haunts to jog his memory.) One of his fears is that in a social situation, he will not remember somebody he should recognize. It has happened.
On that fateful day at Mohawk, Ritchie was knocked unconscious when he was run over by another horse. And he also broke his ankle. He was sidelined for nine months.
A doctor decided to operate on the ankle the next morning. While Ritchie was in the operating room, driver-trainer Tom Strauss came running into the hospital and told Gemma: “Whatever you do, don’t let Dr. Bradley operate on Trevor.” But it was too late. Ritchie was already in the operating room. And Dr. Bradley had the scalpel in his hand.
In subsequent years, Dr. Kenneth JJ. Bradley’s name was splashed across newspapers regarding his “serious shortcomings in areas of surgical judgement and knowledge,” according to a hearing into whether or not he should keep his licence. The doctor gained a nickname: Butcher Bradley. He was penalized after his work led to several deaths in Canada and the United States.
“He screwed my ankle up, big time,” Ritchie said. “I lost 70 per cent of the movement in my left ankle. Every day I feel pain.” Dr. Bradley made an incision from one side of his foot, over the top to the other, scraping over some nerves. “He was just a terrible guy,” Ritchie said. “He took out a piece of bone and didn’t replace it with anything. Then he didn’t send me for therapy.”
A month after the surgery, Ritchie still couldn’t put weight on his foot, “Not an ounce,” he said. “When I slept, I couldn’t put any blanket over it. I had to sleep with my foot stuck out. Any weight at all, it was just pain.”
Ritchie eventually went to Dr. Bradley’s office in downtown Milton to seek help. “We go down into this dungey little place and I’m sitting there, and I’m looking around. It’s just a small room…I looked up on the wall and I saw a plaque there for general surgeon.” That worried Ritchie. He was not a specialized orthopedic surgeon?
Ritchie told the doctor he wasn’t doing well, and couldn’t put weight on the foot. He was on crutches.
“Well, what do you want to do?” Dr. Bradley asked him.
“I want to get better,” Ritchie said. “I want to be able to run and jump and play.”
“Well, go do it,” Dr. Bradley said. And that was the end of that.
Ritchie wondered, as he limped out, what sort of a “chicken” he was, because “this guy thinks I should be able to go out and run down the street,” he said.
Eventually, Ritchie realized the problem wasn’t him. It was the doctor. By the time he got a second opinion, it was too late to correct the mess. The tendon had shrunk and it could not be loosened up.
Of course, he was also dealing with a concussion. He has refused to watch the replay. He spent four or five days in the hospital. People visited, but he remembers seeing none of them. He blames a lot of his memory loss from other accidents, too. It wasn’t his first concussion, just the worst one.
It wasn’t the end of his physical troubles. In 1991, Ritchie was out of action for months because of more surgery to try to correct his ankle problems. He just couldn’t drive. And he got bored. He’d never read more than the sports section of a newspaper, but to kill time, he began to read newspapers from front to back. He became fascinated with the stock market, lying in bed, in pain.
He was hobbling about on crutches, when friend Mark Hyatt, one of the lead institutional traders for Merrill Lynch and a horse owner, suggested that Ritchie become a stock trader. “You love the market, why don’t you go down and be a stockbroker?” he said.
“Well, how the hell do you do that?” Ritchie asked him.
Hyatt said Ritchie had to write some exams.
So Ritchie, with only his grade eight education, got the books he needed, studied them, wrote the exams and got his licence to become an independent futures and options trader. He may be the only harness driver in history to have traded on the stock exchange floor. (Woodbine jockey Slade Callaghan, now 48, has traded in the past.)
“He reads a lot,” said trainer Doug McIntosh. “He’s a very intelligent guy. He’s a typical self-made guy. Education is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t make the guy any smarter. It’s maybe just a good tool. But he didn’t need those tools. He found those tools his way. And I don’t think a lot of people know that he was pretty much a financial wizard, too, and done a lot of things right.
“When he takes a job on, he’s very intense about it.”
“He’d be good at whatever he did,” said Hall of Famer Bill O’Donnell. “If I had money to give to him, I’d give it to him. I know one thing: it would be safe with him. He’s as honest as the day is long. He’d do what’s right by you.”
To trade, you need a seat. Not a real seat that you sit in, but a right to be there. When Ritchie happened to go to the office and set up an account, he was told that a trader had a seat that he wasn’t using. Ritchie could use the seat, without having to pay for it, as long as he would pay a small part of the commission he earned to the person who actually owns it.
“That’s a good deal,” Ritchie said. And so he was in.
He traded futures contracts for nine months on the Toronto Stock Exchange in the financial district. He would get dressed in suit and tie, catch the GO train in Acton, Ont., near his home at 7 a.m. The days were long, ending at 5:30 p.m. Ritchie continued trading as he began driving again, but it made for a full day. He’d get home in time to shower, eat and head to the track and race all night.
“It was really stressful on the stock exchange floor,” Ritchie said. “You’re talking your own money, and the leverage was incredible that we were dealing with. So you wanted to be there. There were times when you didn’t want to go for a pee break.
“I never felt stress like that. Even going for $1-million races wasn’t anything like this.”
It was all getting to be too much, and when Go transit pulled its stop in Acton, meaning Ritchie would have to drive to Georgetown, Ont., to catch it, that was the final straw.
“I just said, forget it,” Ritchie said. “I was doing okay. It wasn’t like I was going to turn into a gazillionaire. But I’m going to kill myself if I keep this up.”
He continued to read the financial pages, though. Quiet in the driver’s room, Ritchie could often be seen thumbing through the financial sections of newspapers.
To regain his fitness after the ankle surgery, Ritchie took to riding a bicycle 25 kilometres up and down the hills near his home. “I got terribly out of shape,” he said. Once back, his driving career took off, despite everything. People just knew Ritchie had smarts and knew how to use them. He’d long been a driver toiling in the top 10 on the Ontario Jockey Club circuit for some time, but in 1998, he suddenly became much in demand, winning 203 races in 1,159 starts and more than $3-million, his best season to date.
Ritchie got rolling early that season, while driving horses for long-time friend Cal Campbell, who was on a hot winning streak. So hot that at one point, Campbell won 18 consecutive races, all with Ritchie in the bike. It was an incredible feat, because Campbell was doing it with all manner and level of horses. “Cal likely sent me to the winner’s circle more than any other trainer,” Ritchie said. Campbell had formed a stable in 1986, and Ritchie was his best asset.
“He didn’t have the big horses, the stakes and that, just night in, night out, Cal was there and he was always getting me live drives,” Ritchie said. “Cal and me always had fun together.”
“He’s an amazing horseman,” Campbell said. “He had so much input after a race. He always drove a horse, but never overdrove the horse. He always brought you a horse back for next week. He was amazing. He’s pretty particular about things. He made my job a lot easier.”
Even in winning the race, Ritchie would have suggestions to improve the horse. Or he’d spot a looming problem. Campbell would call the vet the next day, find an issue, and work on it. “That proceeded on to great things for us.” Campbell said.
“He was a big part of my career. When he stopped driving my horses, it wasn’t the same, because I never had that same dedication from anybody. I never took him off a horse. [Bill] Robinson put him down on a couple of better horses when he was hot, but Trevor still drove my horse. He’s loyal. I don’t know anybody else who would do that.”
Ritchie had some wonderful days. He won the 1994 Canadian Pacing Derby with Ready to Rumble, and he won lots with a very special mare with a hot turn of foot, Jay’s Table in 1995, too. By the end of the 1998 season, Ritchie was in such demand, he was driving almost every race, every night. Couple that with having to drive in a new design of racing bikes, which caused drivers to lean back further, and Ritchie’s body was in for trouble.
He started to develop terrible spasms in his neck that baffled doctors. They could never get to the root of it. The neck spasms would stop Ritchie in his tracks, no matter what he was doing. “It was just boom,” Ritchie said. “It was really painful. If I went to move up [out of a chair], or open a door, anything, I’d get this real pain. This thing would come and go. When it was there, I couldn’t drive. I just couldn’t function.
“Even though I was having the year of my life, I wasn’t enjoying it, I was out there in a lot of discomfort,” he said. That meant he had to make changes: reduce his work load. That’s when he decided to drive only trotters, and stakes races. But because his partner-in-crime, Cal Campbell didn’t train any trotters, Ritchie kept the door open to drive his pacers, loyal to the end. Ritchie earned a new nickname: Trottin’ Trev.
Although Ritchie has earned a reputation as a skilled driver of trotters, he says he says he doesn’t really care what he’s driving, “as long as they go fast and win.” Doug McIntosh says Ritchie’s style is particularly suited to driving trotters, which need drivers that are patient and careful.
Miraculously in 2000, Ritchie had the best season of his career, and won an O’Brien Award as the country’s outstanding driver. That year, he drove horses to win much more money than at any point in his career to that point – about $4.9-million – but he won the sport’s most coveted prizes.
Winning the 2000 Hambletonian with Yankee Paco, the first Canadian-sired trotter to win the race, was the pinnacle of everything Ritchie ever did. It was his Stanley Cup moment, his NBA championship, his dream come true.
“Yankee Paco was the greatest win of my career,” said Ritchie, who had 3,710 wins when he finally hung up the shiny boots. “That was the Holy Grail for me.”
He had never driven in a Hambletonian before. It’s a big ask. Doug McIntosh, trainer of Yankee Paco, said newcomers to a $1-million race may overdrive or underdrive the race. But Ritchie drove in the Hambletonian as if he had done it every day.
“We have a lot of guys in the business now who are power drivers,” McIntosh said. “They go as far as they can go as fast as they can go. There’s lots of good drivers. But to me, when you put the big bucks up, it’s him [Ritchie] and [John] Campbell and a couple of others, that’s it.”
Still, Ritchie admits that his Hambletonian elimination the previous week was “nerve-wracking.” That’s because Yankee Paco just was not very good in the eliminations. “I had trouble getting him to trot in the post parade,” Ritchie said. “He was not very good that day. If it had been any other race, I would have pulled him off the track and said you likely should scratch this horse, not because I thought I would hurt him, but I thought he wouldn’t be any good anyway.”
But he didn’t do that. As soon as Yankee Paco turned behind the gate, he focused and hit a nice trot. “And away he went,” Ritchie said. He won his elimination and advanced to the final.
The next week, he was better, but not 100 per cent, Ritchie said. “Whatever Doug did to him in between, I give Doug a lot of credit, because between the elimination and the final, he definitely was a better horse.”
McIntosh said shipping takes a lot out of Yankee Paco. They got into The Meadowlands three days before the eliminations, and he had the whole next week to recover for the final. Yankee Paco also had an outstanding groom, Reggie, who had also rubbed 1984 Harness Horse of the Year Fancy Crown. “Reggie did a great job with the horse,” McIntosh said. “He basically lived with that horse. He trucked him and everything for us.”
In the week leading up to the final, Reggie took the horse back to basics. He would jog him for an hour. McIntosh trained him a couple of light trips, and knew the colt just felt “more alive.”
In the final, Yankee Paco “just floated out of there” although he wasn’t a great horse leaving the gate, and didn’t have a lot of high gate speed. He got away sixth or seventh and ended up parked the entire mile. And Trottin’ Trev had to reach into his bag of driving tricks and make him live on the outside.
Ritchie planned to drop in on the rail, but he looked up and saw about four horses parked on the outside. He knew not all of them would get a spot or get to the front. So he changed plans and moved back out to the outside, tried to catch up, and perhaps end up with some cover before other people got out in front of him.
“So I just didn’t even bother going to the rail,” Ritchie said. “I just let him trot out there.”
Half-way down the backstretch, only one horse was left parked in front of Yankee Paco: Legendary Lover K. When that horse swept unexpectedly to the front, Ritchie was taken by surprise. “I didn’t think that was going to happen,” he said. “I’m stuck out there.” He floated up to the leaders on the backstretch, but he knew the leader wouldn’t let him go by.
So Ritchie went to Plan B. “I’ll throttle back down and I’ll sit, try to braven him up as much as I can. And I’ll just sit there until we come off the turn, and then I’ll get whatever I can get,” Ritchie said. “At that point, I didn’t think I was going to win the race.”
The trip just hadn’t worked out, he thought.
Watching was McIntosh, and he was ready to “kick some stones” as the horses went down the backstretch. “I really didn’t anticipate winning,” he said. “I thought we had a really good chance to be in the top three. But when they left out of there, and he kind of didn’t get a spot, and you are parked on a mile track, I was thinking this might not be good.
“Up around the last turn, he hung right there and kept his spot. Turning for home, I knew the big horse had a shot. But I was really worried from the half to the three-quarters.”
And once again, McIntosh had witnessed Ritchie’s ability to keep a horse alive on the outside. He had witnessed it himself years ago when he used to drive against Ritchie in Windsor. “He used to drive me crazy when I was driving,” McIntosh said. “I could never figure out how he could live that long on the outside.”
Ritchie was sitting about third, on the outside, and he knew that somebody had tipped to the outside off his back. “So I said: ‘Well, here we go. We’ll get what we can get here.’ And I asked him to go and he trotted forward. And he win.”
That was big for Ritchie. When he was pulling up, he admits he was a bit emotional. And he never gets emotional. There might have been a tear or two. “That got to me a bit when I pulled up,” he said.
“Holy cow, I’ve done it,” he said.
Back to the winner’s circle they went, man and red horse. It was pandemonium, 95 degrees F with the sun beating down. People hugged Ritchie. Reggie picked Ritchie right off the ground and spun him around – while still holding the horse.
“I remember just standing there,” Ritchie said. “It felt like it was 100 degrees out, but I didn’t care. The sweat was pouring off my forehead but it didn’t matter to me. I was just in another world at that point in time.”
Success breeds success. A few months later, Ritchie equalled John Campbell’s record of winning three Breeders’ Crowns in one night. He was also one of only five drivers who have ever won $1-million in one night. (The others are Del Insko, Bill O’Donnell, Michel Lachance and John Campbell, pretty good company.) And Ritchie did it with three trotters, scoring with Syrinx Hanover, Banker Hall and Aviano at Mohawk Raceway. He also had a really big shot to win a fourth with pacer Real Desire, but finished third.
He didn’t know much about Syrinx Hanover. He has no idea why he was put down to drive this trotter, although it must have been because of his win with Yankee Paco in the Hambletonian. Syrinx Hanover was a N.J.-owned filly that eventually won 19 of 21 career races and almost $1.7-million, some of it from the Hambletonian Oaks. She was undefeated in 12 starts at three. Getting a chance to drive her was like dancing with Beyonce.
The purse for this Breeders’ Crown race for 3-year-old filly trotters? $755,911.
“The sheet came out and I was on her,” Ritchie said. “She was just dominant. She was about as easy a win as you can have. I just sat there, and cleared in the backstretch. There was never any sweat there at all. And I never drove her after.”
Next up? Banker Hall, one of the favourites but not the favourite in the $543,500 event for 2-year-old colt trotters. He was trained by Harald Lunde, a native of Norway who spent a lot of time on the Ontario Sires Stakes circuit.
Ritchie thought Banker Hall had a big shot. “I was planning on leaving with him,” he said. “He could leave not bad.”
But anything can happen in a horse race. And Ritchie has seen it all. “Just before the wings folded, he lifts his tail and starts to have a poop,” Ritchie said. “Well, when horses do that, they will slow down, which is what he did. So there goes my plan of leaving with him.” Timing is everything.
They got away sixth or seventh, so Banker Hall had to come from behind if he wanted to take this thing. Banker Hall nailed the leader, C.J.’s Secret right at the wire. He trotted the mile in 1:56 1/5, a track, Canadian and Breeders‘ Crown record.
Banker Hall went on to win the Yonkers Trot by taking both the elimination and the final from the outside eighth post position. “I’ll bet you never find that anywhere else,” Ritchie said. “At Yonkers when you get the eight hole, you are toast.” A scratch put Bankers Hall in the seven-hole in the final, but it was the last race he ever won. He broke a bone that night.
In the 3-year-old filly trot, Wellwood decided to overlook Ritchie’s shiny boots and put him down to drive his Aviano, owned by the Armstrong Brothers. Ritchie had never driven her before “Woody” put Ritchie down to drive her in Chicago about two weeks before the Breeders’ Crown. She finished second and raced better than her record to that point showed.
In the Breeders’ Crown eliminations, she was only third or fourth, but she raced well. “I remember telling the guys in the drivers’ room that night that I had some big shots with some horses. But don’t discount this Aviano mare because she is better than her lines look.”
Sure enough, Aviano won the $602,000 event.
In his division, Real Desire, another Blair Burgess star, finished third to Bettor’s Delight. The two of them traded wins all year. Early in Real Desire’s 4-year-old year, Ritchie drove the fastest mile of his life: 1:48 3/5 in an open pace. The horse had only a couple of starts as a 4-year-old before he did it and then was shipped to the United States to John Campbell’s arms.
It doesn’t feel much different to drive a 1:48 mile than many other fast miles, Ritchie noted. “Even cheap horses go fast quarters,” he said. “It’s just carrying it.”
Then, there was Peaceful Way. Some horses, once they get up to a certain speed can hold it, but it could take them a while to get there, Ritchie said. But Peaceful Way was something different again. “She was one that could go from zero to 60 in three seconds,” Ritchie said. “She’d just turn on the burners and she was gone.”
“Horses like that, you get the thrill of the speed a little bit better because of the initial acceleration,” Ritchie said. “Eternal Camnation reminded me of that. She could turn on the burners so quick. Just boom. She was fast and light on her feet. She was better to drive than Peaceful Way. You could leave with her or do whatever you wanted to. Peaceful Way was a little more cantankerous.
“She [Eternal Camnation] wasn’t my mount. I drove her a few times. I won the Milton Stakes with her. She was the best filly I ever drove. It’s between her and Jay’s Table.”
Jay’s Table comes with a regret. Ritchie drove her regularly in Canada and knew she was headed to the Breeders Crown at The Meadowlands. So Ritchie talked to owner Joe Leonardis and told him: “This is what you should do with the mare, give her a little time off. Then we’ll race her once, kind of easy and carefully. Then her next start, just before we go down there, we’ll race her a little harder and set her up so that she’ll be good for the Breeders’ Crown.”
Leonardis agreed to all of that. “I protected her pretty good,” Ritchie said. “I didn’t get her into a spot where she would get gutted before the Breeders’ Crown.”
Ritchie was behind a horse on the backside after a post parade when driver Mike Saftic told him that John Campbell was to drive Jay’s Table in the Breeders’ Crown.
“What?” Ritchie said. He hadn’t heard anything about it. He was heartbroken. And very annoyed. He had saved her for that race.
But he did get to drive Peaceful Way, which was so much more difficult. In many ways, Peaceful Way was in a class by herself. The wicked thing about Peaceful Way was that she could turn on the burners, even though she was a trotter. And an enigma.
“She was the funnest horse I ever drove, because she could turn on the burners so quick,” Ritchie said. He remembers the first time that trainer Dave Tingley put him on the mare, even though she had been racing well with a previous driver.
Out in the post parade, Ritchie just wasn’t sure just what he had. “Her legs were just going everywhere,” he said. “I thought there must be something wrong with this mare. I had never driven her. She just felt like she was a $2,000 claimer.”
In behind the gate, she was something else. “She just boom, straightened up, and away she went. And she won. And she kept winning, just like she had been doing before.”
But she was a funny character. Ritchie realized that you had to let her get her own way sometimes. “You couldn’t drive her the way you wanted to, so sometimes she got into spots you really shouldn’t have been. People on the sidelines would see this and say: ‘Why did you do this?’ Well, I didn’t do it. But if you tried to make her do something she didn’t want, she’d make a break. So you kind of had to go with her.”
You never know which Peaceful Way was going to show up behind the gate: the one that wanted to stride out of there, or the one that didn’t. “It was really hard to map out a race with her,” Ritchie said.
“If you were on top with her at the head of the lane, and you hadn’t really got brutalized too much, you’d just give her her head and holler. And she would just go like the wind through the lane. It was pretty fun with her. A little nerve-wracking, but fun.”
One of his most memorable races with her was in the 2005 Classic Oaks at The Meadowlands. She was in against New York-owned Housethatruthbuilt, the U.S filly trotter of the year the previous year when she won the Breeders’ Crown in her division. (Peaceful Way broke stride in Breeders’ Crown events at two and three.)
In the Classic Oaks final, Housethatruthbuilt had a five-length lead at the head of the lane at The Meadowlands. And she seemed gone. A puff of smoke, with the rest in her wake. Peaceful Way and Ritchie were sitting about fifth.
“Peaceful Way wasn’t that good around the last turn,” Ritchie said. “I wanted to move her three-deep, but I felt if I moved her, I was going to lose her. She wasn’t trotting really square.”
So he waited. And waited. And waited. Chill as could be.
“I figured there was no way I was going to win,” Ritchie said. “But once we got straightened out in the lane and she got herself situated, I thought I might get third or something.”
Ritchie isn’t one to use a whip with excess and he had never touched the mare with a whip in her lifetime. “You didn’t have to,” Ritchie said. “She’d just go.
“So once I got straightened out in the lane, and she got her head straight and her ass straight, I moved over. And I just let her go and hollered at her. And I gave the wheel disc a smack, which I’d never done before. I thought it might just blow her up. It might just goose her, or scare her and she’d make a break.”
But she didn’t. She took off like a shot. And just flew down the lane. To see it, is to believe it. She caught Housethatruthbuilt and passed her before the wire in the 1 1/16-mile race.
“She had no shot to win,” Ritchie said. “But she won anyway.”
Peaceful Way had already beaten the boys in the American-National but her race in the 2005 Maple Leaf Trot – when she won against males on home turf in Canada’s top trotting race – is special to Ritchie. “That was obviously a thrill,” he said.
They got away from the gate third or fourth and eventually went to the front. “And things got where nobody challenged her,” Ritchie said. “I believe there were a couple of good horses in there, but they got caught in behind some that weren’t going in the outer flow and they got too far back.
“At the head of the lane, I just let her go, which she just loved doing. And I hollered at her and she just took off. And won.”
He remembers flashing by the finish wire and hearing the crowd “just going nuts.” He usually blocks the crowd out. He doesn’t usually hear them. But this night he did. “That was kind of fun,” he said.
The only other time he heard the roar of the crowd at the finish wire was in Lexington, Ky., when Peaceful Way was to be going for a world record in a stakes race. Trainer Tingley wanted the record.
At the head of the stretch, she was on top by two lengths. “She was a ton the best,” Ritchie said.
But he admitted he hadn’t set up the race well for a world record. “She didn’t leave out of there worth of crap,” he said. “So I only got to the quarter in 29 seconds. So that kind of screwed the world record. So I wasn’t really thinking about it any more. I was just thinking of winning.”
She flashed across the wire, and up came the time: she had tied the world record, even off that first quarter, an incredible effort. As they went to the winner’s circle, Gemma warned Ritchie that Tingley was hopping mad.
“What’s he mad about?” Ritchie asked. “She just won!”
Trottin’ Trev also won two other Maple Leaf Trots, too.
One was with Rotation, which had finished fourth in the elimination, after breaking stride, and just managed to get into the final. He was owned partly by Toronto Maple Leaf star Mats Sundin.
Rotation was a “wonderful, big strong horse,” and although he wasn’t quick from the gate, he could keep going. He also won the Nat Ray at The Meadowlands, with Ritchie in the bike with a tremendous final kick.
His other Maple Leaf win was with Equinox Bi, a trotter he had driven only twice. Italian-owned and mostly European-raced, Michel Lachance was to have driven him in the $784,080 Breeders’ Crown at Mohawk first, but was delayed. Ritchie got the call at 5:55 p.m. that he was to drive the horse. A Breeders’ Crown had been the last thing on his mind. He had been lying on his couch at home in Acton.
Equinox Bi had already finished second to the fleet-footed Corleone Hanover in the Nat Ray at The Meadowlands. And he had to face Corleone Hanover again. Driven by John Campbell, Corleone Hanover went to the front for the entire mile, and looked comfortable and dominant, even in the stretch. Campbell hadn’t lifted his whip.
But Equinox Bi bore down on him furiously as the two separated themselves from the rest of the field. “I was right up to him and I was pressuring him as much as I could,” Ritchie said. “And I wasn’t going to go by him unless he run, but I knew this horse, and I could tell he was getting weak behind.
“So I thought: ‘Geez, he [Corleone Hanover] might go into a pace. And he did. Then he galloped.”
Corleone Hanover finished half a length in front of Equinoz Bi, but was placed second for a lapped-on break. And thus, Ritchie won his seventh Breeders’ Crown.
Earlier, Ritchie got the drive on the horse in the $693,500 Maple Leaf Trot in 2007, and won it, too. Ritchie moved him from third with a quick brush to the lead after the quarter. It helped that he had known trainer Jan Nordin from previous years.
Ritchie won another Breeders’ Crown in 2002 with Cameron Hall, owned by Finland native Erkki Laakkonen, who centred his operation at Georgetown, Ont. Laakkonen also used Ritchie to drive his wayward Andover Hall in the World Trotting Derby after he shocked everybody by breaking stride as a 3 to 5 favourite in the Hambletonian.
Andover Hall was a trotter that seemed to like dramatics. As he was preparing for a Breeders’ Crown (3-year-old trotting colts) at Mohawk Raceway in 2002, he jumped a fence and roamed, frightened for about an hour before he was caught near Milton, Ont. He had suffered cuts to both front legs and an injury to his right hind foot that was most serious.
Sheila Mankulich, a motorist on her way to a Thanksgiving dinner, watched him run into the middle lane of traffic on the 401 Highway, collide several times with a car and fall into a ditch. He was bleeding badly from the foot.
“He’s a star-crossed horse,” said trainer Robert Stewart at the time. “He always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He missed his Breeders’ Crown race and did not race for the rest of the year.
But before all of that, John Campbell had a memorable drive with him in the 2002 Hambletonian: Andover Hall wasn’t easy to drive at all. Andover Hall and Campbell started from the rail, but two horses got ahead of him going into the first turn. Andover Hall bullishly collided with the bike of Lively Lad in front of him and broke stride, kept galloping and didn’t finish.
So Laakkonen, apparently fuming, took Campbell off the horse and put Ritchie on him for the World Trotting Derby in Illinois. In the first heat, Andover Hall sat second half-way around the first turn, and Ritchie found himself locked in. “But I was following a horse I wanted to follow,” he said. “So I wasn’t concerned.”
But just like the week before, Andover Hall ran over the sulky in front of him. Ironically, it was John Campbell who took the brunt of the crash. “So the horse makes a break and I get out of the way, and I get back trotting and he finishes eighth,” Ritchie said.
In the next heat, horses got the post according to the finish. So Andover Hall had to race from post eight. “So I go right to the chooch,” Ritchie said. “I’m not getting locked in. I’m not following anybody. I’m either parked, or I’m on the chooch.”
And he won, with Like A Prayer second and the pint-sized Chip Chip Hooray, the Hambletonian winner, in third.
With two different winners, the World Trotting Derby went to a race-off. Ritchie had never been in a race-off in his life. (And he was never in one afterwards.) The luck was with him; Andover Hall drew the rail and had control. “Ideal,” Ritchie said.
So Ritchie won his only race-off.
Campbell wasn’t at fault with Andover Hall’s antics in the Hambletonian. Ritchie figures the only reason he got to drive Andover Hall in the second heat – after repeating what Campbell had done in the Hambo – was that Laakkonen had little choice. “Nobody else was around,” Ritchie said. “It was late. DuQuoin is a fair track. There’s the guys that fly in to drive the horses and then there’s the farmers. If he was going to set me down, he was going to have to get a farmer.
“So he bit his lip and put me back down in the second. And it worked out.”
So many things are beyond a driver’s control. Like the time Ritchie drove Burgess’ colt Glidemaster in Lexington, Ky. They were in behind the gate when the starter recalled the field. “The horse along the rail was being aggressive, so he went over the pylons,” Ritchie said. “He went up the passing lane and got in front of the car.”
With a recall, the starter would keep the wings of the car open. Everybody would bounce their horses” noses off the gate until they slowed down under control.
But the starter couldn’t do that because a horse was ahead of the gate. He had to open the wings. The track was wide open for trotters who had just been charging to the start.
“Glidemaster was gone,” Ritchie said. “I couldn’t stop him. He went the whole mile. The outrider was chasing me trying to stop me. I finally got him pulled up down the backstretch, a mile and a half later. And I lost the mount.”
Glidemaster turned into a giant the next year, sweeping the Triple Crown (Hambletonian, Kentucky Futurity and Yonkers Trot), and was the single-season money-wining trotter of all time with earnings of $1,968.023. Ritchie never drove Glidemaster again.
But a door closed and another one opened. Because he lost the drive on Glidemaster, Ritchie got the chance to drive Majestic Son. They faced Glidemaster three times as 3-year-olds, with Majestic Son winning every one of them: the Goodtimes Stakes, the Canadian Trotting Classic (where Majestic Son set a track and stakes record of 1:52 2/5) and the Breeders’ Crown at Woodbine.
Glidemaster became the U.S. Harness horse of the year in 2006 while Majestic Son became the Canadian Horse of the Year.
Still, even with the lessened work load, Ritchie’s body was just breaking down. The back issues never left. The neck spasms were always a concern. And he began missing drives off and on. One night he had five drives in Ontario Sires Stakes at Hanover Raceway, and he had to cancel all of them. “You know what? People are relying on you,” Ritchie said. “And when your guy doesn’t go up to Hanover, your choices are getting slimmer.”
On July 4, 2014, Ritchie pulled the plug on his career.
“I don’t miss the pain,” he said. “I don’t miss finishing last 50 times to get a win. I miss the win part, but not the getting there. You like the competition. And you like going to the drivers’ room and kibitzing with the drives. You miss that, but I have no regrets on pulling the plug.
As soon as the news was out that Ritchie was to be inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, he got a text: “Two broke kids from Flamboro end up in the Hall of Fame.” It was from Bob McIntosh.
“He was great for the sport,” said O’Donnell. “He was as good as anybody, anywhere. And no matter where he went, he did good. Don’t matter who he drove against.”
He never did get rid of all of his driving gear. He had a helmet and a set of gleaming black and white colours for the day he drove in the Legends Trot at Clinton Raceway. And he almost won the thing, flying up on the outside in the homestretch.
“Even this year, he hadn’t driven in how many years?” O’Donnell said. “One more step and he wins. Horses go good for him and horses like him. And he has great hands. You never see him in trouble with a horse. He never would put them in that position.”
So for a few fleeting moments in Clinton, Ritchie felt the rush of driving, like he used to. “I did get a little thrill about half-way down the lane,” Ritchie said. “I thought I was going to win. I got a bit of thrill back for a little piece.”
Then it was chill. As usual.
“It’s quite a story to tell,” McIntosh said. “I can’t give Trevor enough credit for where he came from. It’s phenomenal.”