Trevor Ritchie

Trevor Ritchie

July 28, 2019

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by Dave Briggs

Trevor Ritchie was about 35 years into a stellar career before the thought of one day being a Hall of Famer even occurred to him — and it took some outside perspective and three Breeders Crown wins on a single card at Mohawk in 2000, just a few months after driving Yankee Paco to a landmark victory in the Hambletonian, to do it. Around that time, Meadowlands broadcaster and historian Bob “Hollywood” Heyden used Ritchie’s name in the same sentence with the words Hall of Fame.

“Hollywood said something to me and he put me and the Hall of Fame in the same sentence. I can’t exactly remember what he said for sure, but that was the first seed that got planted in my mind that maybe one day, who knows?

“It’s just an honor I would have never expected,” Ritchie said of his call to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame which will officially occur on Aug. 7 in Mississauga, ON. “It wasn’t something that I was after when I was young, I was just after winning races and dreaming of winning big races.”

A first-generation horseman, Ritchie grew up across the street from The Raceway at The Western Fair District in London, ON.

“My backyard backed up onto Western Fair property,” Ritchie told The Canadian Sportsman in 2011. “At fair time when I was a kid that was big news because we had a reasonably-sized backyard and we used to park cars all the time. So, I’d stand there with a newspaper and flag them in. That was big money back then. We looked forward to the fair time all the time.”

Ritchie said he got his start in the business at the age of 10 working for trainer Peter Thibaudeau on the weekends.

“My sister got a job babysitting for Peter Thibaudeau. She came home one day and mentioned something to me about babysitting for this guy who had horses over at the track. He had mentioned something about how, if I wanted to, I could come over and clean harness or race bikes or joggers or stalls and make some extra bucks on the weekends. That’s how it all got started,” Ritchie said.

At the age of 15, Ritchie moved across the street to the third-floor dormitory in the huge two-storey barn on Western Fair property. Around that time, Ritchie began working for the legendary Herbert family led by Hall of Famer Bill Herbert. The Herberts were based out of the same barn at Western Fair where Ritchie was living.

“I remember I used to walk down there and I was just always amazed because Bill ran a nice show. He had his black and white harness bags lined up on either side of the shedrow. Everything was neat and in its place. I was always fascinated by his big stable down there,” Ritchie said.

Not only did Herbert allow Ritchie to adopt the same black and white colors, the former proved to be the biggest influence on the latter’s life.

“There’s one person that stands out by a country mile for me, and I mean a country mile, and that’s Bill Herbert,” Ritchie said. “Bill Herbert just changed my life in so many ways. He turned into a great friend, but taught me how to be a horseman and, to this day, I don’t know of a greater horseman than Bill Herbert. He passed away God knows how many years ago, but I’ve never met a horseman with as much knowledge as Bill Herbert.

“The guy could talk to a horse almost. It was amazing to watch him work around horses and he could hang one up. He was way ahead of his time on low heads and long hobbles and his knowledge of shoeing was beyond anybody I’ve ever spoken to. He owned his own stallions. He owned his own broodmares. He had his farm where he bred and raised them. He trained them, drove them, he was his own blacksmith and, in the early days, he was his own vet. Name another person that you know of that’s done that?

“When I first started working for him, it was just circumstances… I needed a job and I needed money to put food in my mouth, but after a while I got so I just wanted to learn so much and he was the guy that seemed to take me under his arm and was willing to teach me, so away we went.”

More than 40 years after going to work for the Herberts, Ritchie retired at age 58 in 2014 as one of the most decorated drivers in Canadian history.

In his career, Ritchie competed in some 25,000 races over four decades. He drove the winners of more than $70 million on the track, much of it on Canada’s top circuit that includes Woodbine Mohawk Park in Campbellville. He won 3,710 races, none bigger than when he drove Yankee Paco to victory in the 2000 Hambletonian in New Jersey for trainer Doug McIntosh. The victory, which came the same year the Hambletonian celebrated its 75th anniversary, marked the first time a Canadian-sired horse won harness racing’s premier event, making Ritchie the commander of a moon shot for the Canadian breed.

Ritchie calls winning the Hambletonian with Yankee Paco the highlight of a career that also included driving Hall of Fame filly Peaceful Way to victory over the boys in the 2006 Maple Leaf Trot at Mohawk just three weeks before Ritchie won the $1 million Canadian Trotting Classic, also at Mohawk, with Majestic Son, who went on to be named Canada’s Horse of the Year. Ritchie also won seven Breeders Crowns; a $1 million Meadowlands Pace with Frugal Gourmet for Hall of Fame trainer Blair Burgess in 1987; the 1986 North America Cup with Quite A Sensation; stakes races driving trotter Rotation for hockey Hall of Famer Mats Sundin and even had the opportunity to drive in Sweden and Norway.

“I don’t think there’s anybody more respected throughout Ontario in the racing world than Trevor,” said Hall of Famer driver and Ritchie’s long-time friend John Campbell. “He’s just got so much respect and I was just so happy for him when he got into the Hall of Fame, just for everything that he’s accomplished. He came to work for the Herberts with no experience and he built himself into a legend in harness racing and that’s pretty strong in my opinion.”

Through a lot of highlights, Ritchie said Yankee Paco stands above them all. The driver said he’s confounded that the chestnut trotter isn’t in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

“Three or four years ago I sent what I thought was a well-written letter about Yankee Paco and what he did for Canadian horse racing and that he wasn’t a one-trick pony. He won open stakes, including the Canadian Trotting Classic and on and on. He won $1.5 million. He was on the front page of the sports section in all of the Toronto papers and when was the last time you ever saw that?”

Of Yankee Paco’s 14 career wins in two racing seasons, five were in stakes company — the Hambletonian, Canadian Trotting Classic, American-National, Canadian Breeders and Simcoe — and he was perfect in the four Ontario Sires Stakes Gold events he competed in, including the $250,000 Super Final.

The Hambletonian itself was a thing of beauty.

“He was out the whole mile without cover,” Ritchie said of the ¾-length victory over Credit Winner in 1:52.3.

The fact that the son of Balanced Image was the first Canadian-sired horse to win the sport’s biggest race should make Yankee Paco a Hall of Famer alone, argued Ritchie.

“I honestly thought this just this morning – if a (Canadian-sired) thoroughbred won the Kentucky Derby, they’d be an absolute lock in the Hall of Fame,” Ritchie said, acknowledging that Yankee Paco’s meagre results as a sire likely hurt the horse’s Hall of Fame chances.

“I wish people would forget about that because I’m not talking about him as a sire, I’m saying that he was the first Canadian-sired horse to win the greatest race, in my opinion, in standardbred racing… and he wasn’t a one-trick pony.

“I think it’s his rightful place.”

As for whether the Hall of Fame is the rightful place for Trevor Ritchie, the driver said he was simply humbled and overwhelmed by the honor.

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