The winds whipped like razors; thermometers were frozen at minus 26. That was the scene jockey Quincy Welch walked into when he left Barbados and first came to Alberta on March 26, 1997 as a bright-eyed, freezing 18-year-old.
“All I really had was a bunch of T-shirts, jeans and a fleece sweater. I was obviously not prepared. It was a real cultural shock,” said Welch, now 37, who has won over 2,000 races in his career - over 100 in Barbados and over 1,900 in Canada. "I thought there was no way they would be galloping horses when it was that cold.” But the next morning that’s exactly what Welch, whose first purchases were gloves, a winter jacket and long johns, did.
“I couldn’t feel my fingers; I couldn’t feel my toes.” It wasn’t exactly a good combination for someone who heavily relies on those two body parts to do their job. “You want to be able to feel your toes when you are in the stirrups and when you can’t feel the horse with your hands it’s not good either,” said Welch. “The internet wasn’t prevalent at that point so I didn’t know what to expect. All I heard about Alberta was that there were igloos in the winter and tumble weeds in the summer. “It was adapt or die. I had to learn fast.”
Welch did just that. He quickly established himself as one of Alberta’s jockeys. In his first year he won 61 races. “About 30 of them came in the last month in Edmonton.” The following year he was Edmonton’s leading rider and then in 1999 he was Alberta’s leading jockey - a feat he would repeat in 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2008. After a few off seasons, this year Welch was again leading the jockey standings until he separated his shoulder in a morning spill on July 15 and missed almost three weeks.
“A horse I was working got spooked from the outside and ducked in suddenly. I was thrown over the inside railing. It was just one of those things; it’s just horse racing,” said Welch. As of Aug. 9 - now second in the standings to Rico Walcott - he is still Northlands leading percentage rider - winning at a rate of 35 per cent.
“He’s got good hands - as all good riders do. But I think what sets him apart from most riders is his brain,” said his agent Graham NIblett. “He reads a race very well. Not just on paper but in the race itself. He has a good judgment of when to move. He doesn’t open up 10 lengths and then get caught at the wire." “He’s got such a good clock in his head,” agreed Greg Tracy, Alberta’s once-again, runaway leading trainer, who uses Welch as his No. 1 pilot.
“He knows how much horse he has underneath him. His horses are always running at the end.”
Last year, Welch was given the coveted Avelino Gomez Award which is given to the person, Canadian-born, Canadian-raised or regular rider in the country for more than five years, who has made significant contributions to the sport.
Presented in memory of one of thoroughbred racing’s best jockeys of all time - Gomez died of complications after a three-horse spill in the 1980 Canadian Oaks at Woodbine - the Award has been won by likes of Ron Turcotte, Johnny Longden, Sandy Hawley, Don Seymour and Patrick Husbands. “It was a really big honour,” said Welch. “You rub your eyes when you look at the list of some of the other jockeys that have won it.
“It’s a career highlight - as good or better than winning a prestigious horse race.” Not bad for a guy who had never even touched a horse until he was 16. “Nobody in my family was even remotely involved in horses or horse racing in any way,” said Welch.
“My dad was in the hotel business, my mom was a stay-at-home mother and my sister was a lifeguard. “But I saw this ad in a local Barbados newspaper for a six-month, jockey school and I was intrigued. I convinced my mom to let me try it. “Why? I have no idea. It was just something I thought I’d like to try. I thought how hard can it be to ride a horse. After a few falls I realized it was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be.”
Welch, however, stuck with it with a major break coming when he was introduced in Barbados to Anderson Nicholls. “He was an owner/trainer of a small string of just four horses. I learned more from him in my first two years of riding than I have in the last 20 years.” Then Welch heard about a racetrack - Calgary’s Stampede Park - that was looking for jockeys.
“I was only riding one day a week in Barbados so I thought it would be great to be able to race five days a week.” So Welch, along with Desmond Bryan, who still races in Alberta, and two other jockeys - Rennie Lachman, since retired, and Jamar Vaughn, who died in a motorcycle accident when he was only 30 - decided to toss the dice and come to Calgary.
“It was a little like the movie Cool Runnings,” Welch said of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team movie that competed at the Winter Olympics in Calgary. “I laugh every time I’ve seen that movie because we were just as unprepared as they were.” One of the most dangerous occupations, injuries happen often to jockeys as Welch would find out on July 10, 2010 in a horrific accident when a horse he was riding broke down and he was trampled by the horses behind him. Welch broke 12 bones including eight ribs, his collarbone and, in two spots, one arm.
Welch was sidelined for the rest of the year. The following year Welch decided to try the ‘big league.’ After dominating the Alberta scene for so long, Welch packed his tack and headed for Toronto where he rode for two years with modest success winning 60 races. “I got homesick,” said Welch of his decision to return to Edmonton which, with a wife, April, and two young children - a 7-year-old boy, Kyrie and a 9-year-old daughter, Keira - he now happily calls home.
“My family didn’t come with me to Toronto and I really missed them.” So, it was back to Edmonton.
It was also back to the hospital. In mid-July of 2013 his mount got cut off and clipped heels. Once again, Welch broke his collarbone. “Once again, it’s just horse racing,” said Welch matter-of-factly. After a couple of sub-standard years - especially for him and his enormous talent - Welch rededicated himself this spring. “He told me he really wanted to do good again,” said Niblett. “And that’s exactly what he has done. He came in with a new attitude.
“He came to the track early in the year and started working and galloping a lot of horses for Tracy,” said Niblett. “He got off to a good start and generally when that happens you have a good year. When you get off to a bad start it’s often hard to scramble back.” “I made a point of being seen early in the spring,” said Welch, who usually gallops eight to 10 horses every morning. “I’m more committed this year.
“I wasn’t going to live off my past accomplishments. It’s a very competitive jockey colony but I know I can race with any of them.”