Monday, 15 May 2017 13:34

The questions are easy

Written by Curtis Stock
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Rico Walcott aboard Broadway Empire in the post parade for the 84th Canadian Derby in 2013 Rico Walcott aboard Broadway Empire in the post parade for the 84th Canadian Derby in 2013 Ryan Haynes/Coady Photo

It is the answers that are difficult. Rico Walcott has dominated the Alberta racing circuit - winning the most races of any jockey the last six years in a row and it’s never really been close. He wins with cheap horses. He wins with good horses. He wins three and a half furlong sprints and he wins mile and three-eighths route races. He wins wire-to-wire and he wins from off the pace. He simply wins. Year after year after year.

But ask Walcott what makes him so good and you mostly just get shrugs or a lot of “I don’t knows” as he sprawls across the pool table in the jockeys room - a broad smile stapled to his face. “I guess I just do it. I don’t know."

"The trainers get the horses ready; my agent picks out my mounts. I just do the riding. That's all,” says the Ice Man. But, of course, that’s not all. Or even close.

In 2013, 2014 and 2015 Walcott’s winning percentage was over 30% every year. No rider in North America with more than 300 trips to the starting gate won more often. Not Eurico Rosa Da Silva. Not Patrick Husbands. Not Russell Baze. Not Deshawn Parker. Not Jose Ortiz. Nobody.

And that’s not a combined total either - it’s three straight years of sheer triumph and conquering the North American win percentage jockey standings. In 2013 when he won the Canadian Derby and then the $400,000 Oklahoma Derby with Broadway Empire Walcott won 153 of his 475 mounts. That’s a winning percentage of 32.2 per cent. In 2014 when he won the Canadian Derby again - this time with Edison - he won with 158 of his 482 starts. That made for a winning percentage of 32.8. And in 2015, when his wins included the Barbados Gold Cup with Sayler’s Creek, his winning percentage was 30.4 per cent when he won with 142 of his 467 mounts.

Last year - with fewer racing dates - Walcott won 109 times from 388 mounts for a winning percentage of 28.1. While last year was a drop from his previous three years there was still only one jockey in North America - again for all riders with at least 300 starts - that had a higher winning percentage than anyone: John Davila Jr., who primarily rides at Finger Lakes in New York state.

Simply staggering, Walcott stands out like the Hope Diamond in a sea of fake zirconia. Again, the question was posed to Walcott: just how does he do it? Again, the answer was familiar.

“I don’t know,” he laughed. “I guess I just do it.”

The shadows Walcott creates are those left by giant sequoias and redwoods. And yet his modesty is frightening. So, instead, of asking Walcott, who came to Edmonton from Barbados in 2007, what makes him so good, the question was posed to others. “He’s a man without an ego,” said trainer Rod Cone. “Most guys in his position in horse racing or any other sport would be bragging about their achievements. Not Rico. He’s just the opposite.

“I’ve never seen him come to the paddock sour. He’s always positive and that’s half the battle.” “He just never gives you a bad ride,” said Cone. “He just doesn’t want to get beaten. His plan is always to win. “I’d ride him on every horse I run but, of course, that’s not possible because he’s going to be on the best horse in just about every race. On a bull ring you can’t be five wide and Rico never is. He always seems to have his horses in the perfect position."

“He makes my job a lot easier. He doesn’t need much instruction. Most of the time I don’t tell him anything whereas with a bad jockey they won’t follow your instructions any way.”

Surprisingly, Walcott says he never looks at the racing program. “Why would you?” says Walcott, who turned 28 on May 9. “Once the starting gate opens you never know what is going to happen. Maybe you want to go to the front but something happens and the horse doesn’t break well. What good are plans then?”

Walcott, however, rarely gets left. A strong finisher he - like Shannon Beauregard - is also a very strong starter. “Royal Warrior got left just about every time before I put Walcott on him,” trainer Dave Nicholson, said of the stretch-running closer he conditions for owner Frank Bodell and a horse who is a finalist for Saturday night’s Horse of the Year dinner in the aged division after winning the Harvest Gold Plate, the Speed to Spare, an allowance and an optional claiming race.

“Royal Warrior is never going to break on top but with Rico he doesn’t just walk out of the gate either. “He’s just so much the best jockey. He’s always in position.”

Rick Hedge, who was a top rider wherever he rode before he became a trainer, said Walcott “has a great head on his shoulders. He can go to the top or he can wait and wait and wait; he’s very patient and he always seems to have lots of horse left at the finish line. “He’s also not afraid to go anywhere: if there’s a hole he’ll go through it whether it’s up the rail or between horses. On a bull ring a lot of things can happen. But less things happen to him."

“He never panics either,” said Hedge, who rode the same way. “He knows when it’s time to go.”

Bob Fowlis, Walcott’s agent, said his rider is ‘super’ to work with. “He’s a great rider and a very good person. He does a lot of things right but I think it’s his strength that sets him apart. He’s very strong. Particularly down the stretch. He can out-finish a lot of jockeys.”

Tim Rycroft, perennially one of the top trainers in Alberta, said Walcott, who has won 1,064 races in his career, is “always in the hunt. He never seems to miss a break. He’s aggressive, he’s smart and he’s fearless. When he’s in tight you never have to worry.”

Walcott, who followed his older brother Rickey from Barbados to Edmonton (Rickey is back riding in Barbado), got involved in thoroughbred racing through his father, Charles, who owned thoroughbreds. "When Rickey started riding, I wanted to ride, too," Rico said. "I also had a friend in Barbados, Ricky Griffiths. He was a rider, too, and his dad, Godfrey, would take me out in the evenings and teach me how to ride.”

Walcott, who arrives at the track every morning at 6 a.m. where he will work about five or six horses, could probably go just about anywhere and ride winners. And maybe he finally will. “I’ve recently thought about it. I’ve thought about going to Woodbine or somewhere in the United States. Maybe Gulfstream. I’ve got some friends there,” said Walcott. “The one race I dream of winning is the Breeders’ Cup,” who competed in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with Blue Dancer as well as the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Mile with Broadway Empire.

In the meantime, however, he’s also very happy where he is. “I’ve got a daughter who goes to school here,” he said of six-year-old Sundai, who he dotes over. “She likes it here and so do I. Everything except the winter.”

When Walcott isn’t winning he’s almost always close. A human exacta cinch, Walcott finished first or second 50 per cent of the time last year; 53.3 per cent of the time in 2015; 54.5 per cent in 2014 and 52 per cent of the time in 2013. A week ago, on the season’s opening card at Northlands, Walcott, who went to Vancouver this past Saturday to ride Snuggles in the Vancouver Sun Handicap, had four wins and three seconds. So, again, we ask: what makes Walcott so good?

“The biggest factor for me is that he knows how fast a race is going,” leading trainer Greg Tracy said of jockey’s who are born with a clock in their heads. “And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s almost always riding the best horse.” Then Tracy ended the question with this: “What made Michael Jordan so good?” said Tracy with a perfect question for the question.

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