It’s a race that is still two months away from the finish line but it’s going to come right down to the wire. Canada’s leading jockey is local rider Antonio Whitehall, who, as of Friday, has won 111 races in the nation. Two Ontario riders, Justin Stein (95 wins) and Rafael Hernandez (94) are second and third respectively. But while Whitehall has a 16-win lead over Stein the Woodbine-based riders still would seem to have the edge because Edmonton’s Century Mile, where Whitehall will finish the season, only races two days a week and the meet ends on Nov. 8. Woodbine, on the other hand, races four days a week and their meet doesn't end until Dec. 13.
“The law of averages probably says that Antonio won’t finish on top but you never know,” said Whitehall’s agent, Bob Fowlis. “One thing that is for sure is that he’s had an exceptional year.”
Whitehall certainly isn’t giving up hope. “I’m going for it,” said Whitehall, 26. “First in Canada would definitely be nice. I know that (Stein and Hernandez) have more opportunities then I have but I want to keep my lead.”
Whitehall was able to ride at both Century Mile and Winnipeg’s Assiniboia Downs this year because Assiniboia Downs raced Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays while Century Mile raced on Fridays and Sundays. “It was a lot of flying back and forth but it was certainly worth it,” said Whitehall who dominated the standings in Winnipeg winning 74 races - 26 more than Stanley Chadee Jr. and double the wins he accumulated last year.
In Edmonton Whitehall is second only to perennial leading jockey Rico Walcott with 37 wins. “The travelling wasn’t so tough because it was all in Canada so it was fast. I also got a lot of Air Miles built up which will come in handy if I ever get to use them.”
Whitehall, who came to Canada from Barbados in 2016, is a surprising leader in the Canadian standings to just about everyone except himself. “To be honest - I don’t want to lie - but I thought it was possible with the right opportunities. “Mid way through this season I started thinking about getting 100 wins.” Now he has easily surpassed that total. “I’ve still got lots of races left. It's far from over.”
Whitehalll, who came to Canada because of Winnipeg jockey Chris Husbands who is also from Barbados, demonstrated in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Barbados that he has tremendous skills as a jockey. In 2018 he also led the jockey standings in Winnipeg and in both 2017 and 2019 he was second. “It would have been great to be the leading rider in Winnipeg each of the last four years. It was so close. But I can’t complain. It’s been a big year in a bad year,” he said referencing Covid-19.
Earlier this year Whitehall won five of six races in Winnipeg. He missed riding all six winners by just a nose. “A dirty nose too,” said Whitehall, who has won over $900,000 in purse earnings this year. “Everything was right that day,” said Whitehall, who won his first race on that card with 2-1 Hilda before taking the $25,000 Chantilly Stakes with 16-1 longshot Kickalittlebooty. His third race was where he lost by a nose with favourite Terri’s Temper. Then he won his next three races: with Witts Lucky Shoes, 6-1 Empirical Data and then an easy triumph wth favourite More Mo For Me. The Chantilly was one of five stakes that Whitehall won in Winnipeg this season. At Century Downs this year he has also won five stakes. As well as the Chantilly, Whitehall won another stake with Kickalittlebooty, the Manitoba Oaks, and then won both the RJ Speers and the Free Press with Deep Explorer as well as the Distaff Stakes with Hidden Grace.
In Edmonton he won both two-year-old stakes on Sept. 25 - first in the $60,000 Freedom of the City with Don Danard’s sensational She Likes to Party, who is three for three this season and appears to be headed to bigger and better things - and then with True North Stables’ very talented Bang On in the Birdcatcher. Whitehall also won the Princess Margaret stakes - by almost 15 lengths - on August 14 with She Likes to Party - a day he also won the Sonoma with Music At Work.
But his best ride was probably with Sunburst on the Sept. 27 Canadian Derby Day program in the Distaff. “That race probably summed up everything Antonio brings to the table,” said Fowlis. “She drew the outside 11 post and stumbled at the start. But he didn’t panic. He got the horse relaxed, but her in a good spot and sat there and was patient. “That’s what he does; he doesn’t make too many mistakes. He can probably improve on his finishing but he’s young enough to learn how to do that a little better,” continued Fowlis, who had Whitehall’s book for the first time this season. “Nobody is perfect.”
Fowlis then pointed out a few other things about Whitehall. “He’s prepared; he puts horses in good spots; he tries to give every horse a good trip every time; he sees a race well; he’s got good hands and he gets horses to relax for him. “He’s also very professional and positive.”
Fowlis said Whitehall had wanted to come to Edmonton three years ago. “But I couldn’t take him; I just didn’t have room for him,” said Fowlis, who is also Walcott’s agent demonstrating one more time just how good Fowlis is at what he does. “Bob is the man,” said Whitehall.
Fowlis said room for Whitehall opened this year because of Covid-19 when two of his riders couldn’t come back to Canada. “It’s worked out good for both of us.”
Even though nobody else in his family and none of his friends were into horse racing, Whitehall was smitten by horses from a very young age. “I was into riding show and dressage horses when I was 15 but I wanted a little more adrenalin. I wanted to ride race horses. “My teacher at dressage, Alison Cox, caught me one time shortening up my stirrups like jockeys do. “She said this is not the place for that and hooked me up with a thoroughbred trainer. I loved it right from the start. Every single part of it.”
Whitehall learned fast. He was the champion apprentice rider in Barbados when he was only 15 years old and tied for top spot the following year when he won two legs of the Barbados Triple Crown run annually at Garrison Savannah Racetrack near Bridgetown, Barbados. “Very exciting,” said Whitehall. In total Whitehall won 121 races in Barbados. Amazingly 15 of those wins were in stakes.
With 10 stakes wins in Canada this year, Whitehall has continued to show that he’s a big money rider. “And I’m not finished yet. There are still six stakes races left at Century Mile,” said Whitehall pointing out the four CTHS Sales stakes and the Red Smith and Don Getty.
Whitehall said the racing in Barbados and Alberta is very different. First there is the fact that horses run clockwise in Barbados as opposed to counter-clockwise in North America. And all the races in Barbados are on turf. “It’s also a small, tight track in Barbados,” said Whitehall. “Century Mile is a mile track so there’s more room here. “In Barbados, because it’s a smaller track, you have to be a bully or you lose position. It’s rougher there. It’s a different style of riding.”
Whitehall said his mother, Annette, didn’t want him to become a jockey. “She wanted me to learn a skill. She didn’t want me to quit school. But my mind was made up. I wanted to stick with horses. I just liked horses naturally. I fell in love with them. I would do anything I could with horses. Then I made up my mind to be a jockey. I buckled down and I worked very hard.”
He’s still working hard. “I’m only 26; I’m really just getting started. I’m just revving up my engines buddy.” In summary, Whitehall said “I just want to thank everyone that has helped me and played a role in such a successful year.”
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