view counter
 
view counter
 
 

Trottin' Trev: Aggressive But Smart

Trevor Ritchie

When it came to being at one’s best when the big money was on the line, few drivers, if any, were better than Trevor Ritchie.

The diminutive man with the ice in his veins recounts for us, some of his greatest moments on the track, in races like the Hambletonian, the North America Cup & the Meadowlands Pace. By Rob Longley

At first, Trevor Ritchie attempts to claim that cobwebs and the residual effects of some nasty, head-banging driving accidents have altered the recall function of the greatest afternoon of his career. And then he begins to talk about the 2000 Hambletonian that he won with Canadianbred Yankee Paco, and the memories of a steamy and historic day at the Meadowlands flow in vivid colour and accuracy.

Truth is, a moment so central to him becoming a 2019 inductee into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, is impossible to forget.

From the stifling heat at the concrete hot box that the The Meadowlands can be in the dead of summer, to the uncharacteristic burst of emotion as he pulled the horse up following the win, to the post-race celebrations across the Hudson River in Manhattan, the details, like the joy they brought, came tumbling back.

Any Hall of Fame career is defined by gigantic moments, and for the London, Ontario native and world-class clutch-driver, the Hambletonian victory stands above them all.

“For me, that was the pinnacle,” Ritchie said in an hour-long interview in which we re-lived the undisputed highlights of a career that is now about to be suitably and deservedly honoured. “Until I got the call about a month ago that I was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, that was for sure my proudest moment as a professional driver.

“To me, the Hambo is the one. It’s like the Kentucky Derby is to thoroughbred racing. Because of the history and everything that goes with it, it just means so much.”

By the summer of 2000, Ritchie had already established himself as a cool customer in big races. He didn’t pile up victories in bunches like some of his younger competitors, but with big money on the line and a live horse at the other end of the bike, he was formidable.

“I didn’t think ever be more proud than standing in the winner’s circle at the Hambo, but this is top of the charts for me,” Ritchie said of his pending enshrinement. “I’m going to be much more nervous standing up there accepting that than I ever was in any race, I can assure you of that.

“It’s going to be an honour. It is an honour to say you are going to be included with the greatest names in horse racing. How can it not be something special?”

To take you to that day, we offer a distilled highlight reel from Ritchie’s career, taking you through four sensational race days in hisown words and with his own recollections.

Yes, the Yankee Paco performance stands above, the showpiece of a 2000 season that ended with an O’Brien Award as Canada’s top driver. But as well, we rewind the vault for Ritchie’s 1986 breakthrough win in the North America Cup with Quite A Sensation, the 1987 Meadowlands Pace with Frugal Gourmet and again to 2000 when he won three Breeders’ Crown races on one night at Mohawk Racetrack.

In their own way, each offers a window into the strategic mind that allowed Ritchie to be one of the best, a collective showcase of the talents that made him Hall of Fame material.

HAMBLETONIAN - YANKEE PACO, 2000.

There was the heat of a steamy 90 degree day in the swamps of New Jersey.

Then was the hype attached to the biggest race in the sport, a race he had dreamed of winning since he grew up working for the great Bill Herbert in his hometown of London, Ontario.

But among the things Ritchie will remember most about Ontario-bred Yankee Paco’s monumental score in the 2000 Hambletonian was his own reaction moments after the colt crossed the wire. It was the closest the normally stoic reinsman came to letting emotion join him on a race bike.

“My only recollection was pulling up and, to be honest with you, I had a little tear in my eye,” Ritchie said. “I had never had that happen before and never since, but it just kind of hit me that ‘wow, I just won the Hambletonian.’ “It was really something. Just a special, special moment.”

The rest of the day and evening was a whirlwind. There was the big bear hug in the winner’s circle with Paco’s groom, Reggie. There was a call to the judges back at Mohawk and then the subsequent trip to Manhattan for celebrations at a steakhouse to soak it all in.

“We were ready to be partying it up a little bit,” Ritchie said. “I remember I phoned the judges - I had a bunch of horses in that night at Mohawk and I asked ‘Do you mind if I don’t show up tonight, I’d like to enjoy the moment?’

“They said no problem and didn’t even fine me. We went out and had a nice dinner and some laughs and just enjoyed the night.”

The race itself came with more nerves than usual. Ritchie said that such a reaction was in part due to the heat - both physical related to the conditions and mental due to what was on the line.

“It was on national TV. It was hot. It was a pressure cooker of a day,” Ritchie said. “I remember you had your colours on and they wanted you to do interviews with your helmet on. It was just a draining day.

“Then there was tension. The week before (Yankee Paco) was absolutely no good at all. I had trouble getting him to trot in the post parade. If it had been any other race, I probably would have got him off the track. I’m just thinking this is going to be a disaster.

“And then we turned behind the gate and it was just like he flipped a switch. He saw the gate, he hit the trot and away he went.”

And in the final, a week later, away he went again! Essentially under a hand drive in the lane, Ritchie and Yankee Paco won the Hambo with decided ease despite being parked every step of the mile. It was a testament to Ritchie getting the most out of the colt - an area in which he excelled - but also to the training acumen of Doug McIntosh.

“In the final, he was [still] not 100 percent, but he was good,” Ritchie said. “I don’t know what Doug did with him [since the elimination], but he did a masterful job.

“He was really parked the whole mile. I might have been in for a step. At the head of the lane I felt someone tipping off my back and I remember thinking it’s time to go and whatever’s going to be is going to be.

“I had no idea how much horse I had left and really did not think with that kind of trip he was going to win. But when I asked him, away he went. He just kept going and nobody mowed him down.”

The rest of the day and night, as you might expect, was a blissful blur.

“Joy,” Ritchie said when we asked him to share the feeling. “That’s how I would describe it. Everybody was happy. I remember feeling like it was a thousand degrees out and sweat pouring off of me but let it be hot. I just won the Hambo.

“I can remember the front page of the sports section of every (Toronto) newspaper - the Sun, the Globe and the Star - every one of them had a big picture of Yankee Paco. He brought a lot of prestige to the game.”

NORTH AMERICA CUP - QUITE A SENSATION, 1986

In terms of where he was on his career path, Ritchie was just a kid when he traveled to Greenwood Racetrack to drive 30/1 shot Quite A Sensation in the North America Cup. Accordingly, expectations were modest, both on the program page and on the toteboard.

It was a year before the showpiece three-year-old pace offered a $1 million purse but the $588,000 sure sounded good, even if Ritchie was driving a $6,500 yearling purchase trained by Claire Porter of Parkhill, Ontario - an Ohio-bred gelding at that. And then there was the field he was facing, one that included star sophomore, Amity Chef.

But rather than being daunted by the assignment, Ritchie embraced it with a philosophy he would carry with him the rest of his driving days.

“I always tried to treat these big races as just another race,” Ritchie said. “I always would say to myself going behind the gate, ‘be aggressive but smart.’ That was kind of my philosophy throughout my career. Obviously you’re going for more money and it’s better horses, but just be aggressive and smart.

“I just didn’t want to be the yahoo who went out there and had one thing on my mind and that was just gun for the front at any cost.”

As fate would have it, the near-perfect trip followed. “Aggressive” leaving, Ritchie got himself positioned, and “smart” he soon after engineered a second over journey behind the great John Campbell and Amity Chef.

“I remember going down the back side with that trip and I’m just licking my chops,” Ritchie said. “I used to watch Campbell. To me, he was just the best at getting a horse positioned. I always loved driving against him because I thought I could learn stuff from him.”

Still, a modestly bred longshot with a yet-to-prove-himself driver taking on one of the best tandems in the sport still had some work to do.“Quite A Sensation, I remember he just felt so good, and then about half way through the lane he still felt good and I was still on Campbell’s back,” Ritchie recalled. “But I didn’t think I’d get to him.

“He just kept surging forward, and he surged forward right at the wire. So then I remember afterwards, waiting for the photo at the top turn by the paddock, and you’re staring at the tote board waiting for the numbers to come up. It was quite a feeling. That was my first Grade-A type race. It was certainly a special moment and a special day.”

Moreover, Quite A Sensation’s win introduced the racing world to an up-and-coming driver who had proven himself on an important stage. Amity Chef’s trainer Blair Burgess sure took notice, as we were to see the following year.

“I think it meant a lot,” Ritchie said. “I think people saw that I could go out there and compete in the big races without doing something stupid. I could be wrong, but when you see somebody do it in the big time, people get a little more confident they can throw you on their horse.

“That’s possibly part of the reason I ended up driving Frugal the next year. The year prior I beat (Amity Chef) as the heavy favourite and you’d be hard to say that wasn’t a pretty good drive.

People saw that.

“Definitely it was a launching pad.”

MEADOWLANDS PACE - FRUGAL GOURMET, 1987

To set up ‘The Pace’ we need to first take you back to Greenwood and that year’s North America Cup, where this time Ritchie was a nose short on a 33/1 shot as the great Jate Lobell lived up to his 1/5 status with the win.

But with the near upset off the pocket trip, Ritchie and Frugal Gourmet were suddenly seen as players in the three-year-old division, and Ontario-based trainer Burgess was about to get a big one with the same driver who had denied him the 1986 North America Cup with Amity Chef.

“That got him some respect that he likely wouldn’t have gotten if he hadn’t have shown he could go with that horse,” Ritchie said of the near miss at Greenwood a few weeks earlier.

Fast forward to the Meadowlands Pace final where Ritchie either fooled, out-crafted or flat out, out-drove some of the best drivers in the world. After settling third behind a pair of longshots, he brushed Frugal Gourmet to the front, a quarter-mile into the race, and essentially engineered a half-million dollar heist from there, albeit hanging on for dear life in the final strides at The Big M.

“That race was very oddly easy,” Ritchie said. “Nobody was coming. There was no action anywhere. I kind of got things my own way and opened up. They were coming at me in the lane but it was kind of too late for them.

“I just couldn’t believe that the race went without any real pressure from anybody.

There was no real sweat going on at all.”

As Mark O’Mara, the trainer and driver of Jate Lobell would note years later to veteran standardbred observer Bob (Hollywood) Heyden “Trevor outdrove us all.”

He certainly used his keen sense of pace and what was happening to his left and to his right when the gate swung. But Ritchie also believes that he and Frugal Gourmet had set the stage with the near miss back at Greenwood.

“Part of it was a follow up from the way he raced [in the North America Cup],” Ritchie said. “He had some respect. They didn’t fight him when he came to the front. You’d have to ask [the other drivers] what was going on, but I know I was happy.”

A field that deep wasn’t going to too easy of a victory, however, and the drive to the wire was a thriller, with the late-charging grey, Laag, finishing second by a neck. Jate Lobell, the 4/5 favourite, finished seventh for an inglorious end to his 18-race winning streak.

“I remember I got in panic mode about the last 10 steps,” Ritchie recalled with a chuckle. “It was like ‘holy crap, come on wire.’ It was panic mode late.

“When you are in those big races at the Meadowlands and you look down the lane - it’s a long way to go when you want that wire to come, that’s for sure.”

BREEDERS CROWN - SYRINX HANOVER, BANKER HALL, AVIANO, 2000.

By the time the Breeders Crown hit Mohawk Raceway in the fall of 2000, Ritchie’s handle as “Trottin’ Trevor” was already well established (and the driver notes many have tried to lay claim to the christening). On this night, he would once again emphatically live up to the alliterative handle.

A triactor of trotting wins was the cherry on top of a memorable season for the then veteran driver as he joined John Campbell as the only driver to win three Crown races on a single night.

Ritchie remembers plenty about those events on his hometown track, a night that secured him an O’Brien Award and punctuated the previous successes that summer with Yankee Paco.

He remembers Syrinx Hanover being dominant (“I could have driven her down the middle of the track and nobody would have caught her.”).

He remembers wanting to leave with Banker Hall until the colt lifted his tail as they were approaching the gate, prompting a sudden and necessary change in strategy.

And he remembers driving Aviano for the late Bill Wellwood, and how he had touted her in the driver’s room the night before as a filly with a live shot.

And he also recalls a winner’s circle conversation with Heyden that first planted the seed of the honour about to be bestowed upon him this summer.

“[Heyden] told me that nobody who has won three Breeders Crowns has not been inducted into the hall of fame,” Ritchie said. “That was the first time anyone had ever said hall of fame and Trevor Ritchie in the same sentence, and that was the first time that a little seed got planted in my head, that maybe someday that might happen.

“To be honest with you, I just never thought about it.”

He’s thinking about it now, however. And Trevor Ritchie - Hall of Famer, has a nice ring to it.

This feature originally appeared in the June issue of TROT Magazine.
Subscribe to TROT today by clicking the banner below.


view counter
 
 
 

© 2019 Standardbred Canada. All rights reserved. Use of this site signifies your agreement and compliance with the legal disclaimer and privacy policy.

Firefox 3 Best with IE 7 Built with Drupal