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A world that too often makes no sense can start breathing again. The sun can shine. Flowers can grow.
Jockey Rico Walcott, who was diagnosed with a golf-ball sized brain tumour on March 2 which required a five-hour surgery on April 5, has been cleared to do what he does better than almost anyone else: ride thoroughbreds again.
After a recent visit with his surgeon, Dr. Robert Broad, Walcott heard the warming, placating words he desperately yearned to hear: no residual evidence of the tumour which maliciously latched onto the left, front part of his brain.
“I was afraid. You never know what kind of news you are going to get,” said Walcott, who has been Alberta’s leading rider the last eight years - dominating the sport in Alberta so completely and yet always remaining stolid and calm.
“It’s a big relief. The tumour is gone. Going (into the surgery) you don’t know how it is going to go anything can happen in surgery, one simple mistake can cause bleeding and can possibly be life threatening. Sometimes you can bleed out and that’s the end of you.”
And then there was silence - a long yawning pause - from the quiet, humble man. “I missed riding badly. I wish I was riding right now.”
Soon, sometime in the next four weeks, he will be. “I feel good but I have some weight to lose; I need to get fit again. It’s been quite a while since I’ve ridden.”
But you just know - with almost no uncertainty whatsoever - that when Walcott, 30, does return he will come back the same way he left: in any conversation about the the best jockeys to ever put on silks in Alberta.
Following the path of his older brother, Rickey - who was also a multiple Alberta riding champion, Rico came to Alberta from Barbados in 2007 when he was a raw, green 17-year-old. The brothers found their way to the track because their father, Charles, owned horses.
"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."
Since then Rico has won 1,292 winners from 5,491 starts for earnings of $17,275,889. He has won five Canadian Derbies: No Hesitation in 2010; Broadway Empire in 2013; Edison in 2014; Chief Know It All in 2017 and last year with Sky Promise. He also won three B.C. Derbies (Alert Bay, Chief Know It All and Sky Promise); the Oklahoma Derby with Broadway Empire and the Manitoba Derby also with Sky Promise.
“Nothing rattles him,” said Robertino Diodoro, who won four of those Derbies - the only exception being the Jim Meyaard-trained No Hesitation.
“He’s a very patient rider and he’s very smart. He’s very level headed,” said Diodoro, who has won over 2,000 races - many when he was a top Alberta trainer; many more since leaving nine years ago for the U.S. where he is now won of the top trainers on the planet.
If there is a stakes race or even a bottom claimer Walcott is going to be a big part of it. The size of the purse didn’t matter. He was in it to win it.
“He rides the cheap horses as hard as he rides the ones in stakes races,” said trainer Rod Cone. “I know he’s won races for me I never expected to win. He never looks at the odds board and thinks ‘This horse is 20-1 and has no shot.’ He has a positive attitude every time he climbs on. I’d ride him on every horse I run if I could get him. Who wouldn’t? I’m sure he could go anywhere he wants to go to ride and win races. Horses just run for him.”
Cone, who is also on the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association board, said that Russell Baze, who holds the record for the most race wins in North American horse racing history, once told him that it’s not way you do that wins races; it’s what you don’t do. “Rico reminds me of Baze. He never hinders a horse. He seldom gets into trouble. He keeps a horse moving. Whether it’s wide or on the rail. He’s got a great sense of pace but he also knows who the main threats are in a race; he knows where everybody is going to be. Having Rico coming back is a bonus for everyone. I’m happy for him and his family and I’m happy for horse racing. Rico is a real crowd pleaser. The bettors and fans are going to be happy to see him ride again."
“I’m sure even his fellow riders are going to be happy to have him back even though they know he’s going to be the guy again when he returns. It’s a big bonus for everybody. He’s a great person and a great talent.”
The most important thing is that’s he’s healthy and has a clean bill of health,” said Century Mile racing manager Matt Jukich. “Horse racing is a better world when he’s healthy. With Rico you are always going to get the best possible ride. And with him it’s all about the horse; it’s not about him. He’s a no-spotlight kind of guy.”
Walcott won over 100 races in seven of the last eight years. His largest total of wins came in 2014 when he won 158 races and was in the top three 70 per cent of the time. That year his mounts earned $2,387,141 - the most of any of his 12 seasons in Alberta.
Seemingly always in the right position at the right time, what makes horses run for him? Don’t ask Rico, who started riding in Barbados in 2004 where his father, Charles, owned horses.
“I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I just ride.” Pressed, all Walcott would say is “I can tell how much horse I got, how fast they are going and when I have to make my move.”
At this spring’s Night of Champions, Rico was greeted by a long, loud, passionate standing ovation when he accepted the leading jockey of 2018. “It made me feel good,” said Walcott, who fortunately didn’t need radiation or chemo therapy. “It was a great moment.” Almost as good as the news he heard from his doctor.
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