Jul 28,2020Curtis Stock for Horse Racing Alberta
The sun was well into its slide down the western sky, long shadows being pushed along by its quickening descent. Then, suddenly, the world of Alberta's perennial leading jockey Rico Walcott went horribly black and wrong - as if someone had thrown a huge tarp over that sun and snuffed out all the light in the world. It was Saturday, March 2, 2019, the day Walcott had four seizures - sudden, uncontrolled electrical disturbances in the brain - because of a malignant, golf-ball sized tumour that had malevolently latched itself onto his brain.
"The last thing I remember was watching one of my country's biggest races, the Barbados Gold Cup at home on my iPad and then talking to a friend back in Barbados about the race," said Walcott."I remember his phone cut out. I don't remember anything else.
"When I woke up two days later in intensive care, hooked up to machines, they told me I had the brain tumour." He was also told that the first two seizures came at his home in north Edmonton. The third jolted him in the ambulance. The fourth was in the University of Alberta hospital. He doesn't remember any of that.
"All I know is from what people and doctors have told me. That I had a brain tumour that was getting bigger and putting pressure on the left, front part of my brain. That's what caused the seizures."
Walcott, quiet, humble, calm and private, said he knew something was wrong two weeks before the seizures and the brain tumour diagnosis. "I was having some bad headaches that wouldn't go away. I went to a medicentre here in Edmonton and they gave me a prescription for some penicillin. They told me I had strep throat." If only.
Dominating the sport in Alberta like no one else in recent memory, Walcott, 31, had been Alberta's leading rider eight years in a row coming into last year's cataclysmic season. With a five-win night last weekend, Walcott added three more wins on Sunday - including the Western Canada Handicap with a perfect ride aboard Maskwecis - and is now back atop the jockey standings at Century Mile this year.
But then what did you expect? All told he has won 1,352 races from 5,737 mounts for purse earnings just shy of $18 million. In 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017 he won with more than 30 per cent of his mounts - a staggering figure that was unsurpassed by any jockey in all of North America with at least 400 mounts. There are well over 1,000 licensed jockeys in Canada and the United States. He has won five Canadian Derbies, four B.C. Derbies, the Manitoba Derby, the Oklahoma Derby, the Zia Park Derby. Even the Grande Prairie Derby.
Unassuming and unpretentious if you ask Walcott why he is so good at what he does you will get this answer: "I don't know man. The trainers get the horses ready; my agent picks out my mounts. I just do the riding. That's all."
After having his surgery pushed back twice, Walcott underwent a life-saving, five-hour operation on April 5 of last year. "I was afraid. You never know what kind of news you are going to get," he said. "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."
The surgery, however, was a complete success. "A miracle," said Walcott's longtime agent Bob Fowlis. "After the surgery Dr. Broad told him that he had gotten most of the tumour and that it came out easily. But when we went back on June 11 for a follow-up MRI Dr. Broad told Rico that there was no residual evidence of any of the tumour. I remember saying ‘I thought you said you got most of it,' and Dr. Broad replied "Well, I guess I got it all. He's lucky to be alive let alone riding again."
Walcott knows that too. "I feel blessed," said Walcott, who, on this day, is attired completely in black - black sweater, black jacket and black jeans. "Super blessed. I didn't need to take chemotherapy or radiation or anything," said Walcott, whose eyes grew wide as ripe apples and a gaping smile came over his face when he recalled Dr. Broad's words: 'No residual evidence.'
Walcott was at home - alone in the basement - while his now 9-year-old daughter, Sundai, was upstairs watching television when the first seizure happened. "They told me my little girl saved my life because she phoned her mom," Walcott said of Shakera, his common-law wife of 13 years. "I'm told my daughter didn't know if I was just pranking her or not but she made that call and told Shakera to come home. Otherwise…" Walcott said his voice trailing off not needing to finish the sentence.
Just a month after being cleared to resume riding by Dr. Broad, Walcott returned to action last year with just one mount that finished unplaced. But two days later, Walcott, won with his second comeback ride going wire-to-wire with Shanghai Mike.
It wasn't as simple as just showing up in the jockey's room and saying 'Here I am.' Before Walcott could return he had to lose a lot of weight. Put on steroids, Walcott, 5' 6", quickly ballooned from his regular weight of around 119 pounds. No matter how little he ate the weight kept piling up. At its peak Walcott shuddered when the needle on the scale went up to 149 1/2 pounds.
"I was really worried that it wasn't going to come back off," said Walcott. But when Dr. Broad took him off the steroids, which can cause fluid retention, Walcott said "The weight just started dropping off like crazy without me doing anything. I was just riding my bicycle and a little bit of stuff like that."
Walcott is now back to 119 pounds while on a diet devoid of meat or dairy. "Everything is normal again. The only thing that feels weird is when I rub my hand over the left part of my head and I feel the screws that they had to put in. Otherwise everything is perfect. It doesn't even feel like I ever had the surgery."
Walcott started riding in Barbados in 2004 and came to Alberta in 2007 when he was a raw, green 17-year-old following his older brother Rickey, who was also a multiple riding champion in Alberta after arriving in Calgary in 1999. The brothers started riding because their father, Charles, owned horses and they would go to the track with him.
"When Rickey started riding I wanted to ride too," said Rico. "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." He was obviously taught well. But there are some things that can't be trained.
"Most of my skill is in my hands," said Walcott. "You can't teach that." And then there is this: "Horses just run for him," said Fowlis pure and simple. "He tries 100 per cent on every horse no matter what the odds are. He's a strong finisher. He's good at saving ground. And he gets decent horses to ride."
Walcott, who is also a patient rider, said that 99 per cent of the time it's Fowlis who decides which horses he will ride. "Once in a while we might be down to two horses we could ride in a race and Bob will tell me to make the call. Bob is very good at what he does."
Every trainer wants Walcott. "He rides the cheap horses as hard as he rides the ones in stakes races," trainer Rod Cone once said. "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."
Walcott has been thinking about just that — leaving Alberta and trying to make it south of the border for several years. Those thoughts are more frequent these days. "Alberta has been very good to me but, sure, I would like to ride with the best and on the best horses," said Walcott, who said his two most favourite moments weren't wins but bad defeats - the two chances he got to ride in the Breeders' Cup (Blue Dancer in 2014 and Broadway Empire in 2013).
"But it's not easy. You have to find a good horse to ride that will get you going. And the big issue now is the border. But, yes, I feel like I can ride with anybody. But you need the horses."
Fowlis said a connection Walcott has to hot Florida-based trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. could be Rico's springboard. Joseph, 33, was also born in Barbados. Last year, Joseph won 95 of 370 starts for earnings of $2.8 million. Already this year Joseph, whose barn includes top three-year-old NY Traffic, who just missed against Authentic in the July 18 Haskell, has won 72 races for earnings of $2.8 million.
But Walcott isn't concerned about whatever happens. "The tumour could have ended my life. You could wake up with a heart attack or a stroke. It's too easy to worry. When I was waiting for the results after the surgery I kept telling myself 'Everything will be OK; everything will be OK. When you worry that's when bad things happen."
"You can't outrun death."
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