TORONTO, September 9 – A veteran horseman, accomplished rider and familiar face to all who visited Woodbine, Darren Fortune’s loss in a tragic training accident on Friday morning will resonate for many years to come.
The 43-year-old Fortune, a native of Barbados, galloped horses in the morning and worked as an outrider in the afternoon escorting horses on and off the track.
An outrider is often considered the police of the racetrack. When something goes wrong, they’re the ones who come racing into danger to help.
“I can’t even tell you the number of times I saw him flying down the backstretch on his pony going after a loose horse. He saved not only people’s lives but horses lives too when they got loose. He was relentless,” said Woodbine’s Clerk of Scales, Alison Read, who oversees the jockey’s room.
His reputation as a hard worker was well known among those who live their life at Woodbine where morning training begins daily at 6 a.m., often before the sun begins its ascent.
“Darren was there for everybody. He was at his best when there was someone who needed help,” said Woodbine’s chief outrider Rob Love. “We’ve worked together since 2008 and he was always there for me and any rider that needed help.”
Working with horses is an exercise in patience and persistence. Some horses are natural athletes, blessed with maturity. But, there are many horses that possess the raw talent but need an education to allow them to reach their potential.
Fortune was there to educate one exceptionally gifted pupil in Perfect Shirl. Regally bred, by Perfect Soul and out of the multiple graded stakes winning dam Lady Shirl, Perfect Shirl was built to be a star.
“She was a hard case to deal with in the morning and Darren was there to bring her along and show her the ropes,” said Love.
The feisty filly needed a personal touch and it was Fortune who helped Hall of Fame trainer Roger Attfield bring the filly to the top flight. In 2011, following a second in the Grade 2 Canadian Stakes at Woodbine, Perfect Shirl shipped to Churchill Downs and landed the prestigious Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf.
“He helped horses get to the races and many of them to become featured horses,” said Love. “He was also my main guy in the afternoon whether it was helping horses or just working with the public.”
As loved as he was for his work in the morning, in the afternoon Fortune was an ambassador for Woodbine bringing new fans into the sport.
“He loved to let kids pet his pony. Darren enjoyed that as much as any of us, letting people that were new to the track understand what it is that we do. He enjoyed it as much as they did,” said Love.
His loss is going to take time to settle in for those who knew and worked alongside him.
“I’ll miss that big smile,” said Read. “He was always so happy coming in to work. He loved to meet new fans and was happy to meet people and let them pet his pony. He was a good man and a very hard worker.
“I’ll miss his generosity and I really feel for his family,” continued Read. “We’re all a big family back here.”
While it was the hard work that Fortune was best known for, it should be known that said work was one of the many joys of the young man’s life.
Tyrone Harding, a former jockey and now assistant clerk of scales at Woodbine, rode with Fortune in Barbados. Many years later, the duo crossed paths again in Canada and, until recently, worked horses together each morning for trainer Nick Gonzalez.
“I had to quit. I got old,” grinned Harding. “We worked horses together and had so much fun laughing and joking around with Troy Reid, Anthony Bennett and Terry Brooker, especially coming home from the half-mile pole. The horses would be quiet and seemed to enjoy our chit-chatting too. We’d come home together laughing so much that people would say, ‘You guys have the best job, coming home being so happy.’
“We really enjoyed it,” continued Harding. “We loved working for Nick and we had lots of fun.”
Their relationship was a special one and they took comfort in each other’s company with little reminders of home.
“On dark days, I’d go home and cook food and I’d always bring in something extra for him and he loved it. Especially my curry crab with dumplings. Anytime we came back after a dark day he’d ask, ‘Did you go home and cook?’
“And if I said no, he’d laugh and say, ‘I don’t want to hear you!’”
On Friday morning, Harding, walking horses at the Gonzalez barn, had his final exchange with Fortune, who was on his way out to breeze a horse in company with jockey, and girlfriend, Aimee Auger.
“I saw him go out and I asked him who he was on. He said, ‘This is ‘BP,’” said Harding, referring to the promising two-year-old Beer Pressure. “I didn’t really think of it again until I heard the siren going and then Aimee came rushing back with one of our horses that went out to work with him. She told me Darren was hurt, got off her horse and rushed off.”
In the world of professional sports, injuries are a part of life and horse racing is no different. While Harding was worried, he had no way of knowing that final smile with a friend would be his last.
“Martha Gonzalez called from the hospital to let us know that Darren didn’t make it and right then it hit me. How can it be that one moment you’re there talking to someone so nice and friendly and the next moment, it’s gone,” said Harding. “I can hold back tears right now because I know what life is and we have to go some time. But, when it’s sudden like that it’s hard to accept.
“The whole barn was so sad, but we all did what we had to do,” continued Harding. “This may sound funny, but it’s true…the horses that we were walking this morning that might normally be jumping around, they were all quiet. They sensed what the whole barn was feeling.”
It’s a sombre moment and red eyes belie the brave face that Harding holds in the midst of adversity. In time, he will remember his friend with the big smile, and bigger ears, who only wanted to live his life near horses and try to help.
Breaking the silence, Harding recalls how when one of the horses they galloped in the morning would win a race in the afternoon, they’d find a moment to make eye contact and deliver the Usain Bolt ‘lightning strike’.
“My horse would win and I would look for Darren and give him the lightning bolt strike,” laughed Harding, chest pushed out, index finger pointed skyward. “And if Darren’s horse won, he gave me that lightning strike right back.”
The gesture was always in fun, but also demonstrated a sense of character and a pride in their craft for a job well done.
Of course, sometimes it was a chance to wind each other up as well.
“One time, a horse I rode raced very badly and there was Darren riding by on his pony giving me that lightning bolt asking, ‘what happened!’” laughed Harding.
From laughter comes the sobering realization that his friend won’t be coming into work tomorrow.
“We lost someone great today,” said Harding. “He will be missed, definitely, but his memory will be with us for a very long time.”