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Remembering Ricky Griffith

August 6, 2023

“I just took to him. Really likeable personality. Honestly, the guy made you laugh. He just had a personality that was catching. Very warm and catching. Talking with him and getting to know him, ten to fifteen years after, didn’t change – just a very likeable and loving personality.”

The sun is warm, Woodbine’s backstretch is bustling with activity, but the air is full of emotion as Chris Martin talks about his good friend and long-time horseman Ricky Griffith.

Griffith passed away on Tuesday, August 1, at 57, after a heroic battle with ALS. Griffith’s passing weathered a tough blow to the racing community and to those who understood the pivotal role he played in helping Barbadians establish themselves on the Canadian racing circuit.

Martin met Griffith when he came to Canada in the 80s. At that time, Martin was galloping horses for Laurie Silvera. He is quick to recall Griffith’s riding skills:

“Polished rider. When I saw him for the first time breezing a horse for us, I said, ‘Wow, a very polished rider.’ The thing about Ricky that most people to this day don’t realize is that he was a natural left-hander. Ricky is a lefty, but you couldn’t tell with him, because he could use his right hand as good as his left hand. But he was a natural lefty,” said Martin, who is a Jamaican-born horseman, who exercised horses and also worked in Woodbine’s broadcast department.

Ricky’s career in racing can be traced back to the island of Barbados. Griffith learned to ride alongside Sean Hall at Melrose Stables in the parish of St. Thomas. According to Hall, Wendel Williams taught the boys to ride on former racehorses such as Angeline, Autumn Leaves, Italian Holiday, and a stallion named Green Ginger.

“You couldn’t want a better childhood. It was peaceful, you had horses, and it was really a family thing. Every weekend the family would go up there to watch us ride. It was amazing,” said Hall.

Hall has known Griffith since he was seven years old. They met at the races, where Griffith’s father, Geoffrey, rode. “I used to go to races in the early 70s, and I would have met Ricky as little kids at the races. His dad used to ride top horses there, and my dad was a big fan of races,” said Hall.

Griffith’s father, Geoffrey, was a jockey, while Hall’s father, Sir Wes Hall, was a notable cricketer. So, with both fathers hailing from sports-driven backgrounds, it’s not surprising the next generation would follow in their footsteps. However, Hall quickly points out that Ricky wasn’t super gung ho to get himself in the saddle and learn how to race ride.

Ricky Griffith
Ricky Griffith, photo provided by Chris Griffith

“If it wasn’t for me, I don’t think Ricky would have got involved in horse racing because Ricky didn’t show any interest or want to ride. We started hanging out, and when I started learning to ride, he said, ‘oh, I’m coming with Sean.”

At 15, Griffith received his license to ride at the Garrison Savannah in Barbados.

In March 1984, a horse named Tinkers Image would undoubtedly set the stage for Griffith’s storied career in horse racing. Tinkers Image was on the reserved list for the Barbados Cockspur Gold Cup until the morning of the big race day. A scratch meant Tinkers Image drew in for the race. Griffith guided Tinkers Image to victory in the 3rd installment of the Gold Cup and became the first Barbadian rider to win the race.

While there are many wins to talk about, Ricky’s brother Chris Griffith also mentions the 1986 Barbados Derby win with Paddy Bird, a horse trained by Chally Jones and owner Phillip Mosley.

A year earlier, in 1985, Griffith found himself riding at Belmont Park. He won his first race on September 4, 1985 aboard Make Mea Match. According to Hall, Griffith was the first Barbadian rider to win a race at big sandy. Two years later he ventured to Canada with Anthony Husbands.

“When he came to Canada, he only came to Canada on vacation. It wasn’t anything planned. Anthony and Ricky knew some people up here, and they said they would try it,” said Hall.

When the Barbadian horsemen arrived in Canada, Hall acknowledges that Margaret Sinclair and Sophia Phillips were instrumental in setting them up with licenses and starting at the track.

The intended holiday turned into a life-long venture for Griffith, who soon found himself winning races at Woodbine and Fort Erie.

Ricky Griffith
Ricky Griffith, photo provided by Chris Griffith

“Ricky came in ’87 and fairly quickly started winning races at Fort Erie, and a lot of people took notice. At that time, Barbados was not a place people thought of for jockeys,” said Griffith.

On June 14, 1987, Ricky won his first race in Canada aboard Rising Young Star. A month later, he secured his first victory at Woodbine aboard Master Trapper. That year, he rode in 366 races and won 46 of those starts. The following year he would go on to ride in over 700 races and win 77 races. Overall, on the U.S. and Canadian racing circuit, Griffith won 494 races and earned over $7 million during his time in the irons.

It was indeed Ricky’s riding skills that got him noticed on the Canadian racing scene. Chris Martin can again attest to that.

“I was really surprised how polished a rider he was. As polished as Patrick is and all these guys are from Barbados, Ricky was really neat on a horse, a natural seat and a natural rhythm when he was driving at them, just really good,” said Martin.

Ricky Griffith’s name has become synonymous with the phrase “opening doors for Barbadian horsemen.” His brother, Chris, explains why that is.

“Just the way he would carry himself, well-spoken, and he knew how to be a professional – it just made the transition a little easier, the acceptance by trainers. They expected us to be good. They were very quick to put you on a horse because they expected you to be good or as good as Ricky,” said Griffith.

Chris arrived in Canada not long after Ricky, and his riding opportunities were impacted by his brother’s success at the track. “By the time I got here, it was like, ‘if you are as good as this guy, we will give you a shot. I started to get opportunities because of what he had already done,” said Griffith.

In North America, Ricky Griffith rode close to 5,000 races from the mid-80s up until the late 90s. He rode several stakes winners such as Red Journey (Breeders’ Cup Stakes, ’92), Sermon Time (Shady Well Stakes and Autumn Yearling Stakes, ’92), Klondike Strike (George C. Hendrie Stakes ’96), and Mordacious (Ontario Lassie Stakes, ’96, Flaming Page ’97) – to name a few career highlights.

Ricky Griffith
Ricky Griffith, photo provided by Chris Griffith

Griffith rode his last race in November 1998 at Woodbine. While one door closed, another opened for Griffith, who found himself working as an assistant trainer for Mark Casse. Griffith worked the Casse operation for eleven years before going out on his own in 2009. He trained for notable owners such as Glenn Harvey.

In October 2009, Griffith secured his first win at Fort Erie with Fudge the Books with his brother Chris aboard. The following spring, Griffith secured his first win at Woodbine with Luna Blu, who was ridden to victory by Barbadian jock, Jono Jones. As a trainer, some of his career highlights include multiple stakes wins with Dan The Tin Man. The son of Songandaprayer also placed third in the Gr. 3 2013 Highlander Stakes. Griffith also trained Savvy Hester, who won the 2014 River Memories Stakes.

Ricky’s brother, Chris notes that his brother suffered from ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis for the last four years. According to the ALS Society, “at any point in time, there are approximately 3,000 Canadians living with ALS.” The ALS society notes that “approximately 1,000 Canadians are diagnosed with the disease yearly.”

In May 2023, Griffith’s daughters, Melissa and Natalie, appeared on the horse racing talk show, Journeys to talk about their dad and explain some facts about ALS. As Natalie explained, there is no cure for ALS, but there are medications to slow down the progress of the disease. Ninety percent of it is sporadic, meaning there is no certainty of what causes it, while ten percent could be familial (genetics). ALS can also affect anybody 40 years or older.

On the talk show, Griffith also participated (off camera) alongside his daughters, responding to questions from Sean Hall and co-host, Leroy Trotman. He mentioned he missed going to the sales and food.

For Ricky, some of the first symptoms were slurred speech, and according to Chris, his brother had noticed that something felt weird on his left side. On November 10, 2019, Ricky won the La Prevoyante Stakes with Sav. During the post-race interview, viewers could tell the trainer’s speech was off. The first assumption was that he was drinking, but it was a symptom of ALS.

According to his daughter Natalie, he had multiple medical tests to determine what was happening. After seeing a second neurologist, Ricky was diagnosed with ALS.

Despite the diagnosis, Griffith trained horses up until the end of last year.

Barbadian trainer, Keith Edwards, has been Griffith’s assistant and sub-trainer at Woodbine during this difficult time.

“I was his assistant up until last year, and last year I was his sub-trainer. But I can still say his assistant because being a sub trainer, I didn’t do it on my own. I listened to his words. Every morning he would send me a chart of what he wanted done with every horse, and he wanted it done his way – up until last year,” said Edwards.

Edwards met Griffith two decades ago on Woodbine’s backstretch.

“I started at Mark Casse, where Ricky and Greg De Gannes were both assistants. Greg was the assistant but yet the veterinarian. I was always in that circle. When I left Mark Casse, I went to work with Greg until his passing. So there were days I would leave from Greg and I would go to Ricky Griffith’s house, go to his barn, meet him places, and sit down and talk on a friendly basis. When Greg passed away, I went to work with Ricky Griffith. He always pushed me in the right direction and gave me good horses to look after. I won stakes races with Dan the Tin Man. He would always push me to do better. He always thought I could do better. Even if I thought I was at my best, he thought I could do better,” said Edwards, who got his assistant trainer’s license in 2015.

Although Edwards has overseen the training of Griffith’s horses, he acknowledges the lines of communication remained open between the two trainers.

“Even when he got ill, he would text me and tell me what he wanted done. He was as sharp as a tack even in his illness. I could video a horse if I didn’t understand what was going on with it and send the video to him. He would send a message back to me to tell me what to do.”

There’s a deep level of reverence that echoes through Edwards’ words when asked to comment about what Ricky was like to work with. “He always would push me to understand what he saw or what to look for.”

Ricky Griffith in the winner’s circle after winning the La Prevoyante Stakes with Sav on November 10, 2019 (Woodbine Broadcast)

Ricky was not only a jockey and trainer, he also had a very good eye when it came time to purchasing young horses.

“Once Ricky Griffith was looking at a young horse it had to be good. If Ricky Griffith bid on that horse – ‘I can take a bid.’ That’s how they looked at it. He had this special eye. Ninety five percent of the horses he bought at the sales turned out to be half decent horses and that’s going back to Ria Antonia,” said Edwards.

Griffith purchased Ria Antonia, at the 2012 Keenland yearling sale for $9,000. She raced and won for Griffith but was then shipped to the U.S. to run. Two years later, she would go through another Keenland sale again, this time fetching $1.8 million from Katsumi Yoshida.

Many memories of Ricky are being shared across social media by family and friends. Asked what he was like as a person, Chris does not falter with a response.

“He was a very fun loving person. His personality was somewhere close to an entertainer. He would like to make people laugh. Sometimes I would tease him when he was at the track when he would put on his professional trainer face. He was more of a joker than being serious.”

Forever young at heart, his memory will live on the minds of those who knew the horseman.

On Facebook, Chris Griffith shared a post about his brother and the Griffith family, who loved him and will miss him dearly.

Husband of Maria, father of Melissa, Kyle, Natalie, Morgan, and Sumayah. Brother of Ricky, Sheron, Lana, Christopher, Matthew, Alexandra, and Garric. Grandfather of Jade, Casey, Lincoln, Maverick, Julian, and Madison. Nephew of “Aunt P,” Sheila, Celia, Kenneth, Cheryl, Ernie, Herbert. Cousin of Lesa, Grafton, Felicia, Debbie, Stacey, Dwight, Tiffany. Brother-in-law Carver. Uncle of Krystan, Earl, Carron, Gabby, Damon, Courtney, Bianca, Aidan, Jelani, Chiara, Nyla, Jaden. 

A gathering will be held at the Brampton Funeral Home & Cemetery – 10061 Chinguacousy Rd. Brampton (at Bovaird) on Monday, August 14 from 4 – 8 p.m. No mourning colours. Instead of flowers, the family requests donations to be made to ALS Canada, an organization that provided limitless support to Ricky. 

By Hayley Morrison, for Woodbine Communications

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