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Niagara Falls
Thursday, September 28, 2023
Playing with Strangers: Meeting a hall of famer from the world of horse racing
Canadian Horse Racing hall of fame Trevor Ritchie, centre, signs autographs at a Legends Day celebration. (HARNESS RACING UPDATE)
Writer Rick Janes, centre, met Gemma and Trevor Ritchie while golfing in Niagara. (SUPPLIED)

As children, we’re taught to be wary of strangers, but playing golf with strangers is something unique to the game. Getting paired with some random folks on the first tee is golf’s version of a blind date. You can meet the most fascinating people with this little leap of faith.

Rick Janes
Special to The Lake Report

Trevor and Gemma Ritchie were in Niagara Falls from their home in Acton, an hour north of Toronto, for a game of golf before heading to the casino.

We met on the first tee at the Grand Niagara Golf Club, arguably the best course in the Niagara Region. It was a beautiful summer day in 2021 when COVID started to feel like it was behind us, even if it wasn’t.

Not long into the round I asked Trevor what he did for a living. He introduced himself as a retired jockey, not something you hear often, but at 5 foot 4 with a slight build he still looked every bit the part even for a man in his 60s.

He later explained that he was a harness racing driver “because most people don’t relate to harness racing but know instantly what a jockey is.”

When I asked if he had won any important races, his wife Gemma replied, “He won everything.” Later Trevor quietly volunteered that he had recently been inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

After the round I realized that our parting in the parking lot was too quick after four hours of cheering each other’s shots.

As I drove away, I was hoping that our paths would cross again as I wanted to know what brought Trevor and Gemma to the game of golf.

Trevor Ritchie grew up across the street from the Western Fair Raceway in London, Ont. He was definitely not from a golfing family. His mother was a single parent with four mouths to feed, working menial jobs wherever she could find them.

They say location is everything and if not for his backyard we might never have heard of Trevor Ritchie the harness racing driver.

With no interest in formal education, he left school three months into his first year of high school, gathered his belongings at home and moved across the street into the new third-floor dormitory on the Western Fair property. His life as a horseman began at age 15.

In a career that spanned four decades and some 25,000 races, Ritchie drove the winners of more than $70-million on the track, and won 3,710 races, none bigger than the $1-million Hambletonian at the Meadowlands in New Jersey.

The race that Ritchie calls the “Holy Grail” is the highest honour possible for a sulky driver, his Stanley Cup moment. He retired in 2014 at the age of 58 as one of the most decorated drivers in Canadian history.

When he and I spoke on the phone earlier this year, he and Gemma had recently celebrated 35 years of marriage.

They had just returned from their winter home in Boynton Beach, Fla., a short drive from the Sunshine Meadows Equestrian Village where they train the one or two yearlings that they buy every year. I was delighted that they remembered our game in the summer of 2021.

 “I started playing golf on a short course with my buddies from the racetrack in my late teens” said Ritchie.

“When Gemma and I moved to Acton, we played a hilly nine-hole course called Calerin that plays like 18 with two sets of tees. I’d walk, carrying my bag, mostly for the exercise. At the time I had mornings and afternoons free, so Gemma and I would often play five days a week.”

Over the years, racecourse injuries have taken their toll on Ritchie.

“There is no question that injuries affect my golf swing. I broke my back years ago, so my shoulders don’t get turned as much as they need to. I’ve also lost 70 per cent of the movement in my left ankle, which further restricts my swing.”

Surgery to address his ankle problems sidelined him for months in 1991. Bored and unable to drive, he earned a licence to be an independent options trader and traded futures contracts on the floor of the Toronto Stock Exchange for nine months even as he began racing again.

He may be the only harness racing driver in history to trade on the stock exchange floor.

Ritchie turns 67 this year and remains active working for one of the top breeding farms in Kentucky.

”I’m what you call a conformation specialist. Gemma and I look at maybe a thousand yearlings between June and July basically rating them for the two major sales in the fall. I don’t play as much golf as I used to but Gemma and I still try to play as many nice courses as we can.”

I don’t recall how any of us played that day at Grand Niagara two years ago. It’s not important.

There is a certain joy about spending four hours in the company of strangers with the only common thread the game of golf. You can meet the most fascinating people.

Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Rick Janes is a member of the Golf Journalists Association of Canada and past commissioner of the Canadian Tour.  

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