Although this feature focuses on Sarah Ritchie, a respected assistant trainer who happens to work for a Hall of Fame conditioner, we should note a spoiler alert: namely, a scene-stealing, horse-loving feline by the name of Gator.
A fixture at Woodbine for almost 10 years, Ritchie currently works for champion trainer and Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame inductee Mark Frostad.
And while Ritchie has had a big impact on the barn’s success, she’s certainly not the only one attracting attention. In fact, it could be argued the highest-profile star of the show isn’t a horse or human.
How long have you been in horse racing?
“My first year at the racetrack was as a groom for Jim Day in 2006. My second year, I moved to another barn and worked as a groom and moved up enough to take on some assistant duties. I was there for three years before I moved to Mark in 2009. I started as a groom and then ran his shed that winter in Florida before becoming his full-time assistant.”
What are some of your most memorable moments to-date?
“My first win on the track was with a horse named His Smoothness. His sire was Sky Classic who I watched win the Rothmans International in 1991 long before I came to work at Woodbine. He was also trained by Jim Day. The first year I was in Kentucky working for Mark, I went to Pin Oak for a tour and actually met Sky Classic.
“One of the biggest highlights for me though was when Irish Mission won the Oaks. I had her with me in Florida all winter and we broke her maiden that spring in Keeneland. She then went on to win the Woodbine Oaks, run second in the Queen’s Plate and then win the Breeders’ Stakes.”
What’s the best part of working for Hall of Famer Mark Frostad?
“Mark is great to work for. He’s accomplished so much, yet allows you to question and suggest things and have input into the daily running of an operation. You always feel like you are part of a team and actively involved. Being able to have an opinion and input into things is a refreshing change and really allows you to grow as an assistant. I love that he’s always available for me to pick his brain about anything.”
Tell us the story behind Woodbine’s most famous cat.
“I had thought about getting a barn cat for awhile, but the timing never really worked out. Last winter, we were at Palm Meadows and there were problems happening down at Calder. A lot of the horsemen had to move out from the barns and many of the cats were getting left behind. One trainer had moved into the same barn as us and his assistant Sheri called me one day and told me there was a cat that was following the tack shop owner around crying because he was so hungry and wondered if would I be interested in taking him. He was feral at one point since he has a clipped ear, however friendly enough that someone must have been feeding him. He was a bundle of personality from day one. Gator arrived that afternoon and we’ve never looked back.”
Why do you think he’s gained such notoriety?
“He is an absolute ham and gives the best stink eye around. He’s such a character and has so much personality. I swear he can understand what you say to him and talks back to you as well. He’s so friendly and seems to be almost like a little dog in some ways. He comes when you call him. He would follow me up and down the shed doing night check in Florida. Whether he’s bounding down the shedrow with a mouse or play fighting with Mark in the office, he just totally cracks me up.”
What’s the cutest interaction you’ve seen?
“We have a horse called Tap the Pistol who is a bit more of the nervous type. In Florida, the stalls are open on top, so he used to walk around on the ledges and jump down on his back. You would walk by and he would be perched up there on his back. Why he chose that horse I’m not sure, but they both seemed very settled about the whole thing.
What type of gifts has Gator received from racing fans?
“He seems to be very popular since he launched his Twitter account (@Gatorkitten). He has had Temptations Tumblers (cat treats) sent to him from the U.S. by one of his Twitter followers – they aren’t available in Canada. I loved that they were addressed to Gator, c/o Woodbine Racetrack. I think security was a bit shocked when they arrived at the gate. They fast became his favourite though!”