Jockey Rico Walcott is no stranger to being asked questions about his career. Even more so of late, given his comeback to the saddle after undergoing surgery in the spring for a brain tumour.
Asked about the tumour, Walcott’s voice softens.
“Well, I don’t worry about nothing more in life,” he said. “It could have been the end of my life the other day when I had those seizures, so I don’t worry about anything no more. I don’t worry about money or nothing. I’m just living day-by-day now, because I could have been gone pretty easy, like that.”
For a jockey who is usually making headlines with stakes wins, the news of his brain tumour struck a very different chord within the racing community; a chord, that left his fans in Canada and in his home country of Barbados wondering what the future would yield for the 30-year-old jockey.
Lindon Yarde, a racing correspondent for The Nation newspaper in Barbados said the news made a deep impact with racing fans on the island.
“From a fan’s perspective you became instantly concerned, being that he has represented Barbados with great success over the years. He is very much like one of our family and very much in need of praise. So, we were instantly concerned. It went on social media, people were making calls and people were very concerned — especially in the racing fraternity in Barbados. We were just hoping and praying that all would go well for him, and that he would make a full recovery and make it back to the saddle,” said Yarde, who is also a race caller and colour commentator at the local racetrack known as the Garrison Savannah.
Horse racing is a precarious and dangerous profession. It’s a far cry from the comfort of a desk job, and the inherent risks of being injured are weighed against the reward of pocketing some purse money.
In Walcott’s case, his profession had nothing to do with the events that unfolded earlier this year.
On Saturday, March 4, the Barbadian rider was going about his day just as planned — relaxing and watching the Sandy Lane Barbados Gold Cup at his home in Edmonton.
“I never had any kind of signs that I had something going on in my head. Never had a sign. I was watching the Gold Cup back home on my iPad, and after the Gold Cup race finished one of my friends called me from the races, like two hours after the race, to talk about the race and what I thought about the race,” Walcott said. “I was talking to him on Whatsapp and his phone cut out… When his phone cut out I hung up the phone and that was a Saturday, and I woke up in the hospital on Monday. I didn’t know anything that happened after that. When I woke up Monday in the hospital they told me I had a brain tumour on the front left part of my brain.”
Walcott credits his 8-year-old daughter Sundai for giving him that second lease on life.
“The first thing when I woke up in the hospital and I realized what was going on they told me that my little girl was the one that saved my life, because I was at home and I was in the basement and it was only me and her,” Walcott said. “I think she was watching TV or something like that. When I started to have the first seizure she took the iPad and called her mom (Shakera) at work and said, ‘I don’t know if daddy is pranking me or not, but I think you should come home.’”
Recanted to him by family, Walcott quietly recalls the details of that evening.
“Shakera left work and rushed to come home and my daughter called my uncle that was upstairs and he came down and then the ambulance came. I had the second seizure in the ambulance and then the third one was when I reached the hospital.”
Walcott was diagnosed with a Grade II astrocytoma tumour on the front left side of his brain. He underwent a five-hour surgery in early April to remove the tumour.
A harrowing experience for the jock, Walcott’s main concern before and after the surgery was whether he would be able to continue doing what he loves.
“June 11th is when I got back my MRI results and the surgeon said all the rest of the tumour is gone and I can get the okay to go back and ride. I got on my first horse like a month after in the morning and started exercising.”
Not only was the news a huge sigh of relief for Walcott, but also for his loved ones, his fans and, of course, the jock’s long time agent Bob Fowlis, who’s been with Walcott throughout the ordeal.
“They said it was probably cancerous, but the MRI after the surgery in early June — the results of that — is there is no residual evidence of any of the tumour left,” Fowlis said. “So, they got it all. I was with him when the doctor gave him his good news and he said, ‘We will do a follow up MRI on you in a year just to see how you are doing.’ But he said, ‘As of now you can basically resume and go back to your normal life.’”
A jockey agent for 24 years, Fowlis has been working alongside Walcott for nearly a decade. A coincidence or not, Walcott has been at the top of the standings since Fowlis took his book.
“I believe this would be our ninth year together. He’s been the leading rider every year I’ve had him.”
Walcott’s racing career began when a four-legged friend occupied his backyard in Brighton Hill in Barbados.
“I don’t remember the age, but pretty young because my dad used to keep a horse in the yard at home,” said Walcott.
The horse that took up residency in the family yard was named Flashing Princess and was purchased by Walcott’s dad, Charles Jones.
“She was a racehorse, but when my dad got her from one of his friends he bred her and got a couple of foals from her.”
Jones also raced and won several races with a horse at the Garrison.
On top of having a retired racehorse at home and a parent involved in the industry, Rico’s older brother, Rickey Walcott, also decided to pursue a career in the irons.
Rickey began his riding career at the Garrison in December of 1996. Two years later, he won his first race in Barbados. In the spring of 1999, Rickey moved his tack abroad to Stampede Park in Alberta.
In 2004, Rico followed in his brother’s footsteps, getting his first taste of sport at the Garrison.
“I think the first horse I rode was a horse called Blazing Colours for trainer Liz Deane,” Walcott said.
Asked to recall that very first race, Walcott is straight to the point.
“I think the most nervous part was getting out of the gates. As soon as I got out of the gates I was good after.”
Learning and honing his craft at home for a couple of years, Walcott then decided to also move his tack abroad.
“My brother was here (in Canada) and I guess my dad wanted me to come here because back in Barbados we were only running twice a month and here in Canada we were running four times a week. So it was way better,” said Walcott who began his career on the Canadian racing circuit about 12 years ago at Stampede Park.
In 2010, the jock captured his first graded stakes aboard No Hesitation in the Grade 3 Canadian Derby — a prestigious stakes race his older brother Rickey secured back in 2003 with multiple graded stakes winner Raylene.
Not simply following in his brother’s footsteps, Rico continued to pad the riding resume with a handful of graded stakes wins across Western Canada over the last nine years.
Walcott captured four Grade 3 wins in 2013, with victories in the Ballerina Stakes, the Canadian Derby, the British Columbia Derby as well as the Oklahoma Derby. The following year, he landed three graded stakes including the 2014 Canadian Derby, with Robertino Diodoro’s trainee Edison. In 2017, the jock guided Chief Know It All to a win in the British Columbia Derby.
Last year, culminating in the last season at Northlands Park, the jock secured the Derby with Diodoro’s trainee Sky Promise. About two weeks later, Walcott guided the dark bay colt to victory in the BC Derby.
While the Grade 3 glitter is still settling on the resume, it should be duly noted the jock has over 1,300 wins to his name and has been consistently within the top tier of the jockey standings for nearly the last decade.
Asked what has been a standout moment in his career thus far, Walcott doesn’t hesitate to respond.
“I would probably say the 2013 Derby I won in Edmonton, because I brought my mom from Barbados and she was here,” said Walcott who won the race aboard a bay gelding named Broadway Empire.
A concrete foundation and an unwavering commitment to the sport he loves, Walcott has been in high demand on the circuit.
On July 11, Walcott made his comeback on For Cash — a chestnut gelding Walcott has teamed up with on various occasions over the last five years to capture several handicap stakes races.
While For Cash did not showcase his best performance that afternoon, it will remain an emotional day etched in the jock’s memory.
“There were lots of people. I was just trying to keep calm. I was trying not to let the crowd get me nervous because there were so many people. I told a couple of my friends that are riders that this brain tumour had nothing to do with any injury during races and I told some of them how funny life is, like this brain tumour could have ended my career and it had nothing to do with horse racing. So I told them best to take advantage of what you can do right now, because I wasn’t looking for this. As I told one of my friends, I would have rather broken a hand or broke a foot before the brain tumour. But I had no options on what I could have got.”
Asked about his goals for the remainder of this season, Walcott stayed quiet for a few seconds before responding.
“Just try to finish out the season healthy and safe. I’m already ready too far behind (in the standings) and I can’t catch up right now, so just being safe for the rest of the season that is left,” said the jock who recently secured the HBPA Starter Stakes with Greg Tracy’s trainee Got My Mo.
Although Walcott continues to inch closer to the top 10 in the jockey standings, his recent journey in navigating life after a very serious brain surgery has given him a new perspective: he’s already found a winner’s circle that lies far beyond the racing oval.