Tuesday, 28 May 2024 22:35

Undeterred and Unstoppable: Jockey Desmond Bryan Triumphs Against All Odds

Undeterred and Unstoppable: Jockey Desmond Bryan Triumphs Against All Odds Photo composition - Coady Photo/Ryan Haynes

Nothing can stop jockey Desmond Bryan.

Not injuries. Not being aboard longshots.

Nothing.

“It’s the passion,” said Bryan. “It gets in your blood and you never want to stop.”

From 2017 to 2022 Bryan hardly ever rode. In 2017 and 2018 he never rode a single race.

“Injuries,” said Bryan, who didn’t really want to do an interview.

“I’m a very private person. I like to lay low, do my job and let my riding talk for me.”

Those rides speak volumes.

Last Sunday – on a make-up card to make up for a cancelled card due to heavy forest-fire smoke - Bryan completed a rare hat trick. All with longshots.

He won the third on Vantasticcanaveral out of Monica Russell’s barn in a fierce wire-to-wire, five-and-a-half furlong duel with Frostedbird that began at the starting gate and ended with Bryan winning by a head.

Making his first start of the year and having shown little last year – a long string of out-of-the-money finishes, Vantasticcanaveral won at odds of 27-1.

“That was the first time I had ever been on that horse,” said Bryan. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

Two races later Bryan was in the winner’s circle again. This time with Bakfire Baby, who was sent out by trainer Robert Kingston.

“I had never been on her before either. But I knew she was winter-trained in Vancouver and she had already made a start there a couple of weeks ago so I thought she’d be fit enough.”

But Bryan knew something else.

“I looked in the Racing Form and saw that there was no speed in the race so I sent her to the front.” That was the race. Bakfire Baby never looked back. She opened up a three-length lead with three-eighths of a mile left and cruised home winning by an astonishing nine lengths.

Bakfire Baby paid $16.80 to win.

Bryan still wasn’t done.

In the sixth race of the card, he rode The Beat for Darcy Hawkes.

This time he was far from the front. Fifth after a quarter mile, The Beat dropped back to sixth at the three-eighths pole. Then he started his charge getting to Bare Back Jack at the top of the stretch. The two dueled from there with The Beat inching away and winning the stretch duel by half a length.

The Beat was 16-1. It was his first start of the year, but he had been close in his last four races last year. All with Bryan aboard.

“He’s usually a router but he won this race going five-and-a-half furlongs. He seems to run for me”

A smart, talented rider Bryan was one of Alberta’s top jockeys in the early and mid 2000 seasons.

Bryan won 65 races in 2003; 72 races in 2004; 62 wins in 2005, a career high 77 races in 2006 and 60 races in 2007.

Then he started getting hurt. In 2017 he broke his pelvis. Then a broken collar bone in 2021 limited him to just 12 mounts. The previous year he only rode in 58 races.

“One time a horse flipped on me in the barn area. Another time a horse flipped on me in the starting gate.”

Along the way he also broke an ankle and tore his bicep.

“I spent so much time being hurt,” said Bryan.

“I try and stay healthy. I keep my fingers crossed and I pray.

“But, I don’t want to talk about getting hurt. It scares me and you can’t be scared as a rider. I don’t think about it. I ride free.”

Bryan also doesn’t want to talk about his age.

“I’m keeping that to myself,” he said.

But you can guess.

Bryan has won 727 races from 7,708 mounts. Originally from Barbados, a check on the equibase website shows that he started riding in Calgary in 1997.

Short of riders in Alberta, Keith Marrington, former Calgary Stampede Racing manager and also the director of the Calgary Stampede Rodeo and Chuckwagon races, talked four jockeys to come north to ride.

Quincy Welch, a six-time Alberta leading rider, Rene Latchman and Jamar Maughn were also convinced.

Bryan is the only one of the four still riding.

“When we arrived in Calgary – the four of us on the same flight - it was a Friday and it was snowing,” said Bryan. “I’d never seen snow before. And it was cold. Like a freezer.

“We were all good friends. Like brothers. Our kids played soccer together.

“When the opportunity to ride in Canada came the four of us took it. We used to race five days a week in Alberta.”

The four all had success – one Sunday at Stampede Park Welch and Bryan swept the eight horse card; Welch and Bryan both won four races. That prompted Anderson Trotman to come to Alberta from Barbados in 1998. The next year multiple jockey champion Rickey Walcott came and then almost a decade later Rickey’s brother Rico, also a multiple champion jockey, came to Alberta as well.

“It was hard racing in Barbados,” said Bryan. “They had so any jockeys. And good jockeys. Patrick Husbands rode in Barbados before he came to Canada too,” Bryan said of the Ontario jockey who has won 3,642 races.

Bryan remembers how he started in thoroughbred racing like it was yesterday.

“My family had two horses. But I’ll never forget the first time I saw horse racing. It was the Barbados Gold Cup Day,” he said of the annual racing festival what is to Barbados what the Kentucky Derby is to North America.

“The huge crowd and the excitement…

“I was just a kid but I thought to myself that’s what I want to do.

“When I was 19 I rode in my first race.”

A natural lightweight, Bryan has never had to fight the Battle of the Bulge which is the scourge of most jockeys – many of them starving themselves or spending endless hours in the sauna.

“I never had any problems with weight. I jumped on the scale this morning and it showed I weighed 113 pounds.

“I keep my body in good shape. I do lots of exercises and I like to go for walks in the evenings. I get my dog, Zya, who is a German Shepard and we go for walks.”

“He’s a very talented rider when he isn’t hurt,” said longtime jockey agent Bob Fowlis. “His forte is as a speed rider. He likes to get to the top early.”

“He’s really good getting a horse out of the gate,” echoed his longtime agent, Ken Gilkyson. “One of the best for sure.”

“It doesn’t have to be right on the lead,” said Bryan. “Every horse is different. I like to get horses in a good position and give them a chance to win. When a horse is comfortable you go from there.

“I do like being in front though. If I’m in front I’m hard to beat. I can dictate the pace.”

Gilkyson said you can sum up his rider in one word: “Persistence. He’s hung in there for a long time. Battled a lot of injuries and he’s still winning races.

“He works hard. He’s not afraid of work. He’s also a really good guy. Everybody likes him.

“He’s off to his best start in a long time.

“I’ve been his agent almost every year since he first came to Canada,” continued Gilkyson.

“Except for two years when he fired me and Graham Niblett took over his book. But then he came to me one day and said ‘Kenny’; take me back.”

Bryan’s best memories is winning the $125,000 Alberta Derby at Calgary’s Stampede Park in back-to-back years.

He won with Fly Esteem for Kingston in 2004 and St. Albert owners John and Genie Murphy.

The next year he won it with Knight’s Covenant for Russell and Robert Vargo.

Both were huge longshots.

Fly Esteem was 40-1. Knight’s Covenant was 25-1.

Fly Esteem duelled outside early with Sea Grass Sabre, put that one away easily, opened up a three-length lead and then held off Vancouver invader Lord Samarai to win by a length.

“He should never have been 40-1,” Kingston told the Edmonton Journal. “His previous race, the Hoofprint On My Heart, was the only bad race he had run and he got banged around in the starting gate and then he swallowed his tongue. So, we put a tongue tie on him for the Derby. The previous year he won the Premiers’ Futurity so we knew he had talent.”

Knight’s Covenant, who in his previous start had just broken his maiden after eight attempts, had just battled early with Dakota Duke and then still had enough left to hold off Blackjack Willy’s tremendous surge that came up just a neck short.

“Fly Esteem had always run well for me,” said Bryan.

“Knight’s Covenant was a surprise.”

What Bryan, a very likeable person, will talk about is his two sons, Jaezeon, 15, and Amonte, 20.

“They’re both great kids. And they are my biggest supporters,” said Bryan, who is single.

“Through everything I have gone through with injuries they kept care of me.

“I love coming home to my family after the races.

“All I need is my kids. I don’t need anything more.”

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Author of The Turcottes: The Remarkable Story of a Horse Racing Dynasty.

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