Exercise rider dies after training accident at Woodbine Racetrack

TORONTO — Darren Fortune, a longtime rider at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack, was remembered Friday as a thoughtful, hard-working individual who had a passion for working with horses.

Fortune died after a morning training accident on the facility’s main track, Woodbine Entertainment Group said in a statement. He was 43.

“He was always a guy with a smile on his face, very polite, very humble,” said trainer Kevin Attard. “I’ve never seen him in a confrontation with anybody. Just a good guy. It’s hard to fathom what happened today.”

It wasn’t immediately clear what caused Fortune’s horse to dart sideways into another horse that was moving in the opposite direction by the outside rail. The Ministry of Labour and other officials were investigating.

“The horse for some reason bolted,” said Jamie Martin, WEG’s executive vice-president of racing. “There was a strange collision and he unfortunately passed from his injuries.”

The facility is quite busy in the morning as exercise riders put horses through workouts of varying intensity levels in training for upcoming races. Attard said it was very unusual for an incident like this to occur.

“The odd time something happens,” he said. “It’s almost the equivalent of getting into a car and driving to work. You can do it every day, and one day maybe somebody runs a red light or goes through a stop sign. Unfortunately today Darren was killed. It’s a sad day for everybody at Woodbine.”

Horses often run in opposite directions during training, but they are not that close to each other. It’s common for riders to work out their horses on the inside rail while other horses gallop the other way towards the start area.

However, if an animal is startled, it can sometimes cause a panicked, sudden acceleration in an unexpected direction.

“They spook very easily, I’ve seen Canadian geese fly away and startle horses,” Attard said. “They could be walking on the ground and they just take flight and the horse will be spooked … sometimes somebody can open up a (garbage bin) lid and drop it unintentionally, and just that noise of it banging can startle a horse.

“It doesn’t take much.”

Fortune, originally from Barbados, spent long days at the racetrack, arriving before the 6 a.m. opening to work as an exercise rider for the morning session. His outrider duties — which included assisting and protecting jockeys and horses during races — lasted from lunch hour until the early evening.

Attard said the positions could be compared to a bullpen catcher in baseball — an important role but one that does not come with the spotlight that others at the track may enjoy.

“You have to love what you’re doing,” he said. “Obviously he had a very strong passion for horses.”

The other rider and the two horses were not hurt.

The eight-race program was cancelled Friday.

Black armbands will be worn by jockeys, valets, gate crew and others when racing resumes Saturday, WEG said. Following the seventh race, outriders will congregate on horseback at the finish line to lead a moment of silence with members of Woodbine’s racing community.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of one of our community this morning and our hearts and condolences go out to his family and friends,” Martin said.

Attard spent years working in the same barn as Fortune and got to know him quite well.

“I had a horse pass away a couple weeks ago and he was there on the track to console me,” he said. “I appreciated it a lot.”

Jockey Sunny Singh knew Fortune for 20 years and said he was “very shocked” to hear about the incident.

“When I first heard the news I thought it was a joke,” Singh said. “Then it kicked in about a half hour later, and then my heart fell apart. I knew him very well, to just lose a good friend like that is very hard.”

Singh added that Fortune was a “very genuine” human being who never had a bad word to say about anyone.

“He was very helpful, doesn’t do a thing wrong,” he said. “It’s horses and these things do happen. Unfortunately it happened to a really good man today.”

There was no immediate word on Fortune’s family details. Funeral arrangements were pending.

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