Ricky Dookeran leading Lexie Lou. (Photo courtesy of Ricky Dookeran)
By Chris Lomon – Woodbine Communications
TORONTO— The hotheaded kid from Weston Road and Finch was heading down a dangerous road.
Ricky Dookeran saw it almost everywhere he turned, the temptations he knew would lead him astray, but at times feeling powerless to resist them.
“It was different growing up there,” Dookeran said of the neighbourhood that lies about 30 minutes northwest of downtown Toronto. “There wasn’t much opportunity for me back then and if there was, I couldn’t recognize it. It’s either the streets become you or the streets take you. That’s just the way it was back then. I was heading in that direction, getting caught up in that lifestyle.”
In the early 2000s, Steven Flats, a friend of Dookeran’s, asked him to take a ride to a place he’d never been.
Flats drove the pair 20 minutes west to Woodbine Racetrack, where he worked as a groom in the barn of trainer Steve Owens.
As they neared the gates leading into the expansive backstretch, Flats turned to Dookeran, then in his early 20s, and said, ‘Here’s the place I’ve told you about and here’s the chance to make something of yourself.’
“I needed something in my life, something good,” recalled Dookeran.
Not long after that initial visit to the racetrack, where he was introduced to several horse people, he began life as a hotwalker for trainer John Dalton.
It wasn’t fulfilling work, at least early on, but the opportunity did offer certain benefits that resonated with a wide-eyed Dookeran.
“At first, I thought it was boring, but I liked the horses. It wasn’t really the horses that drew me to it at first. I just loved the environment. It was something different for me. The people, being outdoors and finishing a job earlier in the day, all of that made me happy. Waking up early, it was something I got used to. It gave me a purpose in life. I liked all of the people and being outdoors was such a great feeling. I fell in love with that before I fell in love with the horses.
Eventually, he did fall in love with the horses.
The hours he spent daily with the Thoroughbreds increased and with it, the bond that he forged with those under his care.
“There was a time when I didn’t know their names but seeing how happy they were when we went outside, just walking with them, it made me happy. And then it dawned on me one day, that everything, including the horses, made me so happy to be in that world. I knew I wanted to groom horses.”
Less than a year into his time at Woodbine, another opportunity arose, an offer to work for Owens.
It would be a transformative experience for Dookeran, where lessons in racing and life seemed to meld, providing him with the purpose he had long searched for but until then had always eluded him.
In working for Owens and alongside Barbados-born Leroy Trotman, then a groom, Dookeran found mentorship and kinship with the horsemen.
“Working for Steve, it changed my life. It honestly and truly did. It was there that I met Leroy. So, Steve, Leroy and Steven [Flats]… those three men saved me. Even to this day, I tell Steve, ‘I owe you my life.’ If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know where I would have been. The life expectancy for a kid growing up those days in Weston and Finch was probably 24, or at least it felt like that. But I got a chance to work for Steve, and my life became what I had always dreamed about. For the first time in my life, I had something to look forward to.”
The once aimless youth was now a focused young man.
Dookeran embraced every conversation he had with Owens and Trotman. He also heeded every bit of advice that came his way.
“Ricky, he really listened to what we had to say,” remembered Trotman. “He was a young guy back then, and just like any of us, he had his ups and downs, but he was open to everything we shared.”
Owens echoed that sentiment.
“He tries hard. He shows up every day and tries. Over time, you could see how much the job and the horses meant to him.”
Dookeran was grateful to be educated about the horses.
“I was a sponge. Those guys taught me everything that I know today. They took the time to teach me the basics from ground zero. Steve would come in the stall and show me, first-hand, what I needed to know. He was hard on me, but that’s because he cared. He wanted me to succeed. I also saw Leroy and his work ethic. The time and effort Leroy put into me; I really appreciated it. I saw how hard he worked. I wanted to be like him. I remember thinking one day that everything in my life, it seemed good.”
On the night of August 4, 2002, that all changed.
A fire in Barn 7 took the lives of 32 Thoroughbreds, including all 14 of Owens’ horses.
Amongst those lost were Legal Heir, a homebred Owens trained for his family’s Empress Stables, and Highland Legacy, another Empress runner who was Canada’s champion 2-year-old colt in 2000. Legal Heir won the last race at Woodbine the day before the fire.
In addition to Owens, trainers Danny O’Callaghan, Cliff Hopmans, and Earl Barnett also lost horses.
“We won the race with Legal Heir the night before and went out to celebrate,” recalled Dookeran. “When we got the call and went to the barn, I saw the smoke and the fire. I felt so bad for the horses, Steve, everybody. I stood there and I couldn’t speak.”
As he watched the flames ascend into the near-black, starless sky, a myriad of thoughts rumbled through Dookeran’s mind.
“For the first time in my life, I had some direction, but I wondered if that was all gone. It was tough. I was still young, but I could understand the look in Leroy’s and Steve’s eyes. They love the horses, and they love what they do. I was lost. I didn’t know what was going to happen.
“After the fire, I was in Florida with Steve. It was there where it was almost like an epiphany. This man who I started working for, we were in the same house, and we started to really understand one another. The amount of respect I had for him, it dawned on me how important this man was to me. Whatever he wanted, I would do it. He put so much effort into helping me become the man I wanted to be. I was so grateful for that.”
Dookeran faced an uncertain future when he returned to Woodbine.
The team in Barn 7 was no longer.
Owens worked tirelessly to rebuild his operation, an undertaking that would take time to get back on track. Trotman and Dookeran had no choice but to look elsewhere for work.
Once again, Dookeran felt adrift.
“When we got back to Canada, Leroy had gone on to work at another barn. That hit me hard too. I couldn’t imagine working anywhere without Leroy. He was such a mentor to me, and it meant so much to have him around me. When he left, I didn’t know what to do. Our whole crew had dismantled after the fire. It was really the first time I felt alone at the racetrack. I always had the guidance of Leroy and Steve around.”
A dejected Dookeran carried what he learned from both men into the barn of trainer John LeBlanc, Jr.
Hope came in the form of an unassuming chestnut gelding, a sturdy son of Schossberg bred and owned by Joan Agro.
“When I got to the barn, John had a horse named Sophia’s Prince that was running in claiming races. There was just something about that horse that clicked with me. I wanted to prove to myself that I can be strong and do this. If not, I’d have to return to Weston and Finch. At that point in my life, I didn’t want to go back to that lifestyle. I had a lot of friends who were dying. Guns, drugs, and gangs… I didn’t want to go back to that. I couldn’t. I put the work in.”
So too did Sophia’s Prince.
The Ontario-bred, who had enjoyed a modicum of success in the claiming, allowance and stakes ranks, began to hit stride by the end of the 2004 season.
After two late fall runner-up claimer finishes, Sophia’s Prince capped off his campaign with a win, also in a claimer, the start of a four-race win streak, including a track-record performance in the Shepperton Stakes on August 7, 2005, with regular rider Simon Husbands in the irons.
“Spending time at the barn and with Sophia’s Prince was the greatest thing. It gave me peace. Simon came to me one day and said, ‘I never felt this horse being any better.’ I would spend the time, grazing this horse all day. John put him in the Shepperton, and I felt it could be a big day. That day was amazing because taking him over, he had his head down and his bridle started coming off. He had his head down by his neck and he was so ready to race. He broke a track record (1:14.56) at 6 ½ furlongs on the old Woodbine dirt course with ease. Then they invited him to race in the Atto (now known as Woodbine) Mile at Woodbine. I was overwhelmed and very humbled. He finished seventh, but he never gave up even though the odds were against him.”
Just like Dookeran, who named his daughter Vivian Sophia, a sign of his affection and adoration for Sophia’s Prince.
Now 45, he has spent the last 25 years of his life at the racetrack, the place that has come to feel very much like home.
Trotman, who spent time as an assistant trainer to now-retired Hall of Fame conditioner Reade Baker, is now a successful jockey agent, handling the books of countryman Patrick Husbands and Sahin Civaci, who enjoyed a career-best 2022 season.
Owens has remained a staple on the Toronto oval backstretch. Last year, his Poulin in O T won four races, three of them stakes, and earned recognition as a finalist for the 2-year-old male Sovereign Award in 2022.
As for Dookeran, he’s back alongside the man who gave him his start as a groom.
“I went back to Steve. Not for money. I would work for him for free. He was such an important influence in my life. Steven Flats saved my life by bringing me to Woodbine. Leroy, over the years, he would always come and check on me. Any questions, I went to Leroy. To this day, I still do. These men, I owe them everything. Horse racing saved my life.”
Dookeran’s affinity for the horses has never been stronger.
When multiple stakes winner Go Greeley passed away last October, he took to Facebook and posted a heartfelt tribute to the Ontario-bred son of Horse Greeley who won three straight stakes in 2013.
“I love them. I really do. It’s the whole environment… it’s the racetrack. I enjoy being there and I can’t picture myself being anywhere. When I wake up, I’m happy. I love to be there, and I love to do it. I like that whole hustle and bustle, and how fun it is. It’s a testament to Woodbine and horse racing. There is so much equal opportunity. It doesn’t matter what race or gender you are. There is equal opportunity. That’s what we have. I like being around people of different nationalities and getting to know everyone. When I wake up, I say, ‘Time to get going.’ It excites me to know where I’m heading to.”
He hasn’t forgotten the hard times before horse racing, the days when he would wake up and wonder what his future would hold or if there would even be one.
The man from Weston Road and Finch beat the odds.
“My life could have gone one of two ways. I was heading the wrong way, but people helped me find the right path. That’s where I’m going to stay.”