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An unsung hero of horse racing

Darren Fortune was skilled at protecting jockeys from harm and generally making the track a safer place

Darren Fortune was a skilled exercise rider who doubled as an unstoppable outrider in the afternoons.

Darren Fortune was an unsung warrior of Toronto's Woodbine Racetrack. The 43-year-old exercise rider, who doubled as an outrider in the afternoons, was known for his generous and compassionate nature, his bravery, his skill at handling fractious young fillies and his fear of birds.

Mr. Fortune died on Sept. 8 from injuries suffered during an early-morning training accident on Woodbine's main track. He died as he lived: protecting others, no matter the cost to himself.

Mr. Fortune was known as one of the most skilled exercise riders on the Woodbine backstretch, a calming influence on horses, but also as an unstoppable outrider, whose job during the races was to protect jockeys from harm, to catch loose horses and to ensure the safety of all.

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He carried that trait with him during the Sept. 8 accident, after a two-year-old colt he was riding, called Beer Pressure, began to bear out sharply from the inner rail after a workout. When Mr. Fortune saw he was heading toward another horse that was moving slowly in the other direction on the outer rail, he bailed out of the saddle.

"It looked like he jumped off," said his partner of three years, jockey Aimee Auger, who had been several lengths behind him on another horse. "If he had directly hit the girl on the [other horse], she probably would be gone, too.

"He died a hero."

Darren Fortune riding at the 2016 Queen's Plate. Misty Hudson

Darren Fortune was born in Barbados on Oct. 20, 1973, to prominent island jeweller Harold Fortune and his wife, Sheila. The elder Mr. Fortune spent a lot of time at the local racetrack and two of his sons, Harold and Darren, started working around the tracks when they were 10 and 11.

Harold Jr. got a job working as a lab technician at a manufacturing plant on the island and with his first paycheque, he bought a BMX bike for his younger brother. "He loved riding bikes," Harold said. "We didn't have much growing up. He's the first person that put me in debt. I paid $6 a month [for three years] and I thought: 'Holy smoke. That's a lot of dough.' But he wanted that bike so bad."

Darren rode the bike 40 kilometres to the racetrack to work. And back.

During the 1990s, Harold Jr. moved first to Woodbine, and then Darren followed. Darren eventually worked for Hall of Fame trainer Roger Attfield and helped to turn an excitable filly, Perfect Shirl, into a winner of the $2-million (U.S.) Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf in Kentucky in 2011. Perfect Shirl "had been a project," Harold said.

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As an exercise rider himself, Harold saw Darren most mornings. "Good morning, Bollywood," he would say to his brother. "He was a pretty boy, always," Harold said.

Sometimes, Harold would greet his brother by pretending to brush dirt off his sleeves. "He knew I meant him," Harold said. "He don't want dirt or anything on there." Darren didn't dare give his brother a nickname; he was six years younger.

About 15 years ago, Darren began to gallop horses for Martha Gonzalez's stable, at least part-time before he finally announced to Martha: "Mom, I'm going to stay with you." He always called her "Mom."

Darren Fortune during a light-hearted moment at Queen’s Plate in 2016.

"Darren was one of the best," Ms. Gonzalez said. "He was great with crazy fillies because he wouldn't get into arguments with them. He was very much a team player. If one of the other boys got hurt, he'd start getting on their horses."

His work ethic was formidable. He'd never take a day off, even if he felt fatigue after a Wednesday evening card, when he would work as an outrider. Sometimes, if Ms. Gonzalez was short-handed, Mr. Fortune would get on 12 or 13 horses during a morning.

"He was good at everything he did," Ms. Gonzalez said. "He just never did anything half-way. I used to think he was going to get sour. But he never ever got sour."

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The shedrow is a stressful place, and if Ms. Gonzalez had a hard day, Darren could change the atmosphere. Knowing that Ms. Gonzalez loved chocolate, he'd tuck some into her office fridge. "He'd just get me laughing, and [I'd feel that] okay, the day is not so bad," she said.

His colleagues would play tricks on him, too. Knowing that he feared birds – any kind of birds – one would herd some Canada geese to the stoop of the stable office, where Darren had to report. He'd protest, from the back of a horse.

He also had a fear of heights, which became an issue when Ms. Auger proposed they ride a zip line during a Caribbean vacation. "I'd rather sit in a bucket of spiders," he said, referring to Ms. Auger's arachnophobia. He finally relented, joking that she would then have to face her fear and sit in a bucket of spiders. She knew he rode the zip line for her.

From the time that Ms. Auger first arrived at the track in 2013, looking to start her career, Darren watched over her. He pointed Ms. Auger to the Bob Tiller stable to get a job. He'd appear out of nowhere to give her advice on how to handle a testy horse. He asked her if she wanted to become a jockey. It was her dream. He said: "Okay, I'll give you advice. If you listen, I'll get you there."

Last year, Ms. Auger was the runner-up in Sovereign award voting as Canada's top apprentice rider. She and Darren became fast friends. "We knew everything about each other," she said. At a certain point, they knew they had to be with each other, despite an 18-year age difference. "We were crazy for each other," she said.

From horseback, Ms. Auger also watched Darren's heroic efforts as an outrider. Once a horse got loose, and ran down a chute behind the starting gate. "Darren went after him, but he was riding a horse that wouldn't stop," she said. "The horse was flying, full speed, down the chute to a complete end."

Both horses went through a rail. A short time later, both horses reappeared on the track, now both riderless, next to each other. Head outrider Rob Love found Darren lying on his back in an implement area where Woodbine stores its tractors. Darren dusted himself off and worked the next race.

"I started calling him Superman," Ms. Auger said. "It's like nothing in the world could hurt him."

Darren told her that every time he went down, he did a five-minute check of his body parts, starting from toe to head and back again. And then he would jump up and return to work. "He was a strong, strong man," Ms. Auger said. "It would break his heart if somebody else was hurt."

Darren Fortune was instrumental in his role of protecting jockeys from harm. Will Wong

The morning Darren was killed, his brother had been galloping a horse on the training track in the opposite end of the property. When he returned to the barn, a colleague told him that his brother had fallen.

"But that's nothing new, right?" Harold said. "He can get up, man. He probably wants attention."

His colleague said: "No."

Instantly, Harold knew it was not just any fall. Even though Ms. Auger had seen Darren make falls that looked much worse, she galloped her horse back to the barn, alerting Ms. Gonzalez on the way. Ms. Gonzalez cradled Darren in her arms until the ambulance came.

"We play a dangerous game," said jockey Emma-Jayne Wilson (who rides for the Gonzalez stable) through tears at Darren's funeral. "We take risks every day."

His funeral was one of the largest ever conducted by Woodbine chaplain Shawn Kennedy. Mourners in an overflow room with a video hookup flooded into the vestibule. Some of the attendees were racing fans. "It was amazing the amount of people that he really touched and that knew him," Ms. Gonzalez said. They would tell her that Darren had handed them a program or let him pet his horse.

Darren was once 20 minutes late on track as an outrider because he was in the paddock helping a blind and deaf fan pat the nose of his horse. Darren had a cousin in Barbados who was disabled. And he understood.

"Darren saw the look on [the man's] face," Ms. Auger said, "and it brought him to tears."

Harold has been stoic. "I'm a very religious man," said Harold, who starts each day reading a bible in his Woodbine office. "I cannot question the master. Yes, at first you say: 'Why this?' But who am I? You give us the time here and if that was the way he was supposed to go, so be it.

"He will always live in my heart."

In addition to his wife, Ms. Auger, and brother Harold, Darren leaves two other siblings, Anne and Brent; two children, Kaylyn and Kydon, from a previous marriage; and Rose Roberts, who raised him.

Mr. Fortune donated his organs.

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