It’s a horse racing love story going on 50 years.
When they sit down to lunch with their children, grandchildren and other family at the Woodbine Club this Saturday, Hall of Fame jockey Robin Platts and his wife, Deb, will take a moment to look beyond the racetrack, the toteboard and pristine Toronto oval infield, to gaze upon the expansive Toronto oval backstretch.
“I asked to Deb to marry me on the backstretch back in 1971,” recalled Robin, a four-time Queen’s Plate-winning jockey who was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1997. “I can still remember that moment. She said yes right away. And now here we are, 50 years later, celebrating our wedding anniversary at the place where it all started.”
They both know Woodbine well.
Born in Leicester, England, on April 27, 1949, Robin, who came to Canada when he was eight, chased his dream of a life in the irons riding his first winner, 42-1 shot Lily, at Greenwood Racetrack in Toronto’s east end on November 18, 1966.
Deb Bruce, the daughter of Thoroughbred trainer Robert Bruce, was part of the local racing scene too, often helping her father at his barn while her mother Fredie worked as a messenger bettor in the grandstand.
Robin and Deb’s relationship began courtesy of a question from Doug Anderson, a jockey valet who went by “Cricket.”
Was it love at first sight?
“I guess it was for her,” said Robin with a laugh. “I knew her dad way before I knew Deb. I knew her as Bobby Bruce’s daughter… she was 13 when I first met her. I would say hello to her. One day at Greenwood, this was in 1971, I found out that Deb needed a ride home. Cricket asked me if I could give her a lift and I said, ‘Sure, no problem at all.’ We started going out that spring.”
Deb had her eye on Robin well before that car ride.
“I spent a lot of time on the backstretch when I was young. When I was a little older, I started going to the races more and I’d see the jockeys. There was just something about Robin that I liked, so I had a bit of a crush on him. I would say hi to him at the track whenever I saw him. When he took me home that day it just kind of went along from there.”
Their first date included another car ride, a romantic dinner and the gift of music.
“We went out on his birthday, April 27, and he brought me a couple of albums,” recalled Deb. “One of them was The 5th Dimension and the other, I think, was Creedence Clearwater Revival. Needless to say, he brought me a present. We continued on and one day he brought me to his house to meet his family. I remember I walked in and there was one black and white photo of Robin in Gardiner Farms’ silks. He was standing on a set of stairs in the photo, without his helmet on, and I just loved it. I have it here with me now.”
By the time the two were engaged on September 13, 1971, Robin had already risen up the ranks of a Woodbine riding colony featuring some of the sport’s biggest names, a list that included Sandy Hawley and the late Avelino Gomez.
Robin’s career, one that included those four Queen’s Plates – tying him with Hawley and Gomez as the most by a rider – yielded 3,245 wins, with his mounts nearly topping the $40-million mark. The recipient of the 1979 Sovereign Award as Canada’s Outstanding Jockey, he won the coveted Avelino Gomez Memorial Award in 1992 for contributions to the sport in Canada.
His Plate triumphs came with Victoria Song in 1972, Amber Herod in 1974, Sound Reason in 1977 and Key to the Moon in 1984. Stakes stars included Overskate, Izvestia, Frost King, Norcliffe, Carotene, Runaway Groom and champions Charley Barley, Play The King, Grey Classic and Thunder Puddles.
In an eight-year span, from 1976 to 1983, Robin was the leading stakes-winning rider on seven occasions. He was the leading race winner at two Woodbine meets and five times led all jockeys at Greenwood during the track’s spring meets.
But he was far from just a local standout.
Robin represented Canada in numerous international competitions, riding in South Africa, Bahrain, Japan, and across Europe.
Deb was always along for the ride.
“Everywhere I went, she went with me. I think that was a big thing for us. Being a rider is a very demanding life and to have Deb along with me, to get to enjoy those experiences together, was a really good thing for both of us.”
Deb and the couple’s three boys were fixtures at Woodbine on weekends.
“When Robin couldn’t be home on Saturday or Sunday to play with them or spend time with them, I told the boys, ‘This is your father’s job, so we can go there to watch him.’ They got see him in action. I tried to go everyone weekend to support Robin and the kids would get to see them.”
Those remembrances, among countless others, will be talked about on Saturday at Woodbine when more than a dozen people, including their sons, Rob, Director of Broadcast with Woodbine, Kris, Manager of Broadcast Operations with the company, and Jeff, who worked at the racetrack for years, gather for the golden anniversary celebrations.
“Three kids, five grandchildren… it really is amazing,” offered Robin. “I quit riding when I was 50, galloped until I was 60 and hotwalked until I was 70. And here I am now, at 72, married for 50 years. It’s been a great ride on and off the racetrack for me. I’ve had a pretty good life and I have a lot of great memories at Woodbine. It’s a place where so many great things happened for me.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Deb.
“To have our family with us, to be able to share this day with them, it’s going to be really special,” she said with an unmistakable emotional tone. “We’ll be back at the place where we met, where Robin asked me to marry him and where we all have an attachment to.”
The perfect setting for a half-century of racetrack romance that’s still running strong.