Professional hockey has taken Todd Ratchford overseas to compete in Europe and the United Arab Emirates, but a passion for harness racing has brought the fourth-generation horseman home to a calling he was almost destined to pursue.
“As a kid, I always loved being around the horses,” the 27-year-old horseman recently told Trot Insider. “I was always pretty good at it. But I was also more focused on hockey, so I made a decision around 13, 14 years old that I was going to move on with hockey, so that's what I did.”
Hockey consumed many years of Ratchford’s early life. Starting with junior hockey in his hometown of Caledonia, Ont., Ratchford then proceeded to play for the University of Windsor before a professional career in Europe that came to a halt when the COVID pandemic began. Ratchford returned home to Ontario and started the process of obtaining his driver’s license.
Harness racing seemed inevitable for Ratchford, by his own words. His father, also Todd Ratchford, is the son of Gus Ratchford, a well-known industry man who developed the popular Rabbit’s Liniments. His mother hails from the MacDonell family, making Hall of Fame driver Paul MacDonell his second cousin.
“It just goes on ...the whole Ratchford side, they bleed horse racing,” said Ratchford. “It's just horse racing, to the very beginning."
Harness racing then got benched once again when Ratchford got an offer to play hockey with the Emirates Hockey League in the United Arab Emirates. He made the tough choice to leave his young family behind to take what he felt was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
"I was like, 50 years down the road am I going to look back and say, ‘My gosh, I should have taken that chance?’ Now I can say I went there and I got to experience all that. For as tough as a decision it was, it was well worth it."
Ratchford suited up for the Abu Dhabi Storms, playing games inside one of the world's largest shopping centres — the 1,200-store Dubai Mall.
"I took that opportunity and I was out there from this past September until Christmas this past year," said Ratchford. "It was a great experience. I mean, I wasn't going there for the hockey, obviously. I was going there to see what it was all about, see what the country had to offer. Once I was there, I did everything, saw everything. I was like okay, now I did my time; it was exciting. Now I need to get home and really focus on my career going here with the driving and training in the horses.”
Ratchford came home at the end of November 2022 to his girlfriend and his now eight-month-old son Brooks, and quickly dove back into harness racing. Just a few days later, he did the prerequisite rated mile to get his driver’s license and then qualified his two-year-old filly Shay Seelster. Ironically, she's a full sister to Santacruz Seelster, the mare who gave Ratchford the first driving win of his career when she won on March 11 at Flamboro Downs. Ratchford’s first win came in his 12th pari-mutuel drive.
"When we got out of there, I landed in the three slot and I saw that the two favourite horses were in front of me so I was like, oh this is perfect," Ratchford said of the race he scored his first win. "I'm just going to follow along and I only had to do was just make sure I could get out somewhere down the backside. Luckily, the horse that came first up kind of backed off. And then I pulled, and then we just kept going and then coming on I was like, 'Oh, here we go. We're like a winner.' She just did it all by herself...It was her first win in over a year, I think. And yeah, it just kind of was full circle because the filly that I have is her full sister.”
Ratchford was able to guide Santacruz Seelster to victory for Mike Kwietniowski, who is a longtime family friend of the Ratchfords.
“When I first came up here as a kid, we were stabled at the same farm,” said Ratchford. “My dad and Mike were really good buddies. He trusted me in qualifying; he gave me those qualifying drives when I needed them. And it just happened that he said, ‘Hey, you did so well with her in the qualifier so you might as well.' She was racing at Mohawk after the qualifiers and I wasn't able to drive, so then when she came to Flamboro, I was able to pick up the drive and it was just good because we're so close and we've known each other forever. He knows even though I'm not the most accomplished that I have a good head on my shoulders and I know what it's all about. He's not going in blind and neither am I.”
Ratchford will try to keep the good momentum rolling as he tries to build his harness racing career while still playing senior hockey in southwestern Ontario. He currently has nine horses under his care along with his sister Mary Ratchford and hopes to grow that number going forward while also gaining more experience in the racebike.
"I mean, nine is a steady number. It keeps you busy," noted Ratchford. "We always like having the challenge of training a horse down or getting a horse from someone and trying to improve it in any way we can. So we're always up for the challenge for any type of horse that comes our way. I'm glad that everyone here that I'm with, they all love it, they’re all dedicated to it. So it makes everything that much easier."