Breaking through the barriers
Leticia Griffin has broken through a few barriers. The cancer survivor who became the first female Melbourne Cup Clerk of the Course speaks with AMANDA MAC.
Let me introduce you to the Melbourne Cup’s first female Clerk of the Course. Appointed in 2020, Ballarat woman Leticia Griffin went on to bring home a personal trifecta with three consecutive years in that role. But her history with horses goes back much, much further than that.
Now 28 years old Leticia, the daughter of two horse-loving parents, says she was sitting on a horse before she could walk: “We always had horses when we were growing up and Mum was a very good horsewoman; she was very horsemanship orientated.”
As so many young riders do, Laticia attended her local Pony Club and over the next ten years developed a passion for eventing, followed by a fascination for the race track. “I started working in racing as a stable hand on the weekends, and met a trainer who gave me a Thoroughbred. I learned to ride track work on him and that’s how I got into track riding when I was 15,” she tells me.
By the time she was 17, Leticia had decided to leave school to pursue a full-time job as a stable hand and track rider in Dan O’Sullivan’s yard. Becoming an apprentice jockey would take a little longer. “It took me three years of applying,” she says. “Only a select few are accepted and I needed to gain more experience riding in trials and jump outs – that’s when the horses leave the barrier,” she explains.
As an apprentice jockey, Leticia rode in more than 130 country race meetings, making her mark with a win on her first ride. “I travelled to nearly every state in Australia. I won the Ceduna Cup in South Australia, and went to Tasmania for the apprentice series, so there were some real highlights.”
But her life took an unexpected detour when in July 2018 she was diagnosed with a stage 3 melanoma. “I was actually the first person to have immunotherapy treatment. I went down to Melbourne to try and get into a therapy trial and the day I arrived immunotherapy became available on the public system. I was very, very lucky,” she adds.
Before treatment began, Leticia had surgery to remove the four-and-a-half centimetre tumour growing in her armpit. She was discharged from hospital a couple of days later and spent the next three months recovering at home. “From being a fully fit, race-riding jockey to just being on the couch was very hard,” she recalls.
But for Leticia, determination has never been in short supply. With race riding temporarily on hold, she went back to the yard to do some light stable and track work during the first six months of her treatment. “That kept me going, but my cancer journey made me realise that as much as I liked being a jockey, I didn’t feel as if I’d found my niche. I was getting a little bit bored at home, not being able to race and having no set plan for the future, so I decided to do some off the track Thoroughbred retraining purely as a hobby,” she tells me.
To broaden her horizons, she also applied to be a Clerk of the Course, and was eventually accepted. “I loved racing and wanted to stay in it, but I was always more horsemanship orientated rather than a competitive athlete.”
The Clerk of the Course’s role is to ensure horses and jockeys get around safely on race day. Horses are herd animals, so the clerk horses can have a calming influence, and a loose horse is more likely to go to another horse than to a person. And training a clerk’s horse is an art in itself. “A really obedient horse is paramount, so that at any time they will stop, go back, go sideways, or go faster or slower, and can withstand other horses leaning on them, nipping them, or intimidating them while they remain calm in what can be difficult situations. The really are the heroes,” Leticia says.
After refining her clerking skills around the country tracks, all with Jack (who raced as Freshwater Reset), an off the track horse she retrained, next came the chance to work regularly in the metropolitan area, an unusual opportunity for a young, female clerk. But the best was yet to come: “I got a call to clerk at the 2020 Melbourne Cup. I was shocked! From not knowing what life was going to hold for me just two years previously, to becoming the first female to clerk at the Melbourne Cup was an absolute privilege.”
But let’s circle back to that retraining hobby, which had been quietly growing in the background to the point where in August 2020, Leticia launched L J Griffin Retraining, her own full-time retraining business. “I have one staff member and at the moment we have 12 horses in work and about 22 in total. It’s always busy,” she laughs.
While Leticia’s clerking job works in well with her retraining business, there are some long days that might include a 6:00am feed up before driving two hours to a racetrack to clerk, returning home at 7:00 in the evening just in time for the last feed up. Nonetheless, she’s very clear on her motivation for doing what she does. “I don’t like seeing how a horse can go from being at the top of their game with five-star treatment, and then suddenly be worth very little unless they’re re-educated. They’re so intelligent and they want to work for you. What I love is first teaching them how to be a horse in a herd, and then training them. Although eventing is our main area, each horse is an individual so we train them for what they’re going to be good at. It’s very important that we get it right.”
Leticia, who has retrained and rehomed several hundred horses, is a big fan of Racing Victoria’s off the track programs: “They’ve been a big step up,” she says. “Horses are now tracked through the new off the track community platform, and there’s a lot more follow up on them – and that’s one of the ways that we can get an idea of what works well and what might need improvement.”
Making sure that the horses she’s retrained are going well in their new homes is an important part of Leticia’s approach to her business. “I think a lot of people have recently started to come to us more for our reputation rather than for a specific horse. I believe support after the sale is super important, and also educating new owners who don’t have that ten years’ experience in racing, and don’t know how the horse should be treated, or why they might be acting in a certain way. We try to keep the transition as easy as it can be for new owners and their horses.”
To further ensure that horse and rider are well suited, Leticia tells the potential owner all that she knows about the horse, as well as suggesting what they might be best suited for. From there it’s a series of viewings, followed by at least a couple of rides to establish whether the fit is right. “It’s tough in all aspects because there are so many horses waiting to be rehomed, but there’s a whole process to it and getting it right takes time – and I think you’ve got to put the effort into finding the right home so that horse is not coming back or being passed on.”
Also tough is the financial aspect, something, Leticia says, which is experienced by many retrainers. “It’s difficult at times. Obviously I have a job as well, and whatever money we make from a sale goes back into the horses. But there again, we’re doing it for the love, not for the money.”
Follow Leticia at L J Griffin Retraining, or if you’re interested in giving one of her off the track horses a forever home, call her on 0400 093 132.