Strength in the saddle

15 March 2022 Written by Sarah Marinos

Leticia Griffin was the first female to work as a Clerk of the Course on Lexus Melbourne Cup Day. Her achievement is all the more remarkable because of the battles she has faced.

In July 2018 Leticia Griffin’s world changed.

The energetic and determined 23-yearold was three years into completing her jockey apprenticeship – an opportunity she’d fought long and hard for – when she found a lump in her right armpit.

Her family doctor initially dismissed it as an inflamed lymph node. He prescribed a course of antibiotics and told Griffin the lump would heal within a couple of weeks.

“But in the next three weeks the lump tripled in size and I was getting really fatigued. Mentally and physically, I was struggling to go to work. I was in a really difficult place but I thought I just needed a break and told myself to stop being so weak,” recalled Griffin.

Being fatigued wasn’t out of the ordinary considering the busy lifestyle Griffin then had as a Ballarat-based apprentice jockey.

Her mornings began at 4am riding trackwork and by 10am she’d be on the road, heading to the races where she rode all day. By the time Griffin arrived home at 8pm, she only had time for a shower and dinner before heading to bed to be ready for the 4am wakeup call the next day.

While it was a demanding routine, Griffin loved racing and was dedicated to her goal of becoming a successful jockey.

“I grew up in a family with horses. I went to pony club and competed in eventing. At 16, I got a part-time job in a stable and at 17 I left high school and became a full-time track rider for Dan O’Sullivan,” she said.

“I didn’t have a plan beyond that, but about a year after I started riding trackwork I knew I wanted to race. I was light, I seemed to have a bit of a talent for it and I loved being on the track so becoming a jockey became the path I decided to follow.”

It took three years and three attempts for Griffin to join the apprentice jockey program. “Each time I didn’t get into the program was disheartening, but I was encouraged to keep trying and I persisted. Each time I just worked harder until I got that call saying I’d been accepted into the program. It was such a relief!”

But three years into the program, Griffin discovered the lump in her right armpit and it wasn’t a swollen lymph node – it was stage 3 melanoma.

“When it grew bigger my doctor sent me for a biopsy and, within a couple of hours, I got a call saying I needed to come back to my GP and to bring someone with me,” said Griffin.

“My doctor had looked after me for 20 years and he was so upset when he told me I had melanoma. He said the next few weeks would be hectic with calls to arrange surgery and he told me to be prepared for a long journey. To be honest, at that point I thought I was going to die.”

After surgery to remove ten lymph nodes and a tumour measuring 5cm, at the end of 2018 Griffin started a year of immunotherapy. She also went through rehab to regain movement in her right arm. During this time, she was devastated to have to leave her apprenticeship.

“It was heartbreaking because getting to that point had taken so much effort and determination. To hit that roadblock was pretty hard,” she said.

“But during my treatment, as soon as I could, I went back to trackwork. Sometimes I had to go home a bit early but I kept going to work because mentally, I needed to keep doing something that I loved.”

But Griffin discovered a new career path when former chairman of the Australian Jockeys’ Association, Des O’Keeffe, heard about her situation and asked if there was another job in the racing industry that she would like to try.

“I said I’d love to be a clerk of the course because they always helped me when I was a jockey apprentice,” says Griffin. With the support of Racing Victoria, Griffin soon became a trainee clerk of the course, a job she’s now enjoyed for three years. Her week is spent travelling to courses across the state.

In 2021, Griffin’s racing career took another step forward when she made headlines and history as the first woman to be clerk of the course at Flemington on Lexus Melbourne Cup Day.

“I looked at my roster and saw I was working on Cup Day at Flemington and I thought someone had made a mistake!” laughed Griffin.

“Then my regional manager said I was rostered on for the whole Cup Week which was pretty exciting. But I didn’t realise I was the first female to be clerk of the course on Cup Day until I was asked to do an interview about it. Then I realised how important it was and I felt very honoured and a bit overwhelmed.

“I’ve worked at Flemington before, but Cup Day is something else. I was nervous on the way there but once I got on my horse it was another day at work with a bit more excitement.”

As an experienced horsewoman, Griffin also retrains Off The Track thoroughbreds to prepare them for a new life and new home after racing. On Lexus Melbourne Cup Day she performed her history-making clerk of the course duties on Freshwater Reset, a thoroughbred she retrained herself.

“I got my first thoroughbred when I was 14 – a very loving horse called Roman Spirit,” said Griffin.

“Being able to ride so fast with him was one reason why I ended up in racing. We had a great connection and since he worked very hard. I’d always wanted to try a thoroughbred and I never looked back after him. They are beautiful animals and I love working with them.”

Although life threw her some curveballs, Griffin is now strong and healthy. Scans show no evidence of disease and she’s put that daunting episode of her life behind her and is firmly focused on her work with her horses.

“I’m very happy balancing both sides of my working life – as clerk of the course and retraining thoroughbreds. I work hard but I wouldn’t change a thing,” she said.

“I’m feeling fit and strong and I’m living my best life.”

Image caption: Leticia Griffin was honoured to be a Clerk of the Course on Lexus Melbourne Cup Day.