Francine Villeneuve is down, but by no means out.

It was a matter of seconds from the time she was working on the two-year-old filly’s hind hoof to when she was lying prone on her back, the full weight of the hoof and leg standing down on her thigh.

“She had some heat in her leg and I was checking out her hind foot,” recalled Villeneuve, of the incident in her barn on the Woodbine backstretch. “She ended up knocking me over and stood on my inner thigh. Luckily, someone was close by and was able to get her off me. The filly didn’t freak out, but it ended up severing an artery in my thigh. I was going to bleed to death. I was taken to the hospital and had emergency surgery. I had to have a subsequent skin graft surgery, which means I’ll be on the sidelines for a while.”

It was the latest health issue the jockey-turned-trainer has faced.

In 2022, the first female jockey in Canadian history to reach 1,000 career wins was diagnosed with cancer.

This winter, Villeneuve, who started training 10 years ago, lost one of her top owners when John Scott passed away this February.

“So many awful things have been happening. It’s hard to figure out how to navigate it all.”

Francine Villeneuve holding up her 2004 Avelino Gomez Award at Woodbine.

Francine Villeneuve holds her 2004 Avelino Gomez Award (Michael Burns Photo)

The Ottawa-born horsewoman, who began her career on the racetrack in 1984 as a hot walker at Woodbine and rode her first Thoroughbred three years later, has had to make tough decisions of late, most notably, sending her small but talented band of horses to other trainers.

For someone who has endured tough losses as both a rider and trainer, seeing her horses move on ranks as one of the most difficult moments in her career.

“The tough part is, to do what I want done, to be able to rely on someone, it just wasn’t possible. I don’t want to do things half-way. I’m selling a lot of my equipment and I had to disperse my horses. They have all gone to different trainers. The sad part is that I had probably the best group of horses that I’ve ever had. I was so excited about this year… it’s just been a tough go for me.”

Yet, as she has done numerous times throughout her time in racing, Villeneuve isn’t throwing in the towel.

Her distinguished time in the saddle included a number of highlights, including a second-place finish with Sam-Son standout Wilderness Song in the 1991 Queen’s Plate, competing in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, finishing second in the Prince of Wales in 2005, and winning the 2004 Avelino Gomez Memorial Award for contributions to racing.

As a trainer, Villeneuve, who launched that chapter of her career in 2013, won 49 races and two stakes, including the 2019 Flaming Page with Giovanna Blues and the 2019 Puss N Boots Cup with Reallylikethisone. In 2021, Richiesinthehouse, owned by John Scott, finished second, by a half-length, to sprint champion Pink Lloyd in the latter’s final race. ​

Perhaps her biggest impact on the sport was in helping to pave the way for future female riders.

While there is no definitive plan as to what her next racing role will be, there is, Villeneuve noted, one certainty.

“Right now, it’s up in the air as to what I will do. I’m reconsidering what I’m going to do. I certainly want to stay involved in the industry in some capacity, whether that’s as a jockey agent, consigning for the horse sales, or another role. I think something will present itself, but in the meantime, I just have to get better. Short-term, I have to heal. My wound has to heal. Since leaving the hospital, I have a nurse come every day to do dressing of the wound.”

Her cancer remains an ongoing battle. Currently, she’s on oral chemotherapy to combat the disease.

“Things are looking good. The cancer hasn’t gone away, but the tumors have shrunk. It’s going in the right direction. The treatment is pretty intense and I get tired easily. I’m not 100 percent, that’s for sure. It’s really hard.”

Difficult, but not a deal-breaker for Villeneuve, whose career took her beyond Canadian borders to places in Japan, Trinidad, Jamaica, Turkmenistan, and throughout the U.S.

Keeping a positive outlook, which is admittedly not always the easiest of tasks, continues to drive Villeneuve.

“My positive attitude helps others with their own personal battles. I maintain this mindset by knowing it’s going to get better and that there are opportunities out there for me because I know a lot of people who are respectful of my horse knowledge. I’ve been around a long time, so I believe something will come up. Whether it’s going back to training, I don’t know. I have enough connections, so I’ll figure something out at some point.”

Stall rest, Villeneuve said with a laugh, isn’t for her.

That said, getting back on her feet and fully prepared to embrace a new chapter in her racing life is the top priority these days.

“I’m just not used to sitting around. I want to work, and I want to be around the horses.”

Support from the racing community continues to pour in. It’s one more thing that helps Villeneuve push onward, especially on the tougher days.

It’s in those moments she reminds herself that something good, still to be determined, is in store for her.

Motivation comes from a familiar place.

“I love the sport and I love the horses. It’s my life.”