Women make up a varied, and integral, part of the racing community in Canada.
In recent years, the Queen’s Plate, the longest continuously run race in North America, has proven to be a beacon for Canada’s ladies of racing.
In 2007, Emma-Jayne Wilson became the first female rider to win the Plate guiding Mike Fox to a remarkable score. In 2011, trainer Josie Carroll became the first female to condition a Plate champion when Oaks winner Inglorious took the boys to task.
Perhaps more important than winning $1-million races is that Canadian women have earned roles at every level of the game — owners, breeders, exercise riders, caretakers, journalists and medical professionals. So many Canadian women are prominent now in the sport, it would be foolhardy to try to draft a comprehensive list, but, after Wilson and Carroll, some examples include: trainer and OHRIA and HBPA president Sue Leslie; jockeys Melanie Pinto, Skye Chernetz, Corrine Andros, Michelle Rainford, Chantal Sutherland Kruse; trainers Catherine Day Phillips, Barbara Minshall, Martha Gonzalez, Joan Petrowski, Shelly Brown, Katherine Sullivan; owner/breeders Gail Wood, Yvonne Schwabe, Sherry McLean Dr. Moira Gunn; media professionals Jennifer Morrison, Jennifer Anstey, Elissa Blowe, Dawn Lupul; administrators Vicki Pappas, Pam Frostad, Stacie Roberts, Wendy Loiselle, Julie Coulter, Fran Okihiro, Caitlin Grguric, B-J Davidson.
The list goes on, but this is the story of four Canadian women.
Wilson makes her mark across the globe
Emma-Jayne Wilson, 32, studied equine management at the University of Guelph, but launched her real education in the sport of racing on Aug. 27, 2004, when she rode her first race at Woodbine.
She won with four of 31 mounts that year in the saddle, before exploding into the national spotlight in 2005 with 180 victories, earning her the Eclipse Award as North America’s outstanding apprentice jockey. Wilson would also earn Sovereign honours as top apprentice in 2005 and 2006.
With 1,235 career wins, Wilson is a household name, having ridden at the highest level across the continent, including the Breeders’ Cup, and a European vacation last summer that saw her captain the Girls team to a second-place finish at the Shergar Cup.
“At Woodbine, we’re beyond the whole gender thing as it is such old news,” said Wilson. “When you look at Woodbine, there are a number of women jockeys in the room. But, when you look at other jurisdictions, they don’t have that same representation. So, when you ask if it’s an issue, it depends on where you are.
“I think North American racing has embraced female jockeys more than anywhere else. In the U.K., Hayley Turner has done her part, but when I went to Hong Kong in 2008, I was one of the first female riders to be invited there for any length of time and that’s not that long ago.”
Wilson is respected for her ability to finish and no race showcased that skill more than her Queen’s Plate score in 2007 with Mike Fox, as she all but carried the bay to the wire in a grueling stretch drive.
“One of the knocks against women as jockeys is that people think we’re not strong enough. When I was an aspiring rider, one of the things I wanted to make sure of was that I was a strong rider. I didn’t want that question mark.”
She credits much of her success to a good relationship with agent Mike Luider.
“Most important, for me, is what Mike and I call ‘The Decompress.’ We’ll go through every horse I rode and what happened during the race and make notes. We discuss what might be the best next step for that horse. It makes sure we’re on the same page and allows us to give something back to the trainers.
“When that call is over, the switch clicks from me being Emma the jockey to just Emma,” she said. “I don’t want to take home thoughts about a race where I could have gone outside and instead went inside and a trainer was unhappy. There are positives as well each day, but I don’t want racing to consume my entire life and that decompression session is second to none.”
Josie Carroll: work ethic is critical
Carroll has built a stable of stakes-calibre horses at Woodbine, where she won five graded races in 2014, while training for a number of prominent owners, including Eugene Melnyk, Ivan Dalos and Donver Stables.
Her dream of a career in racing started with an album of newspaper clippings.
“I started following horse racing in the newspaper when I was seven years old. I still have the pictures the Toronto Star would run in the newspaper each weekend. I’d cut out the charts each day and make my own wagers each day by picking a name I liked,” Carroll said, smiling.
Carroll eventually enrolled in the Equine Studies program at Humber College and made her way to the Woodbine backstretch in 1977 as part of a co-op placement.
“My first job was with Sam Dixon walking hots and grooming horses,” Carroll said. “There were not a lot of women there and at that time women weren’t allowed on the backside after dark. If we went back to water off the horses, we had to let security know we were going and check back in before we left. There was an all-girls dormitory where everyone stayed.”
After a couple months, Carroll went to work with Mac Benson for Windfields Farm and continued her first-hand equine education.
“Truthfully, I never looked at myself as a woman in the industry. I just thought of myself as a young person wanting to make it in the game and I followed the same path as my male counterparts,” Carroll said.
Carroll paid her dues and became assistant trainer for Mike Doyle before moving out on her own accord in 1994 when Doyle decided to accept a managerial position for Frank Stronach.
“Mike helped set me up with his bank and introduced me to the business end of it. I had to jump in with both feet,” said Carroll. “At that time, Mr. Eaton was his most prominent owner and I was fortunate that he stayed with me and I could train Tethra as one of my first horses.”
Carroll would win four stakes races in 1995, including the Woodstock, Queenston and Marine Stakes with Tethra, the Eaton Hall Farm homebred.
“I think people want to see, if you get a good horse, that you know what to do with it, and I got Tethra and he was very successful and it was a huge opportunity,” Carroll said. “You need good horses. You can struggle away for a long time with nobody noticing, but if you are given a good horse that’s your chance to shine.”
With more than $36 million in career earnings and a stable of stars that includes Lukes Alley, Leigh Court and Ami’s Holiday, Carroll is now often the subject of the newspaper stories for aspiring racing fans to clip.
For Carroll, gender has never been an issue for either advancement or detraction.
“I don’t think it’s fair to play on being a female, because I’ve never been held back by it,” she said. “Maybe it could be a little tougher in the U.S., but in Canada I’ve watched over the years as more and more women have become prominent in our sport and I like to think that Canadian racing has awarded merit and people who work hard and excel at what they do.”
Carroll offers up the following matter-of-fact advice for those aspiring to a career in racing… of either gender.
“Be willing to work your ass off. That’s the bottom line,” Carroll said. “When I got the opportunity to work for John Tammaro Sr., I worked so hard and so much that at the time I was just tired.
“But later on I looked back and realized the knowledge that was imparted. I’m always willing to teach somebody, but not if they’re not willing to work. If you don’t want to pay your dues don’t bother.”
Jennifer Reid: patience is key
Jennifer Reid, a 25-year-old up-and-coming jockey at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, knows all about paying her dues after seeing her 2014 season come to an abrupt stop.
“I was galloping a horse that tried to get to the outside fence,” recalled Reid of the misbehaving equine who sent the young rider into the dirt. “I ended up breaking my foot on both sides and broke my right ankle and displaced it. I’ve been off for a bit learning how to walk again.”
The five-foot tall, 104 pounds Reid enjoyed a splendid 2012 season at Assiniboia winning 75 races from 351 mounts, good for second in the standings. Despite her injury last year, Reid still maintained a position in the top ten of the jockey table and has since completed her rehab and is ready to get back in the saddle at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Arizona.
Like many riders, the Saskatchewan native got her start in another discipline.
“I’ve ridden horses since I was young and got to be pretty good at barrel racing. I’d see racing on TV, but was never sure if I could do it,” Reid said.
Always up for a new challenge, in 2008 Reid enrolled in the Olds College exercise rider and jockey program in Alberta.
“To finish the course you have to gallop 60 horses. It was my first experience at the track and once I started galloping it just clicked right away,” she said. “I’m one of the few women in the jockey colony in Winnipeg, but we try to kick some butt, too. I don’t mind it… It’s different being around guys all the time. You have to try a little harder to prove yourself as a rider and that you’re just as strong as the men.”
Keeping fit at the racetrack is no bother for the bustling rider.
“I gallop horses in the morning six days a week and if I need to in the afternoon I’ll go to the gym,” explained Reid. “But, I get on 10-12 horses a day; it’s a pretty good workout.”
Reid looks up to fellow female jockeys such as Rosie Napravnik and Emma-Jayne Wilson, and she’s patiently paying her dues while building her business with an eye towards reaching the lofty heights of her heroes.
“I’d love to go and ride at some of the nice tracks in the U.S and move up a little bit. I know I’d have to be a bit better too, but that’s how you improve,” said Reid. “I’ve been told I have good hands and I have a lot of patience. I’m okay to sit and wait. Out on the racetrack, a hole will eventually open up the majority of the time. I’d rather wait and give a smart ride then rush wide and end up getting caught.”
That patented patience is the advice Reid offers to those trying to follow her tiny, but mighty, footsteps.
“Take your time and don’t rush it. It takes time to learn and there’s a lot to know. Going to school helped. And it helps if you grow some thick skin,” Reid said. “Losing a race, it can wear you down a little bit, but you go on out and win one and it brings you back up again.”
Allyson Walker: from Fort Erie to Lukas
Allyson Walker, a 26-year-old Fort Erie native, has forged a career as an exercise rider of some merit and is known for having a good touch with young horses. Slight, but strong, Walker isn’t shy to ask for an opportunity.
“Riding can still be perceived as a man’s game,” said Walker. “I’ve heard people say, ‘You can’t ride that one, it’s too strong. We need a guy on it’… and I don’t know if people say that thinking they’re protecting you, but essentially, hearing that as a rider, it’s like, ‘You think I’m not capable?’”
And so she speaks up.
“I still sometimes have to say, ‘please try me on that horse,’” Walker said. “Males are naturally stronger, but I do think riding is more finesse than strength. If a 1,200-pound animal decides he’s gonna run, he’s gonna run whether I’m on him or the guy standing beside me. It’s in their nature.”
Walker started 2014 working horses for Hall of Fame trainer Roger Attfield at Woodbine when an opportunity of a lifetime — a chance to work for another Hall of Famer, trainer D. Wayne Lukas — inspired a move to Saratoga.
Lukas, a four-time Kentucky Derby winner, is a living legend of the sport and arrived at Saratoga with stable star Will Take Charge and promising juveniles Mr. Z and Take Charge Brandi as part of a high profile barn.
“My very first day I arrived at the barn at 4:45 a.m. and I was really nervous. I’d never met D. Wayne Lukas before but I knew he’d broken or set every record there is in horse racing,” recalled Walker.
Lukas said to Walker, “You’re getting on a horse and you’re going to breeze five furlongs in company and I want you to finish three lengths in front and don’t screw it up because he’s in the opening day stake.”
Walker was shocked. “But sir, you’ve never seen me ride.”
“It’s now or never. I need to find out if you’re going to make it,” Lukas retorted.
The workout went off without a hitch… mostly.
“That horse was Mr. Z and thank God the work turned out absolutely perfect,” Walker said, laughing. “But, when we were galloping out, the horse started lugging in, so I hit him left handed and he made the gap and was gone. Unreal. My very first day at Saratoga, and I fall off a stake horse for Mr. Lukas.
“And all he said was, ‘Well kiddo, we’ll have to work on staying on, but that work was perfect.’ I’ve never been more embarrassed in my entire life.”
Will Take Charge, a multiple graded stakes winner with just shy of $4 million in career earnings, arrived at Saratoga the next day and stood an imposing figure.
“When they walked him out all tacked up I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” Walker said. “I remember reaching up to his withers thinking, ‘I’m going to hold my breath the entire time, I can’t screw this up.’ But he was a rock star and everything a good horse should be.”
Will Take Charge was the complete article, but his younger sibling, the filly Take Charge Brandi, was slow reaching her potential. She broke her maiden at first asking at Churchill Downs and finished second in the Grade 3 Schuylerville at Saratoga, before a trio of off-the-board finishes leading into the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
“My first time on her she wanted to lug out and was messing around with typical two-year-old habits. She was sound, but wanted to lug out,” Walker said.
Lukas decided an equipment change was in order going to a hackamore, a bitless bridle requiring great strength
but also soft hands from the rider.
“She’d pull your arms out at the jog, but then turn her around and she galloped like a dream. Bows her head, strides out, doesn’t go too fast and doesn’t pull too hard. She went straight and narrow,” Walker said.
It was a small change, but under Walker’s tutelage each morning, the two-year-old Take Charge Brandi was learning how to control her natural speed and become a racehorse.
Given the recent results, not much was expected of Take Charge Brandi at the Breeders’ Cup.
“Her first time over the track at Santa Anita she was okay, but she didn’t have that spark and I wasn’t sure. She had a day off and I got on her the next day and she was on her toes, ready to go,” Walker said. “I took her to the starting gate and she walked right on in. She was calm, cool, never washed out and getting back to the barn I remember thinking she was so grown up. She didn’t feel like a baby anymore, she was just in hand the whole time.”
Sent to post as the longest shot on the board in a field of 12 fillies, Take Charge Brandi shot straight to the lead as Walker watched nervously from box seats with Lukas and the ownership group.
“She got out in front and I said, ‘She’s going too fast’… but Wayne said, ‘Look at those ears. She’s pricking her ears. She’s fine.’”
Turning for home, Take Charge Brandi was clinging to a half-length lead as Top Decile, with Rosie Napravnik up, took dead aim.
“It’s the loudest I’ve ever screamed at a racetrack, every hair on my body stood up, I had goose bumps, and she won,” Walker said. “My first Breeders’ Cup and she won at 61-1. At the end, it was all her. She grew up. It’s so exciting to see what they can become.”
And Walker is already onto her next challenge, breaking babies at Lynwood Stables in Ocala, Florida, bringing the next generation of racing stars to the track.
It’s just another one of the many key roles women continue to play in the great game of racing.