Is this the year female jockeys at Assiniboia Downs run rampant over their male counterparts?
Opening day, in which five of the eight races were won by women jocks, and the addition of a tough-as-nails (but sweet as candy) female rider from Ireland have served notice that female riders just may rule the roost. Or the jockey room, at any rate.
Jennifer Reid, 24, the Saskatchewan riding dynamo who lost the riding title last year by one slim win, won two races. And Ireland’s Tori Gandia, 19, who was a top-three graduate in Ireland at a jockey boot camp that started out with 600 jockey hopefuls, also won two.
And Janine Smith, 24, from Denman, B.C., mowed down last year’s leading rider, Paul Nolan, in a thrilling stretch duel in the very first race. Nolan, a horse whisperer who learned his riding smarts in England, blanked on the day.
So why are female jockeys coming into their own as never before? Because riding these days is more about coaxing a horse than about wildly wielding a whip with brute strength. In fact, the whip these days at Assiniboia Downs and at an increasing number of tracks is a short padded "cushion" whip rather than long leather "ouchies." It’s the whapping sound of the whip, and not its bite, that encourages extra effort from a horse.
Some horses shy away from even minimal whipping, so they must be hand-ridden by jockeys who have established a rapport with their mounts. Female jockeys seem to have a particular knack for forming bonds with their horses.
When Reid was involved in a fierce head-to-head battle for the jockey’s title last year, it was a joy to watch her careful handling of the reins, knowing just how much rein to give a horse so she could save a little extra for the last few jumps in the race.
For the most part, horses love racing and some will whinny and almost kick down their stalls in anticipation of getting out on the track to race. A good rider knows the best way of guiding that energy and enthusiasm.
Gandia probably has had the best training of all. As part of her schooling, she rode in monster 30-horse fields where horses ran two miles and more in rolling fields and along beaches, and she won an amazing 13 of her 28 races, called "flap" races. Obviously, she’s a jockey to keep your eye (and maybe put a few bucks) on.
Live racing goes Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and holiday Monday at 1:30 p.m. Watch for an important simulcast race late Saturday afternoon, too: Goldencents, the colt foaled by a Manitoba mare, will be racing in the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes from Pimlico Race Course in Maryland.
He’ll try to make up for his 17th place finish in the Kentucky Derby, where he appeared to hate the sloppy going.