In recent years, apprentice female jockeys have found Assiniboia Downs a very friendly place to kick-start their careers in thoroughbred horse racing.
In 2008, Janine Stianson, of Yorkton, Sask., rode only a partial season at the Downs. On opening day that year, she won the first four races, then went on to win the Jockey Club of Canada's Sovereign Award as Canada's top apprentice jockey.
'I am pretty happy with my record so far. You can't expect it all to come overnight. You've got to take the time. I was happy to ride bad horses (at Hawthorne), because it gave me a chance get stronger'
And who could forget last season, when Jennifer Reid, of Melfort, Sask., battled British rider Paul Nolan all the way to the last race of the year before losing the jockey title by only one victory. Reid had 75 wins in 351 rides, while Nolan had 76 victories in 359. For her final season as a bug rider, Reid was named a finalist for the Sovereign Award.
When the track opened for another season last Sunday, Tori Lynn Gandia, an apprentice rider from Dublin, Ireland, by way of Hawthorne Racetrack in Chicago, served notice that she would be a force to be reckoned with.
In her first meet at the Downs, Gandia set a personal milestone, winning her first "double in one day," aboard Unbridled Thoughts in the fourth race and Hello Beautiful in the seventh. The only other rider to win two races was Reid, on Freaky and Daydream Dancer.
She recently attended a jockey boot camp in Ireland, where she finished in the top three in her class. The camp, says Gandia, is run by the Racing Academy and Centre of Education in Kildare Town, Ireland.
"It's just a really, really intense week of pushing ourselves to the limit," she said. "There were 300 applicants, 90 were selected for the trial and 32 were selected for the actual program. Of them, only 28 finished."
Although her career as a professional rider has been short (100 starts with seven wins), she had shown some prowess even before last weekend's double wins. At Hawthorne last October, she won her first race on 14-1 longshot Direct Breeze. When the meet ended, Gandia thought about returning to Ireland, but a call from jockey agent Tim Gardiner convinced her to come north.
"A friend of mine (former ASD jockey of the year Nicky Goodwin) knew Tim, and told me he was looking for a rider," said Gandia. "Hawthorne was really tough. There were a lot of riders, and you were lucky to get two or three rides a week. But if you can't make it at Hawthorne, you won't make it in Ireland. So I needed to go somewhere else.
"Nicky called me from the Vinery (Training Facility) in Ocala, Fla., and asked me to take her book," said Gardiner, himself a three-time jockey of the year at the Downs. "She has real quiet hands, and she looks beautiful on a horse. I think the sky is the limit for her."
One of the horses Gandia won on Sunday, Hello Beautiful, is trained and owned by Shelley Brown, last season's trainer of the year. "Her work ethic is amazing," Brown said. "She's at my barn at 5 o'clock every morning, willing to help out with anything. Her attitude is phenomenal, and she looks fantastic on a horse. She tries her guts out, and what more can you ask from a young rider coming up?"
"I am pretty happy with my record so far," said Gandia. "You can't expect it all to come overnight. You've got to take the time. I was happy to ride bad horses (at Hawthorne), because it gave me a chance get stronger. Yes, the winners are nice and it would be nice to have some more."
Looking at this weekend's program, it would appear she has also impressed just about everyone in the back stretch too, since she has a total of 18 rides. Six today, six on Saturday and six more on Mothers' Day Sunday. Post time today and Saturday is 7:30 p.m., while on Sunday it is 1:30 p.m.