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Racetrack pioneer

McIvor going where few women have gone before -- the gate crew

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Laura McIvor is earning a reputation across North America as an extremely accomplished horsewoman.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Laura McIvor is earning a reputation across North America as an extremely accomplished horsewoman. Photo Store

Snow fell softly on the all-Canadian apple pie girl from Fisher Branch this spring and melted into her curly auburn hair. Slightly frosty 2006 Winnipeg Futurity winner First Cavalry stood like a statue beneath her at the training track entrance, waiting for another chance to fly.

Now 10 years old, First Cavalry doesn't run in races anymore. Not that he wouldn't like to, he still has that spark in his eyes, but it's more a case of the Toby Keith song lyric, "I ain't as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was."

And outrider Laura McIvor knows it.

The first female outrider ever at Assiniboia Downs, and one of very few women working in that capacity anywhere in North America, McIvor has horse sense beyond her years, and uses it to manage her three outriding ponies in a fashion that allows them to give their best when it counts.

If only we all had someone like her to ration our athletic ability as we got older, just so it would line up within a furlong of reality.

'She's a fearless trailblazer in areas traditionally thought of as male only'

-- Assiniboia Downs CEO Darren Dunn

First Cavalry shares the bulk of the outriding duties with fellow retired thoroughbreds What Say Lou (13) and Dixieland Gold (5). What Say Lou is the most experienced of the three, First Cavalry is the fastest, and Dixieland Gold currently carries the clipboard while learning the ropes of a job that includes leading horses to post at night, catching loose horses, rushing to the aid of fallen jockeys and exercise riders, and enforcing rules and safety standards on the track during morning training hours.

McIvor grew up on a mixed farm in Fisher Branch, and although she couldn't recall the first time she ever rode a horse, she remembered the first time she fell off one.

"I was about 4-years-old," said McIvor. "My sister was ponying me on another horse and we started going really fast in a circle. Something happened and I went head first into a mud puddle. I got up with a mouthful of mud."

The muddy mouth days didn't occur often enough to discourage McIvor and she went on to compete in barrel racing at local rodeos in such places as Ashern, Arborg and Eriksdale. She also learned western pleasure (a form of competition) and rode the pasture with her father David while her mother Margaret worked as an RN.

The 27-year-old McIvor got her first job on the track with trainer Emile Corbel as a groom and progressed to exercise riding under the tutelage of former lead outrider and stakes-winning trainer Keith Corbel, who now counts himself lucky as her longtime boyfriend. With exercise riding skills confidently under her belt buckle, McIvor did something women don't do at the track.

She applied for a job on the gate crew.

Women just don't work on the gate crew, which in the past was a notoriously hard-drinking, brute-force boys club. And even though the bruisers started disappearing from starting gate crews 20-30 years ago, you still rarely see a woman on the gate, and certainly not a 5-7, 120-pounder like McIvor.

Derek Corbel, a new breed of starter who learned the right way -- that running a starting gate was about finesse, quick thinking, athletic ability, team work, and the ability to understand how horses think -- hired her.

McIvor's horse education continued at Woodbine and Payson Park in Florida, where she exercised horses for Hall of Fame trainer Roger Attfield. Part of that education included something she already knew -- something that elite horse trainers such as Attfield, Bill Mott, and the late Woody Stephens and Charlie Whittingham always drilled into their help -- you don't hit horses.

Mishandling of horses at the starting gate has ruined many a horse's career over the years. The ability to get 1,000-pound steeds with fire in their hearts to do things with a kind voice and soft confident hands resulted in McIvor being invited to work on the gate crew at Woodbine on Canadian International Day in 2011.

"They were short-staffed that day," said McIvor. "Word got around that I worked on the gate crew at Assiniboia Downs and they asked me to help out."

McIvor passed her Woodbine gate test with flying colours and continued to work on the Assiniboia Downs gate crew for a few more years before becoming a full-time outrider at Assiniboia Downs two years ago.

"She's a fearless trailblazer in areas traditionally thought of as male only," said Assiniboia Downs CEO Darren Dunn. "She has an incredible work ethic and is a real asset to Assiniboia Downs."

McIvor is well on her way to becoming an extremely accomplished horsewoman who will always be in demand. And she's already learned one of the secrets of the real pros -- that horses sense how you feel, especially when you're riding them -- and respond in kind.

That's important when you're flying down the track at 40 mph trying to catch a loose horse.

"You can't have any fear or the horses will know it," smiled McIvor. "The horses have taught me a few things too.

"It's a rush."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 5, 2014 C5

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