Female jockey taking Woodbine by storm

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:30 AM ET

There is no title for Toronto athlete of the year but there ought to be, just so Emma-Jayne Wilson could win it.

She has been better this year than Argos quarterback Damon Allen.

Better than Blue Jays centre fielder Vernon Wells.

Better than the Leafs' Eric Lindros.

With 158 winning rides, Wilson stands as the runaway leader for wins at Woodbine. That's 28 more than runner-up Corey Fraser. Only 14 days remain in the meet.

In Woodbine's 50th year, Wilson will become its first female winner of the jockey crown.

Wilson has an indefinable something that she can communicate to 1000 pounds of gallop.

TOP OF THE CLASS

Magic. That's what Emma Wilson is. Magic.

"For some reason, horses just run for her," Hall of Fame jockey Sandy Hawley said, a frequent trackside spectator. "When she's coming down the homestretch, you can see the horse is giving her everything he has got."

She also is a rookie, or in racing terms, an apprentice. Wilson's story is both explained and made harder to explain by her apprenticeship.

In order to induce owners and trainers to break in new talent, apprentices are given a weight allowance. Horse people say the allowance, usually five pounds, amounts to several additional strides for the horse carrying a lighter load.

The allowance is known as a bug, denoting the asterisk on the racing forms that tells bettors an apprentice rider is in the race.

The weight advantage exists to give young jockeys entry into a sport where experience is one of the most vital tools to handle split-second decisions and spectacularly dangerous animals. The bug also encourages owners and trainers to entrust those same astronomically expensive animals to jockeys who haven't been jockeys for as long as the horses have been horses.

Into this comes 24-year-old Wilson, who weighs just 102 pounds and who has wanted to ride for as long as she can remember. She is, at turns, the ethereal rider that Hawley sees and the hard-minded competitor who closes out races as diligently as she courts owners and trainers.

Ask Wilson about how many races she would have won without the weight advantage and she laughs. "As far as I'm concerned," she said, "all of them."

Over 50 years of racing at Woodbine, only two apprentice jockeys have won the riding title: The great Hawley in 1969 and Mickey Walls in 1991.

Wilson didn't see herself winning the title ... as an apprentice.

"My sights were set on being the best rider in the colony, but it has come as a surprise to do it in my first year riding," Wilson said. "It leaves me speechless."

The track is a hard place for a rookie to thrive. Between races, hours are spent in the jockey's room and lounge. Jockeys walk into their opponents' dressing room every day. Handling yourself, deftly, is as important here as it is on the track since both are, inevitably, connected.

Yet, Wilson, an outsider thanks to the twin curses of gender and youth, has thrived as one one of the few women in the jock's room.

Early this season, one jockey told her he didn't believe in women jockeys. "You're the exception," he said. Praise doesn't come any higher.

"There's a certain persona you need," Wilson said. "I don't see myself as a female jockey, I see myself as a jockey who is female. If I let myself become viewed as a female rider, I'll be treated that way."

It isn't a question of sexism, she said, so much as bad business.

"I don't want anyone to look up at the quarter pole and think: That's just a girl up there, I can take her."

When her bug come off next July, she probably will lose some rides. Her numbers could fall drastically. She does not carry the weight allowance in stakes race and she has captured only one this year.

But Wilson typically is matter-of-fact about life after the bug

"I want to hit the ground running. If I look at it that 'I lost my bug and business is going to drop off' it will.

"But I'm not afraid of pounding the pavement and working hard and showing people that it wasn't the five pounds."


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