Horsemen have been preparing for Woodbine’s 2012 meet since February when the first horse trailer arrived at the backstretch gate, but the journey towards opening day has taken considerably longer for 26-year-old apprentice jockey Jacklyn Wyatt.
It's been a long road back for Wyatt
Wyatt, who rode her first race in 2007, had her burgeoning career interrupted in September of 2008 by a fluke accident during a morning training session.
“I was working a horse out of the starting gate and my horse decided to bolt to the left,” recalls Wyatt.
But what happened after that is still a bit hazy.
“We came out straight and I think my horse was spooking at the horse beside us on the outside,” says Wyatt. “My horse started moving to the left as fast as he could and I remember trying to keep him straight, leaning on the bit as much as I could to get him to straighten out...I woke up in the ambulance.”
The impact of the fall was severe.
“I don’t think I hit the rail, but I flattened the front of my helmet,” she says. “It took me a while to recover from the concussion. I was off two weeks, and I probably should have been off longer, but then I started having issues with my shoulder.”
While the helmet undoubtedly saved Wyatt’s life, the desperation to stay aboard her squeamish mount ultimately put her career on hold.
“I was stuck holding onto the reins when I fell off and I ended up tearing the cartilage off my socket on the shoulder,” Wyatt winces. “I felt like I got hit by a bus.”
When Wyatt first sought medical help for her aching shoulder, doctors misdiagnosed the injury as a muscle issue and sent the young rider off to physiotherapy.
“I did physiotherapy for 10 months with no improvement at all,” says Wyatt. “I thought I was going to have a chronic problem and that my career was over.”
The lack of mobility was not only impeding Wyatt’s ability to ride, it was also a constant pain that kept her from completing even the simplest of household tasks.
“I couldn’t take a pot out of the cupboard without some discomfort,” she says. “Simple things like taking out the garbage or shovelling snow became a problem.”
The hard work happens in the morning
Frustration led Wyatt to her computer where she consulted on message boards with others who had suffered shoulder injuries. When one of the fellow injured suggested she might have a ‘slap tear,' Wyatt went back to her doctor armed with a new diagnosis.
“Eventually I saw a surgeon who sent me for an MRI with a dye injection and they discovered that there was a tear,” she says.
In August of 2011, nearly three years after her frantic fall, Wyatt went under the knife.
“I had to undergo arthroscopic surgery,” she explains. “They drill an anchor into the socket and they tie your labrum down and you have to immobilize your arm for five to six weeks.”
Following six long weeks in a sling, Wyatt went back to physiotherapy with a renewed vigor and confesses that on the eve of the 2012 campaign, she’s feeling better than ever.
“My shoulder is great, pain free,” she smiles. “I think I’m stronger than I was before.”
The only evidence that remains of her ordeal is a cigarette-burn shaped scar near her collarbone and two microscopic dots on her shoulder.
“I have a tattoo on my shoulder of a loose ring snaffle bit and the surgeon made sure that he went on either side of it, so he didn’t ruin my tattoo,” she laughs.
Just don't mess up my tattoo, doc!
For Wyatt, it was an emotional three years leading up to the moment in January when her doctor cleared her to resume riding.
“I cried like crazy,” she admits. “I was so happy. A year ago, I thought my career was over and hoping I might get to be pain free at some point. But to be able to hear those words that I could start riding again was unbelievable. I couldn’t wait to get back in the saddle.”
Of course, being fit enough to ride is only half the battle when it comes to the competitive world of race riding. After three years away from the track, Wyatt is now tasked with rebuilding her reputation as a reliable jock.
To maintain a healthy weight, she has hired a nutritionist and has become an avid runner. Most importantly, she needs to ride as many horses as possible, a welcome chore that brings her to the backstretch before dawn each and every morning to breeze as many horses as her agent, Eric Ross, can book.
When she isn’t riding at the track, the self-confessed ‘computer nerd’ (she’s built two virtual horse racing companies from scratch)has managed to create something of a home office.
“I’ve turned my couch into an Equicizer,” she laughs. “I flip the cushion back and put my saddle on it and sit there and practice. I strengthen my legs up and work on my balance and whipping. I’m sure my neighbours wonder what is going on when they walk by my apartment.”
Wyatt will also be helped on her return by the 10-pound weight allowance offered to apprentice riders, which will be reduced to five pounds when she reaches the lofty total of five career wins - - just two more than Wyatt’s modest lifetime tally of three scores.
One of the many morning workers for Wyatt
On the morning before opening day at Woodbine, Wyatt walks briskly across the backstretch to the barn of trainer, 73-year-old ex-jockey, Chris Steve, to breeze Ocala Dawn.
The six-year-old mare, slated to make her next start on April 15, is a four-time winner and Steve has decided he’ll give the returning apprentice the mount.
So, why is Steve giving Wyatt a chance on his able mare?
“The 10-pound allowance is good and someone has to give her a break and put her on a horse,” grits Steve. “That’s how everybody gets started. If nobody gives her a break, she wouldn’t get going.”
With barely a word of instruction, the diminutive Steve, who could rest his chin on the rail, legs up Wyatt and sends the pair off to the training track.
You can follow the apprentice on Twitter @JacklynWyatt
Steve chuckles as Wyatt and the nimbly-built bay jog across the training track and find a quiet place to stand and watch the other workers.
“Look at how skinny they both are,” he laughs. “If they turned sideways now, you wouldn’t be able to see either of them.”
Steve, a regular Hank Snow of jockeys, raced everywhere, man, back in the ‘60s.
“I did have some nice wins,” he squints, into the chill of the backstretch breeze. “I won at Fort Erie, Greenwood, Woodbine, Montreal, Finger Lakes, many places…”
As Wyatt goes rushing by, tucked aerodynamically on the back of the blazing bay, Steve offers up the following words of advice to the comeback kid.
“Try to listen to the trainer’s orders and do the best you can,” he offers. “If you can’t, you gotta do what you gotta do, but try to ride to the order as much as possible.”
Wyatt and Steve talk about the work
And then, with what could only be the sharp, stabbing pain of experience, he adds, “And, never tell an owner or a trainer, ‘I know how to ride this horse’.”
When Wyatt returns to the barn with Ocala Dawn, jockey and trainer confer quietly in the stall, shake hands, and then she’s off to the next barn to ride her seventh horse of a busy morning.
The chill in the air, based on the smile that is a permanent fixture on Wyatt’s face, doesn’t seem to bother her.
Wyatt leans into her work on Ocala Dawn
In the relative warmth of the jock’s room, the Brantford, Ontario native shares the unlikely story of how she got started in the game in the first place.
“I’ve been riding show horses since I was a kid,” she says. “I was six or seven when I got my first riding lesson. I rode hunter jumper for many years but then I decided I wanted to become a jockey.”
Wyatt’s big break arrived via the radio.
“My dad was driving home from work one morning and Sandy Hawley was on the radio with a couple other sports guys,” starts Wyatt. “So, my dad called in and said, ‘My daughter wants to be a jockey, she’s only 16, but how does she get into this’”
Hawley, a Hall of Fame jockey with 6,450 career wins to his credit, spoke to Wyatt’s father off the air and helped put the aspiring jock on course.
“He gave my dad his number and said, ‘Give me a call at Woodbine tomorrow and we’ll work something out’,” she smiles. “My dad called him up the next day, set up a meeting, and that summer I started walking hots for C.C. Hopmans.”
Wyatt and a horse named 'Larry' head back to the barn
With a door opened, Wyatt swiftly surged to success. She soon found a second job at Windfields Farm and met trainer Mac Benson who took her down to Payson Park in Florida where she learned how to gallop thoroughbreds.
“I breezed a lot of nice horses,” recalls Wyatt. “I galloped (Grade 3 Hendrie Handicap winner) Nashinda but the best one was (recent Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame nominee) Arravale. I used to breeze her quite a bit and she was a very nice filly, obviously. They had so many nice horses in that barn.”
She learned the ropes with Benson and then branched out as a freelance gallop girl to fine tune her skills. In the Fall of 2007, she earned her first mount aboard a gelding named Russian First, at Fort Erie.
“It was so exciting,” she laughs. “I remember wishing that I had a whip. I think we beat one or two other horses, but it was really exciting.”
Her first win arrived in November of 2007 aboard Renga’s Girl at Woodbine.
“I had been galloping her every day for about two years,” says Wyatt. “I absolutely loved this filly. We were going two turns and I broke out on top, and we took the lead and we just kind of sat there and coasted along. We turned for home and we kept on going. It was such an amazing feeling to be able to win, especially on a filly that I knew like that.”
Watch Wyatt's first lifetime score with Renga's Girl
And now Wyatt, who has overcome three years of pain and suffering just to get back in the saddle, is anxiously looking forward to her next win.
Unfortunately, that win won’t come on opening day as the 10-race card finds Wyatt without a mount. And yet, she will report to the jockey’s room on Friday and hope for the best.
“You never know,’ she offers. “Things can change quickly here. I won my third race because jockeys booked off that day as it was really sloppy at Fort Erie. I got the mount and ended up winning.”
The apprentice hopes she'll find winning silks soon
Wyatt, whose track record is a testament to perseverance and patience - - skills that are of paramount importance to a jockey on and off the track- - remains upbeat.
“I’d prefer if I had a ride,” she sighs. “But that’s okay, I can wait.”