Sports

Legendary jockey now training thoroughbreds

By Corey LeBlanc, special to Postmedia News

She’s referred to by some as the “Queen of Fort Erie.”

 

She was the first woman to race to 1,000 career wins as a professional jockey and has seven major event titles to her name.

Yes, Francine Villeneuve, 52, has accomplished much in her racing career. But even though she’s no longer in the saddle come post time, Villeneuve is still helping horses down the home stretch – in an entirely new way.

“What I truly love is getting young horses ready,” Villeneuve said. “It’s so fun watching them from the beginning stages. when they know nothing, to getting them to actually going to the races.”

The Ottawa native began her racing career when she moved to Toronto in her late teens. Through her schooling at Humber College, she got a job at Woodbine Race Track.

She started off as a hotwalker and eventually progressed through the system. At age 23, Villeneuve got her jockey’s licence.

“I love the whole ‘speed thing,’ it’s very exhilarating,” Villeneuve said. “I started at Woodbine and did a little racing in Ajax, where the quarterhorse track is, just to get experience.”

By 1991, Villeneuve was the head-turning kind of jockey who got people talking. She broke several gender barriers, becoming the first woman to place in the Queen’s Plate and the first of four women ever to compete in all three Triple Crown races.

After 10 years of riding in Toronto, Villeneuve’s family followed her to Fort Erie, where she fell in love with Lake Erie.

The local racetrack was also a big reason for Villeneuve to call the community her home.

“I just felt it fit better into my whole lifestyle,” Villeneuve said. “I would go south for the winter and come back here later in the spring.”

Villeneuve would continue her illustrious career well into her forties. In 2011, she won her 1,000th race and decided to call it a career shortly after that.

“Definitely winning my 1,000th race was a big accomplishment, it was my goal and I did it,” Villeneuve said. “My goal was to get my 1,000th win and then start training and that’s what I did.”

She retired as the winningest Canadian rider in 2012 and immediately began working toward her trainer’s licence.

Nowadays Villeneuve wakes up a 5 a.m. every day keeps her horses on a scheduled dietary regimen, feeding them five times a day.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” she said. “When the horse is young you have to train them be competitive. You have to teach them used to the starting gate and how to break out of there quickly and safely.”

Each day Villeneuve takes them out with her team of riders and gives each horse 20 to 30 minutes of riding time. The horses spend the rest of the day getting groomed, relaxing and getting the care if they are injured.

It’s a full-time job for the supposedly retired jockey.

For the last three seasons, Villeneuve has trained at the Fort Erie Race Track. This season, however, Villeneuve is returning to her racing roots, the trip to Woodbine completing the latest in a career of successful full circles.