Emma-Jayne Wilson Is Part Equestrian, Part Fierce Competitor, All Professional Athlete

by | 09.24.2018 | 3:43pm
Emma-Jayne Wilson (Michael Burns photo)

Emma-Jayne Wilson is between races on a Friday afternoon card at Woodbine, giving interviews to out-of-town media as she waits for her next mount.

Sitting in an unused conference room, Wilson leans back in her chair, her steel-cable-like arms folded calmly. Wilson answers questions with confidence and a genuine smile, but she's not someone I would challenge to an arm-wrestling contest. Her obvious strength makes her seem taller than her five feet, two inches. She's sporting a black hoodie with white print on the back listing the stakes winners she rode in her first ten years on the track. The list has two columns and the print has been made small because if it wasn't, she would have run out of room.

After nearly a decade and a half in the saddle, Wilson's name has become one of the most recognizable at Woodbine, and her competitive nature ensures she will try to keep it that way.

Wilson took the track by storm 14 years ago, riding 1,100 mounts in her first full year as a jockey, including her first graded stakes win. Just three years into her career, Wilson became the first woman to ride the winner of the Queen's Plate aboard Mike Fox. She picked up two Sovereign Awards as outstanding apprentice jockey (2005 and 2006) and an Eclipse Award for top apprentice in 2005.

“As a kid, anytime somebody would want to play a game, I'm in. I'm competitive. Let's go,” Wilson said. “My sisters don't even like me very much because I always win. We were messing around at Christmas and someone challenged someone else to see who could do a plank longer. I'm like, 'This is a done deal.' You know who actually challenged me more than anybody else in the entire group was my dad. He's an older gentleman but he put me to the test.

“That being said, I like to win.”

The start of Wilson's career was not a haphazard rush from exercise rider to bug. Unlike many riders who leave high school for the track, she took the long road to get there, studying equine management at the University of Guelph to understand the business, marketing, and veterinary side of horses first.

Wilson was 23 when she began riding races, several years later than many of her peers. She could have taken her apprentice license out earlier than August 2004 – the interest from trainers to put her in the gates was there – but Wilson had a plan for how she wanted to begin her career. Agent Mike Luider noticed Wilson when she was still galloping horses and offered to take her under his wing. Luider, who also represents top Woodbine talent Eurico Rosa da Silva, specializes in mentoring young riders. Becoming a jockey goes beyond riding horses, he tells them.

“At least a year and a half before she started riding, we started sitting down and watching race tapes, discussing philosophy of the game, and starting to put her with people who could coach her in their field of expertise,” recalled Luider. “We created a whole game plan on getting there, but we weren't going to get there until she was absolutely ready to ride. In fact, our whole strategy was being more than ready. Here's where a typical rider would start riding in their development. We wanted her months ahead of where that would be.

Emma-Jayne Wilson throws her flowers after capturing the Queen's Plate aboard Mike Fox.Racing Manager Hugh Graham leads Mike Fox to the winner's circle.

“I remember when she first started riding, two jocks came from out of town. One was Gary Stevens and one was Corey Nakatani. They watched her ride a race and came back and said, 'That girl's got a ten-pound bug?' and we said 'Yeah' and they said, 'That's not fair.'”

Luider sends his riders to an expert for media training and encourages them to think about their 'brand' as a jockey (though he doesn't call it that, exactly). Riding races, especially at the level Wilson and da Silva do, turns you into an ambassador for the sport.

“Even before she started riding, I was having her watch particular riders who were very good at what they do,” he said. “A lot of riders have specialties that they're very good at. That's how she built herself as a jockey. There's more to being a jockey than just riding.”

The mental preparation shows in Wilson's interviews and social media. She's honest and polished, and perhaps most importantly, she is very conscious of why she chose this career for herself.

“It was the horse. That was the draw,” she said. “I was competitive, I loved sports … but I think the true love of this game is the horses. It's a living creature and you're part of that, you're part of them and it's like, 'Let's go. Let's beat these other horses. Let's beat them all. Let's win.' There's something magical in that.”

Wilson's parents bought her riding lessons when she was nine years old, and she dabbled in various disciplines from show jumping to Western. When she came to the track, she joked she was told to forget everything she thought she knew about riding, but she believes her ability to read a horse's needs has given her the ability to succeed. Some horses are simple; some feel a little like stepping into the control center of a space shuttle – minus the predictability.

“That's what makes this game so interesting. You don't just get in the car and put your foot on the gas,” Wilson said. “Some of them you might need to be really, really light with your hands easy, coax them, gentle, convince them, bolster their confidence and turn them into what they don't even know is in there. And some of them, you want to be aggressive, and pay attention and be right here. Some of them you don't have to do anything.”

Of course Wilson is grateful for horses like Mike Fox, with whom she won the Queen's Plate, and Interpol, who delivered her first Grade 1 win. But some of her favorite horses are more removed from the spotlight.

Wilson works Asserting Bear at Keeneland in 2014

“There are some horses that we, as people in the game, we bond with because if they were people, they'd be your friends. There's something about them you connect with,” she said. “But then there's also horses you've had such success with, you've been a good teammate with. And you wouldn't really go and hang out with them, but you work really, really well together.”

Wilson saw a little of herself in hard-knocking Sid Attard trainee Just Rushing, who rose from the claiming ranks to compete at the graded stakes level with her. The gelding was so finicky, Wilson could hardly take a hold on the bit without him throwing his head, which meant it was hard to rate the speedster. Often, he was so tenacious he'd outlast his competition anyway, even when he looked soundly beaten.

On the ground, Just Rushing was intense, throwing hooves at anyone who got in his way. In the morning, he was almost too high-energy. Wilson remembered the first and last time she was asked to gallop him.

“Sid said, 'Just watch him Emma, he's really sharp,'” she remembered. “We don't take two steps on the track and he wheels, drops me and gets loose. The outrider tried to catch him. Three times he went around the track because every time they'd line him up he'd just book it going, 'Ha-ha, you can't catch me!'”

Wilson guides Llanarmon to victory in the 2013 Natalma

Throughout her career, Wilson has been asked about what it's like to be a successful female jockey, and it's an angle she has grown a little tired of. Of course, it's a logical one – she was the first woman to win the Queen's Plate and the first North American female rider to be granted a license to ride in Hong Kong. In 2015, she was captain of the women's team that won the Shergar Cup in England. In 2005, she was named one of the most influential women in sport by the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity.

“I understand the significance but I said it when I started: I'm not a female rider, I'm just a jockey who happens to be female,” Wilson said. “Rate me as a jock on my strengths and my weaknesses, and that's it. Not for my gender. There are some male riders out there that aren't as good and female riders that aren't as good. Judge them on their abilities as an athlete as opposed to their gender.”

If anything, Wilson wonders whether identifying female riders as female first, and riders second doesn't detract from the often-intended message that they are equal to male riders.

“It's so 'been there, done that.' For that to be the focus now, here in North America especially, is old news,” she said. “To continuously focus on 'Oh she's a girl, she's a girl, she's a girl,' it's almost perpetuating the idea that everyone thinks that girls can't ride. It's been proven [they can]. Let's kick on.”

Wilson, who is one of relatively few publicly 'out' jockeys in North America, approaches her sexuality the same way – it doesn't define her.

“Frankly it has nothing to do with how I ride,” said Wilson. “It's a big priority that my work is my work and my private life is my private life. It was never a big deal. It was never something I announced to everybody, it's not like there was a big coming out by any means, it just is. I'm of the belief you love who you love. It hasn't really been something we've found any negativity on. It just is.”

Wilson admits she has had to blend the line between personal and professional more lately. Her wife Laura Trotter gave birth to twin girls named Grace and Avery in early 2017. Trotter works on the track as an equine chiropractor, and while it's nice to have a spouse who understands the long hours inherent in a racetrack job, it has required them both to get very skilled at time management.

Grace and Avery cheer Wilson on from afar

“My wife is my hero,” Wilson said. “I'll see [the girls] on Thursday night and if I ride a late race Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, I won't see them until Monday. They go to bed at 7 and they get up at 7. It's hard, but with iPhones nowadays I get my video updates. It's difficult but it's really rewarding. They make me laugh every day.”

Wilson defines herself firstly as a professional athlete and takes the physical and mental conditioning aspect of her job incredibly seriously. A longtime rugby and fast-pitch softball player, she was extremely fit when she began riding, and kept up with Crossfit, hot yoga, and workouts on a mechanical horse. After several years, though, Wilson began feeling she lost some ground with certain riding techniques and began noticing different body soreness.

“I became very sport-specific fit,” she said. “I can do a squat really easily with high weight, but it's not really proper. The muscles I use every day to do posting trot and stay in a static position while I ride take over. All those other muscles would just let them do it.

“We isolated those muscles and started working on them. We'd do an easy workout specifically aimed at three things. The improvement was so obvious. I've noticed a big difference in my riding because of that. It floored me.”

That focus on fitness has made a big difference in where Wilson finishes races, according to her agent.

“Inside the eighth pole, any jock in North America that's ridden with her will tell you it's hard riding with her for the last eighth of a mile. She is so strong and such a good finisher,” said Luider. “She has such a good rhythm on a horse. You're going to be in a battle and you'd better be on the best horse or you might not beat her.”

Through her years on the track, Luider thinks part of the reason Wilson has remained relevant at Woodbine is keeping a fresh perspective. As the long hours and injuries mount, the thrill of partnering with a horse can grow stale for some riders. Being a jockey is hard on the body and it can also be hard on the spirit. Wilson doesn't show it. She's too eager to get back out on the field with her equine teammate and try to win another.

“I think part of her evolution was not changing a lot,” said Luider. “Staying the same, humble person, not changing that part of it. Even though she's reached a very high status in the game, the things that drew her to the game haven't changed – the love of horses, the love of riding, the love of being in the sport. This is what she really likes to do.”

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