Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Wilson Making The Most Of ‘Bizarre’ Year

One of the unique challenges presented by this year’s pandemic has been the restricted travel of jockeys between different racetracks. At Woodbine in Canada, jockey Emma-Jayne Wilson found a way to turn that restriction into an opportunity.

“We always like to root for the horses who ship from here to run out of town,” Wilson said. “This year it’s been far more rare, so we’ve been watching them a lot more closely. It’s always fun to root for your home team.”

Wilson was glued to a television screen when trainer Gail Cox sent Sam-Son Farm’s Say the Word to Saratoga in August, running the 5-year-old son of More Than Ready in a 1 3/16-mile allowance race on the grass.

“Junior Alvarado rode him and he came last to first with a wicked run,” Wilson recalled. “I was extremely impressed, and I mentioned to Gail that I liked the way he’d run and that I’d like to ride him.

“Woodbine only had five Grade 1’s this year, and quite often we get a lot of ship-in horses, so the locals have to step up their game. I’m always on the lookout for serious horses, and I thought he’d be a tough horse.”

Wilson first rode Say the Word in the G3 Singspiel Stakes over 1 1/4 miles on the grass, beaten just 1 1/2 lengths overall to finish third.

“I got to know him a little bit; he’s a little bit unique so I had to find that happy balance and get on the same page with him,” said Wilson. “It’s like in hockey, if you take a left wing and place him on the right, it’s going to take him a little bit of time to get used to that side.”

Cox and Wilson’s end goal was to stretch the horse out to the 1 1/2 miles of the Grade 1 Northern Dancer Turf, held last Saturday, Oct. 17, and Say the Word responded brilliantly. Making his signature last-to-first move, Say the Word made a big run in the stretch to win by a length.

“Say the Word was definitely coming into his own this year,” Wilson said. “I’m grateful to have gotten the mount when I did.”

Say the Word and Emma-Jayne Wilson winning the Northern Dancer Turf Stakes

Of course, big race days don’t feel quite the same this year without the presence of spectators at the Ontario oval.

“When I walk up on big race days at Woodbine, I enjoy that moment looking up at the grandstand and its totally full,” Wilson explained. “Normally on Queen’s Plate day, you come on the gap at the seven-eighths pole and the grandstand is packed, just thousands and thousands of people, and you can feel each and every one of them, their energy.

“This year was bizarre. You can feel the energy of the horses, the jocks, the anxiety, but it wasn’t the same. It didn’t have the anticipation, that buzz of the crowd, and I definitely miss that. It’s a big part of our game; the fans are massive and we wouldn’t be there without them.”

Though Wilson has earned both an Eclipse Award and multiple Sovereign Awards for her riding career, last weekend’s Northern Dancer Turf is just the third Grade 1 win added to her resume. The first came in 2015, also in the Northern Dancer Turf aboard Canadian champion Interpol. It took five years until she rode her second Grade 1 winner, Lady Speightspeare, victorious in last month’s G1 Natalma Stakes.

“Lady Speightspeare is a pretty significant horse,” said Wilson. “I think you’re going to be hearing her name quite a lot down the road.”

A Charles Fipke homebred out of his multiple graded stakes-winning mare Lady Shakespeare, the 2-year-old daughter of Speightstown won both her starts this year for trainer Roger Attfield. Lady Speightspeare earned an expenses-paid berth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf via her Natalma victory, but an ill-timed knee injury will keep her from making the trip to Keeneland.

“She’s an athlete and a competitor, and she wasn’t taking any prisoners (in the Natalma),” Wilson said. “It’s disappointing that she’s not able to go to the Breeders’ Cup, because she was definitely one that I was willing to sit out races for, just to ride that one race; she is that good.”

Were Wilson to have made the Breeders’ Cup trip with the filly, it would likely have cost her a total of 24 days away from Woodbine because of COVID-19 quarantine protocols. The jockey is currently tied for third in the standings with 72 victories this year, so her willingness to give up those days of riding indicate just how special she believes Lady Speightspeare could be.

What has made her two Grade 1 victories and strong 2020 season even more special, Wilson said, is the fact that she missed significant portions of the last two seasons with injuries.

“I’d been pretty lucky,” Wilson said. “I had a liver laceration in 2010 that kept me out of the saddle for three months, and it was serious, but physically I was okay. I didn’t have any broken bones or anything, so I just had to maintain my physical fitness while being careful.”

In 2018, Wilson took a spill the morning before the meet started at Woodbine that resulted in the worst injuries of her career. She broke her humerus (upper arm) all the way through and required surgery with a 5 1/2-inch metal plate and nearly a dozen screws to put it back together.

“I wasn’t expecting the challenges that came along with it,” Wilson admitted. “I was thinking it would take about six to eight weeks for the bone to heal, which was accurate, but then I remember trying to take my arm out of the sling and straighten it and I just couldn’t.

“It was immobilized from the moment I hit the ground until a few weeks after surgery. After a trauma like that and then it gets seized up, it was disconcerting that my arm wasn’t working the way I wanted it to. I wasn’t prepared for the rehab; the muscle atrophy and loss of range of motion were just shocking.”

Four months after the injury Wilson was able to get back in the saddle, and she wound up winning 48 races at Woodbine in 2018.

Last year, her injury occurred on Sept. 8 in an afternoon spill. She fractured her left clavicle and three bones in her right hand, also requiring a surgical repair.

“The severity of those wasn’t nearly as bad, but they’re still injuries,” Wilson said. “I’ve learned over the years that I’m a professional athlete, and part of my job is knowing how to rehab. Most importantly, the rest days are just as important as the working ones.

“When I was a kid I was just, ‘Go go go!’, but you come to appreciate the days of healing. I made healing my job, and it was essentially eight weeks to the day that I was back in the saddle, so that was reassuring.

“I really have a great team behind me. My wife (equine chiropractor Laura Trotter) is just phenomenally supportive, and my personal trainer Matt Munro is a physiotherapist as well. When you have such a passion and a love for the sport like I do, it makes it easy to work harder and be ready to go as soon as you return.”

Wilson showed she was definitely ready to return, capping her 2019 season with 59 wins to finish sixth in the standings last year.

The jockey used to travel south in the winters to work the Fair Grounds meet, but that changed when she and Trotter started a family. Now, Wilson prefers to stay home with her 3-year-old twin daughters, Avery and Grace. She’ll still fly to Florida a couple times a month as the weather starts to warm up, staying for the weekend to breeze a few horses for regular clients, then returning home to her family.

Until this spring, of course. The coronavirus pandemic put the entire Woodbine meet in jeopardy, so like the rest of her fellow jockeys based at the Ontario track, Wilson was grateful to be riding when the season started in June, about six weeks later than usual.

The hard-working 39-year-old has since turned the abbreviated meet into a successful one, making it one of her best years in the saddle yet. Wilson says she’s far from finished, though.

“This game’s been good to me, and I enjoy it every single day, every single leg up,” Wilson said. “I think I’ll keep riding for as long as I’m healthy and happy. When you’re winning races for great connections it’s easy to have a love for the sport, and being in the winner’s circle always helps you pull out of tough times, so there’s no better reason to keep going.”

The post Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Wilson Making The Most Of ‘Bizarre’ Year appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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