By Chris Lomon for woodbine.com
TORONTO, April 12 – When it comes to Canadian pride, champion jockey Emma-Jayne Wilson proudly wears her heart on her silks.
Years before she would realize her childhood dream and long before she would win one of thoroughbred racing’s most historic races, Wilson, born in Brampton, ON, had already developed a genuine sense of appreciation for her country, courtesy of her family.
“I remember going to the CNE, Niagara Falls, Canada’s Wonderland – all those types of places,” she recalled. “We used to go camping as well when I was a kid. As unglamorous as it may sound, it’s about as Canadian as you can get.
“My parents (Jim and Lynne) emigrated from Britain in 1980 and so my entire childhood, we were Canadian kids. We had this old trailer that we’d hook up to the station wagon, and even if it was just for a week in the summer – I don’t even know where we ended up sometimes – it was just great, out in the wilderness, out in the woods, fishing, and enjoying the great Canadian outdoors.”
Wilson, who began riding horses at age nine, excelled in rugby and baseball, and had an affinity for acting. She was also a camp counselor, jumping at any opportunity to organize games and keep kids active.
Horses and horse racing eventually became a big part of her childhood. Wilson and her family would make regular trips to Woodbine, afternoons that had a profound effect on her eventual decision to become a rider.
“I remember when I was a kid, I used to come to Woodbine before the E.P. Taylor Turf Course was on the outside, and they had the old picnic area with a white picket fence right on the outside rail,” she recalled. “We have pictures of us sitting there and watching the horses go by. There are so many fond memories from those times. Just to be a fan of horse racing – I loved every minute of it.”
Just days before she turned 23, Wilson celebrated her first win as a rider, partnering Ali Olah to victory on August 28, 2004, at Fort Erie. She recorded her first Woodbine win in her very next start, guiding Tudy’s Choice to the winner’s circle on September 3.
Wilson’s Canadian flag prominently displayed… (Courtesy of Julie Wright)
Wilson quickly garnered accolades for her talents, drawing an immediate – and large – fan following.
She was honoured with the Sovereign Award for top apprentice in 2005 and 2006, earning the Eclipse Award in the same category in 2005, after winning a colony-leading 175 races, becoming just the third apprentice (Sandy Hawley and Mickey Walls are the others) to win the Woodbine riding title.
It was 2007 when Wilson enjoyed the biggest highlight of her career to date, winning Canada’s most famous horse race.
Teaming with Morgan Firestone’s Mike Fox, Wilson won the 148th running of the Queen’s Plate with the horse trained by Ian Black.
“I can’t believe it’s been 10 years,” she offered. “It made me stop and think. It’s a milestone that I’m really proud of, the significance to the longevity of my career. I wouldn’t mind doing it every 10 years. I’m kind of in awe. I still have a hard time believing the way it panned out and that it actually came to fruition. There’s a moment in the video where I hit the wire and give this little fist pump. It’s funny because I know exactly what I was feeling right then. That fist pump genuinely does not truly show the elation I’m experiencing at that moment.
“As a professional athlete, that’s what we’re out there to do. It’s history in Canada. I like watching it every now and again. I’m very proud that I was able to achieve that goal and to be part of Canadian history.”
Her appreciation for the significance of the accomplishment is matched by the appreciation she has in representing her country at other racetracks.
“That’s one of things that I’ve really come to value when I ride all over the world – my pride in being Canadian,” said Wilson, who as captain, won the 2015 Shergar Cup at Ascot alongside teammates Sammy Jo Bell and Hayley Turner, marking the first victory for an all-female side in the event. “When you step back and look at the world today, there’s even more pride in being able to say, ‘I’m Canadian.’”
There are occasions – when it’s allowed and the sticker works – that Wilson wears a Canadian flag on her riding boot.
It won’t be the first thing you notice when you see her in the saddle, but that small part of her equipment is a big part of who she is.
“If I could keep them there all the time, I’d always have a Canadian flag or maple leaf on my boot,” said the lifetime winner of 1,374 races, who won the inaugural Pimlico Female Jockey Challenge in May of 2011, an event that helped raise money for breast cancer awareness.
In a few days, Wilson, who has won 110 races or more on seven occasions, will begin her 14th season in the irons when Woodbine’s thoroughbred campaign gets underway on April 15.
In between adding to her career win total, she’ll continue her longstanding commitment to promoting the sport, whether it’s signing autographs or lending her support to various charitable and community endeavors.
And wherever she happens to find herself, Wilson will bring her Canadian pride along for the ride.
“I’m very happy to always tell people I’m Canadian. I wear my maple leaf, so to speak, with as much pride as I can.”