Friday, November 16, 2012

Rider Up: Sheena Ryan sticks with it

When the ambulance doors shut and Sheena Ryan heard the siren blare, it was the first time the aspiring jockey had ever thought to herself, ‘Am I really cut out to do this?’

She never believed anything could derail her long-held dream of becoming a jockey. But when the horse she was on flipped and landed on top of her last May on the Woodbine backstretch, Ryan, in the days after, had doubts about pursuing a life in the saddle.

“I was galloping horses for (trainer) Reade Baker. We were just outside the barn and everything seemed fine,” recalled the native of Kindersley, Saskatchewan, who had just returned from a working winter in Florida in 2011. “When it happened, I just got crushed. I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t move and people were running out to help. I found out the horse ran back into his stall. I wasn’t so lucky.”

Her broken pelvis would take seven months to fully heal.

“For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a jockey,” recalled Ryan, who was raised in Ontario. “Those times when I was about nine-years-old, when my sister and I would ride our horses through the fields – I never forgot what I wanted to be. But when I was lying in the ambulance and the pain was excruciating, I wondered if I could do this.”

Ryan soon reassured herself she could.

“It didn’t take long for me to get over the fact I wouldn’t be getting on a horse any time soon,” remembered the 28-year-old. “When you know what you want to do and know that from a young age, there isn’t much that can change your mind, not even something like that.”

Not three years at accounting college, at the behest of her parents. Not working a 9-5 office job. And certainly not the six months of intense rehabilitation she endured.

“I think the day it really dawned on me that I should be riding horses rather than sitting at a desk was when a friend I worked with came up to me and we started talking,” recalled Ryan. “She said, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this. You always talk about being a jockey. So just do it.’”

And that’s just what she did.

Ryan, who enrolled in the exercise rider and jockey training program at Alberta’s Olds College (Woodbine-based jockey and 2010 Sovereign and Eclipse Award-winning champion apprentice Omar Moreno is a graduate) in 2008, headed back there four years later to ride in her first race.

“The first year I was in Alberta I worked for a trainer by the name of Ron Grieves,” said Ryan. “I thought riding out west would be good so that I could get some experience under my belt.”

Her first ride came in a $2,000 claiming race at Grand Prairie on July 20, just four days after her 28th birthday. It wasn’t a fairytale finish aboard Easy Whiskey.

“How about this?” she said with a laugh. “I broke my arm in my first race. We were leading and I fell off the horse. I had never broken any bones in my life up until the barn accident and this time.”

Again, doubts about her career choice crept in.

“I saw it as a failure,” she recalled. “It was disappointing. But Ron, he wouldn’t hear of me questioning anything. He told me to heal up and he’d have horses waiting for me when I was back. That’s all I needed to know. I told him I was going to come back.”

Both Ryan and Grieves, Northlands Park’s leading trainer in 2012, kept their word.

Two months later, at Northlands Park, Ryan, in her return, won aboard Circle of Time, a gelding trained by Grieves. She would finish the meet with three wins, two seconds, and one third from 23 mounts.

“I didn’t say anything to her before the race,” said Grieves. “She was so nervous that she would have forgotten whatever I had said. After the race, I just told her to never doubt herself, to have faith in what she can do. That’s what you need in this sport. You have to stick with it. She had seriously thought about quitting after that first race. But she did nothing wrong. It happened. I’m just glad she didn’t give up.”

Ryan would soon set her sights on Woodbine.

“I wanted to try and see what I could do here,” said Ryan, whose first mount at the Toronto oval came with Biddabudda for trainer Pat Parente, brother of her agent, Don Parente, a second-place finish on October 28. “I felt it was the right time.”

The goal was to win her fourth career race, an important benchmark for an apprentice rider.

Jockey and agent determined she would stop race-riding if she were to win at Woodbine, in order to make full use of her apprentice allowance when she returns next season.

Ryan’s allowance would drop from 10 pounds to five after her fifth win, and she would retain that five-pound allowance for one year with the prospect of an extension if she took another winter off.

Generally, Ontario Racing Commission stewards grant an extension when jockeys stop riding in order for them to maintain their weight allowance.

The moment when Ryan would make the decision to shut down for the rest of the campaign came sooner than anticipated.

“I won in my second start,” recalled Ryan, of the score aboard Badon, for trainer Michael Doyle, on November 2. “I was really hoping for more experience at Woodbine. Don just laughed after the race and said, ‘We were just starting to have fun here.’”

The fun will have to wait until next spring. Until then, Ryan will once again head to the Sunshine State to stay fit and be ready for the new season.

“I’m just really excited about what’s ahead,” said Ryan. “I’ll work hard over the winter and be ready to go. I truly love being a jockey. I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Sheena Ryan isn’t about to let anything change that.

[Chris Lomon]

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