By Chris Lomon
The smile. It’s impossible not to notice whenever and wherever you see Chelsey Willick
In the minutes leading up to each race she rides in at Ajax Downs, the jockey with the long, blonde hair that flows out of her helmet sports the typical sports game-face as the field makes it way to the starting gate.
That serious expression has been known to change dramatically, however, once the action gets underway.
Seconds into a Quarter Horse race at Ajax Downs, a dash that might last less than 16 ticks on the teletimer, it’s not uncommon to see Willick beaming in the thick of the action.
“I don’t even know that I’m smiling during a race,” says Willick, a multiple stakes winning rider who started her career in 2009. “Usually, when I’m in the gate, I’ll look straight down the track and in my mind, I say, ‘Come on, open!’ I just think about that moment. And when the gate opens, I just think about going as fast as I can until the finish. I think it’s just that I’m happy to be out there riding.”
It’s something that caught the eye and lens of John Watkins, a longtime horse racing fan and accomplished photographer, when he began taking pictures at Ajax this year.
“Chelsey certainly stands out,” offers Watkins. “A lot of times she has this great expression on her face. I wouldn’t term it yelling, but it’s more of her encouraging the horse.”
Willick’s bond with horses was formed at an early age and solidified through her family’s ties to racing.
“I’ve never been very good at sports,” she admits. “I’ve ridden horses my whole life. I’ve done barrel racing and I’ve always been competitive whenever I’m on a horse. I feel more confident and sure of myself when I’m on a horse than I’ve ever been on my own two feet. I’ve done well riding horses. Other sports, not so much. I’ve been on the racetrack my whole life. My parents are outriders and my mom was also a trainer. My sister (Ashley) is the outrider at Ajax Downs.”
It wasn’t just the horses that captivated a young Willick.
Whenever her family went to Fort Erie, she’d make a beeline towards the apron, shy, but eager to catch the attention of the riders as they walked back to the jockeys’ room.
“When I was a kid and I’d go to the races with my parents, you always thought the jockeys were the coolest,” recalls Willick. “When they would stop and talk to me, I thought I was a big shot because they took the time to say hello. I think it’s great when kids like horse racing and have that interest. If they have a good experience, maybe they’ll tell their friends that a jockey stopped to talk to them for a minute or had their picture taken with them. I think those type of interactions with fans are great for the industry.”
It’s why she’s often seen getting her photo taken or taking a moment to interact with the fans at Ajax Downs.
“I remember how I felt when a jockey signed something or gave me their goggles,” she says. “I’m flattered when someone says hello. I always feel like, ‘You want to get your picture taken with me?’ It’s a bigger deal for me.”
Behind the good-natured, seemingly perpetual smile and genuine demeanor, you’ll find a serious competitor, one who loathes the thought of losing.
In Willick’s world, it’s all about getting to the finish line first.
“Once you get on a horse – especially the ones you know – you get a pretty quick sense of how they’re feeling,” she offers. “When you realize they’re feeling good, that gives you the confidence they will run well and be at the top of their game. I try not to cloud my mind with anything else. It’s just about me and the horse getting ready.”
And when everything is in sync and victory is just a few strides away, that’s when Willick’s signature facial expression surfaces.
“You’re adrenaline just takes over,” she says. “When you know you’re going to win, you say to yourself, ‘We’ve got this.’ You start to feel confident. There are those moments when you are out in front with a good lead – that’s when I know I’ll be smiling. There are also times when you are closing in on the horse leading and you know you have a great chance to win, too. As long as you win, it’s the best feeling.”
It’s something Willick, who has race-ridden at Ajax, Hialeah, Fort Erie and Iowa, reminds herself of when she heads out to work horses for Woodbine thoroughbred trainer-owner Paul Buttigieg, or whenever she goes out for a jog with Eugene, her Italian Greyhound.
“I really like riding horses,” she says. “I’m sure lots of other people in this industry say that, too. Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to ride horses and go fast. Now I get to do that.”
For Chelsey Willick, it’s definitely something worth smiling about.
All photos by John Watkins