By Chris Lomon
Time and again, Isabelle Wenc
has managed to beat the odds – from the moment she was born to the day she decided she was going to be a jockey.
“My daughter, she’s no quitter,” started Brian Wenc. “There’s never been a day I didn’t know that.”
He knew that before she could walk or talk. He knew that the day she was born three months premature. He knew that when the doctors came in to speak to him and his wife, Carolyne, with some sobering news.
“They told us she might not make it,” recalled Brian. “If she did make it, there was a strong likelihood she’d have to deal with some tough obstacles.”
Isabelle has seen the baby photos of herself numerous times.
“I was barely two pounds,” she said. “The doctors told my parents that if I made it, I was either going to be physically or mentally disabled and have all sorts of health issues. I was also born with six toes on each foot. I had the extra toes removed when I was two.
“My legs were braced and casted as a toddler when I was learning to walk. I had to work hard to learn all those things kids my age were already doing. My parents always call me their miracle baby and that I was a fighter from day one.”
At the behest of her mother, a young Isabelle was signed up for ballet, something she would do until she was 17.
“She did that because she wanted me to strengthen everything and not use what I went through as an excuse,” noted Isabelle. “I think because of that I was able to do a lot of things I was told I couldn’t do.”
Like riding 1,000-pound thoroughbreds.
The Jockey Calling
The office life was not going to cut it for the once shy little girl, the one who would rather stay home than go on sleepovers at her best friend’s place.
It was the adrenaline rush she was after. The self-described “crazy horse girl” would find it on the racetrack.
The television show ‘Jockeys’ that aired on Animal Planet and featured some of the sport’s most high-profile riders further fueled Isabelle’s desire to join their ranks.
“Watching that show made me know that I wanted to be a jockey,” she said. “They looked like rock stars to me. Throughout high school, I did a lot of research and once I graduated, it was what I was going to do. “
At 4-foot-11, she had her share of doubters.
“When I would tell people what I wanted to do, I don’t think some took me seriously. But I was determined to do it. It’s what I wanted to do.”
Not even her father stood a chance of changing her mind. As a nurse, he had witnessed, first-hand, countless broken bones, head trauma and other serious injuries over the years.
Admittedly, he had reservations, big ones, about his daughter pursuing a life in the saddle. Realistically, he knew he didn’t have a shot at convincing her to consider another calling.
“Are you crazy?” Brian said with a laugh. “That was my first reaction. It’s a pretty dangerous job, but it’s also thrilling, exciting and fun to watch. But I’m always there to support her. She always refers to me as her No. 1 fan. And I am.”
Isabelle and her father, Brian, at Woodbine
Even so, it didn’t make the evening of August 16, 2014 any easier on his nerves. At 10:31 local time, Isabelle rode in her first race, Race 9 at Marquis Downs in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
The apprentice was aboard Lasting Cash, who was 7-2 on the toteboard when the gates opened for the 6 ½-furlong race.
“A lot of nerves and a lot of excitement,” recalled Isabelle. “It was the last race of the night, so I had to sit there most of the evening trying to calm my nerves. All I can recall was being legged up in the paddock and then going behind the gate. It all came together once we were loaded. And then we were off. I lost my left pedal the first jump out of the gate, but I kicked it back in quickly.”
At the wire, the duo finished sixth.
In 19 starts in 2014, Isabelle went winless, but managed a pair of seconds and a trio of thirds.
The following year, Isabelle won 11 races, including her first victory. On June 13, 2015, she guided 20-1 longshot Misty’s Last Storm to a nose nod on the wire at Marquis Downs.
At year’s end, she was tabbed as a finalist for the 2015 Sovereign Award in the top apprentice category.
Things were going just the way she had envisioned. The more she rode, the more trainers and owners started to take notice of her.
But everything changed on September 9, 2016 at Northlands Park.
“I broke four vertebrae in my back,” recalled Isabelle. “I was working a horse in the morning and another rider cut in front of me – we were working in company – and the horse stumbled and fell on top of me. We were underneath the rail and the horse was on top of me for a while.
“I was knocked out so I didn’t remember anything from that incident. The only thing I remember from that accident was waking up in the ambulance and then I don’t remember anything for a while. The next time I remembered anything was when I was in the ER. That whole day was kind of a blur because I was in and out of consciousness the whole time. Eight hours after it happened, I was told I broke my T-4 to T-8 vertebrae. I stayed in the hospital for five days and I was in a back brace. They didn’t do surgery because I was young, active and healthy, so the thought was to let it heal on its own. I was in a back brace for four months.”
On New Year’s Day, she was back on a horse, sort of.
“I bought an Equicizer,” said Isabelle of the hand-crafted mechanical horse that simulates riding. “I dreamed of having one since the day I started riding. I had saved up for it ever since I started. It kind of seemed the right time to do it because I knew rehab was obviously going to be difficult. I broke my back in September, but by January 1, I was on it. The doctor cleared me to do it. It was something I had to do before I could get back on a horse again."
The diminutive rider was broken, but undeterred. The most recurring thought she had during her rehab days was, ‘When can I get back out there?’
Photo by Mr. Will Wong
It came as no surprise to her biggest fan.
“These animals weigh a lot and they go pretty fast,” said Brian. “Being a nurse, I know all things that can go wrong. But I also know my daughter. The one thing I asked her is, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to go back to school?’ But I knew the answer. And I knew her determination to fight through this. I never tell her to quit because that just won’t work with her. She’ll only become more determined.”
Another Step Back
Just like the time she was faced with yet another setback.
“I rode at Northlands all of 2017,” Isabelle started. “Halfway through, I decided it was time to make a change. I always wanted to give Woodbine a try and I was planning on doing it the year when I had the accident at Northlands.
Around the beginning of July, I contacted (executive director of the Jockeys' Benefit Association of Canada) Robbie King and he got me in touch with (Woodbine-based jockey agent) Neal Wilson. We talked about when I planned to come out to Toronto, which was the middle of August in 2017. He let everyone know I was coming and he had an apprentice rider set to go. I won in my third start out here. A few weeks later I won another one and then I went to Fort Erie for Closing Day.”
The trip to the border oval – Isabelle was named on three horses – started out fine. Her second mount ended with a trip to the hospital.
“I was named on three for the same trainer,” she recalled. “The second one I rode stumbled and fell after the wire. I was launched to the ground and I landed square on my right collarbone. I hear it pop when I hit the ground so I knew it was broken when I was lying there. No one believed it was broken because I got up, was talking and walked off the track. I didn’t want to go with the paramedics.
“By the time I got to the paramedics’ shack, the adrenaline had worn off and I couldn’t move my arm. So I said, ‘Okay, probably time to go to the hospital.’ I spent five hours in the ER. It turns out that I had snapped my right clavicle in half. It was a clean break. I also separated my shoulder. A week later I had surgery. They put a plate and six screws in it.”
Isabelle’s winter months were largely divided between visits to Woodbine for sessions with physiotherapist Randy Foster and at a local gym where she worked on conditioning and cardio.
The long hours had a silver lining.
“I honestly felt better than I ever had, fitness-wise,” she remembered. “I was excited. Every time I’ve had an injury, I’ve always come back more determined than the time before. I want to come back stronger each time. You want to make sure – and it’s understandable – that the people you are going to ride for are confident that you are fit and confident. You want them to know that you are going to be the same rider as before the accident.
“As soon as the track opened at Woodbine for training this year, I was getting on about 10-12 horses a day. And I was feeling really good. I was getting on a lot of horses for different people. Things were kind of lining up in a good way. Or at least I thought they were.”
Opening Day Disappointment
Eager to test her mettle in one of North America’s most contentious jockey colonies, Isabelle did what she could to bring attention to herself before the Thoroughbred meet started on April 21.
She managed to, but not in the way she imagined.
“On Opening Day, it was the fifth horse I was working in the morning – I’ve galloped her so many times and there’s never been a problem – and halfway down the lane she ducked into the rail and dropped her head on me,” started Isabelle. “I came off and bounced off the Tapeta four times. I thought I was okay. I had a little bit of road rash. The paramedics asked me if I was okay and I thought I was. There was a little pain but I didn’t think it was anything. I finished working horses that morning, about three or four more. I rode that afternoon and I wouldn’t have done it if I felt something was seriously wrong. There was a little bit of pain, but nothing that told me that I shouldn’t ride.”
That changed after two mounts on the curtain-raising card.
“After that, I wasn’t feeling great,” she said. “I rode my last one, showered and wound down a bit. I was sitting in my box and when I went to move my arm, it was sore. I still wasn’t sure if it was just a muscle thing. I was trying not to panic.
“I went home, put some liniment on and iced it down. A few hours later, Robbie King called and asked me how I was doing and I told him I was okay. Robbie suggested I go to the hospital just to be safe. I didn’t really want to, but he said, ‘Can you please go?’ Around nine that evening, I went to the hospital. I spent all night there. I got the x-rays at 1 in the morning and saw the doctor at 7:30 in the morning. There was no head injury, but my left humerus bone in my shoulder had a fracture and now I’d be out 4-6 weeks. I got my x-rays and took it to the surgeon who did my clavicle injury. I liked him and trust him. He told me that this one was minor compared to the other one. He wasn’t impressed to see me in a sling again, but he told me that everything would be fine.”
It was back for another bout of physio with Foster at the Toronto oval, along with more time as a spectator rather than participant.
“I’m hoping the third time’s the charm and I’ve reached my quota for a year or two,” Isabelle said with a laugh. “I’ve had about enough.”
But not enough for her to consider, not even for a second, hanging up her tack. The only thought is to get back on a horse the day she’s cleared.
The 23-year-old wants that adrenaline rush back.
Photo by John Watkins
“Through all my injuries, the pain has been nothing,” she admitted. “I won’t shed a tear until I find out something is broken. As soon as they tell me I’m going to be out for a period of time, then your heart breaks. You work so hard to get to a certain point and in a split-second, it’s over. This time, it was probably one of the hardest times I’ve had to accept because I worked my butt off all winter and all spring. Opening Day, I manage to get hurt.
“I was fine the whole day, just dealing with the pain, but when they told me 4-6 weeks, you have your two-minute cry, your two-minute pity party, but after that, you pick yourself up and focus immediately on coming back. A lot of it is more mental than physical. Your mind needs to be in the right spot to recover physically.”
Down But Not Out
Walks with her dachshund Oscar help take her mind off the waiting, at least temporarily.
It’s when she lies down in bed for the evening that she envisions getting a leg-up and blasting out of the gates.
“Going to bed, all I can think of is the day I get back,” she said. “My life is riding. If there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way in this sport, you can’t feel sorry for yourself. You have to move forward. There’s no other way.”
Not in Isabelle Wenc’s world.
“I’m short, so my entire life, some people have treated me like a kid and told me I couldn’t do something,” she offered. “I was a wrestler in high school (Bethlehem Catholic High School in Saskatoon) and I did well. I don’t like to be told that I can’t do something. I’ve always had that mentality. I don’t mind proving people wrong.
“When I had my first two accidents, after each one, people would say maybe I should give up, that I gave it my best shot. This last one, I heard, ‘Don’t you think you should quit?’ It never once crossed my mind. I don’t quit.”
But Brian Wenc already knew that.
“She’s very determined,” he said. “She’s always been a perfectionist. When she did something, in her eyes, it had to be done the right way. As a kid, when she drew a picture, it had to be a good one, not so-so, or it would go in the garbage. From the day she was born, she’s just found a way to never give up, on and off the racetrack.”
By simply doing what she always has.
“She finds a way to beat the odds,” Brian grinned.
Main photo by Mr. Will Wong