Emma-Jayne Wilson hardly looks like a softie.
The 29-year-old jockey, wiry strong and pound-for-pound powerful, appears deeply focused and unfazed by the rush of horses and riders around her.
But during her six years as professional jockey at Woodbine in Canada, Wilson admits she has been so deeply moved by two Thoroughbreds in particular that when their careers ended, she personally took them in.
“I have a connection with them,” she says. “They just pull on your heartstrings.”
Belle Gully, now known as Gus, is a stocky chestnut who was a “champ in his own class,” she says. “He raced at his own level” which wasn’t in the stakes classes, “and he would try every time.
Race name: Belle Gully
Barn name: Gus
Sire: Marias Mon
Dam: Belle Dancer
Career earnings: $98,653“I have a picture of me with him in the winner’s circle after one race—he’d won by eight lengths!”
She rode him for several years before he moved to another track. But Wilson kept tabs on him through friends and on the Internet. “At one point a friend checked into his situation and was told he was retired and spoken for,” she recalls. “That was good enough for me. I knew he’d started to get badly beat in bottom-level claiming races, and that didn’t sit well with me. So, I was happy when I heard he was spoken for.”
But in 2009, about nine months after Gus was to have retired, Wilson learned Gus had been raced again, and failed miserably.
“Now I was on a mission to get him,” Wilson says. “When he showed up again in the races, that really bothered me, since he had shown no interest in continuing to run. At this point, I felt I had to take a more aggressive stance to get that horse.”
In July 2009, Gus became the first horse the longtime equestrian and jockey would own outright. And Gus, now ten years old, is enjoying the life of a retired athlete, sleeping a lot in his stall, eating all the food he wants, and loving pasture romps and his favorite hobby—stripping other horses of their blankets.
“I don’t worry about him now,” says Wilson.
Nor is she concerned about her other favorite racehorse, Just Rushing. About two months ago, she decided to buy the million-dollar stakes winner, a horse she rode to 16 of his 18-wins.
Although Just Rushing was in the upper echelons of the sport, and in that sense couldn’t be more different from Gus, both horses affected her deeply.
When she found out that his owners were thinking of retiring him, Wilson did a little dance of happiness in the paddock.
Because contrary to what people may think about jockeys and the horses, there is actually a deep bond connecting horse to rider, she says.
Race name: Just Rushing
Sire: Wild Rush
Career earnings: $994,761
“In this game, it seems to a lot of people that horse racing is just a competition between jockeys,” Wilson says. “It’s not like that. It’s a team sport as far as I’m concerned. And the team includes everyone from the grooms and hot-walkers to jockeys and the horses.”
Growing up as a horsey kid who took weekly lessons starting at age 8, Wilson was eventually drawn to riding racehorses as a way of combining her love for the animals with the necessity of getting a job. After completing an equine program at Kemptville College in Canada, she started work with a horse breeder before training as a jockey.
“For me, I wasn’t drawn to it for the racing. It was the horses. That’s what I loved. To find a job that revolved around horses was ideal.”
She has spent the bulk of her career at Woodbine, where the culture is very strongly infused with Thoroughbred retirement awareness and programs.
“There are a lot of jocks who have done similar things, by either taking a horse, or helping to find a home for one,” she says.
If ever there was a time when she might chastise herself for not doing enough, she remembers the encouragement she got from horse-welfare advocate and Barbaro book author Alex Brown. “He told me that if everybody just does a little bit, it will be a lot,” Wilson says.
“I would take every one if I could. But, I think by doing this little bit, we can all travel far. We can cover a lot of ground” to help racehorses retire.