To say that jockey Sheena Ryan is enjoying a fantastic year may be a slight understatement. In 2015 she finished as the 15th ranked rider at Woodbine with 20 wins from 251 mounts and purse earnings of $850,000. With 5 weeks left to go in 2016, she sits 10th with 34 wins from 390 rides and $1.46 million. Not a bad pay raise, but it involved some difficult decisions along the way.
The biggest change this year for Ryan was switching from agent Don Parente to Toronto newcomer Ryan Deyotte. A jockey’s agent plays a vital role in getting a rider a steady stream of mounts, and it is crucial for young riders to team up with the right one. Ryan acknowledges that when she finished the Exercise Rider and Jockey Training Program at Olds College in Alberta, she had no idea where to start looking for an agent. She got lucky and asked the right questions.
“When you first start out you are thinking about being good, switching sticks and being a good rider, not really about finding an agent. When I was first starting out I asked trainer Reade Baker who I should get. He suggested Don Parente and gave me his number so I lucked out. I think when you are starting out you should ask a trainer or someone you know and respect to recommend an agent.”
The pairing of Ryan and Parente was successful with a strong campaign in 2013 to finish 20th in the standings with $780,000 in purses earned. Her breakthrough year followed in 2014 with $1.7 million, a Sovereign Award for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey, and a charge up the rankings to sit 10th. After losing her apprentice bug in 2015, business slowed a bit. The desire to improve led Ryan to make some tough decisions.
“Ryan Deyotte had contacted me a couple of years ago– he wanted me to go out west to ride but I was committed to staying here. He mentioned to me that he was thinking of coming to Toronto to be an agent. He came here for a couple of weeks at the end of last season and we met. I don’t like making changes like that but I felt it was necessary. I had a good agent in Don, but Ryan was willing to make me his #1 jockey.”
Deyotte has over 30 years of experience in horse racing as a trainer and agent on the west coast, and he showed supreme confidence in Ryan’s abilities by moving across the country to represent her. His support and hard work has pushed his jockey into barns that she didn’t ride for in the past and his belief in her abilities has infused her with confidence. Not content to rest where she is, Ryan wants more – a lot more.
“I’m a top ten jockey in the standings now but I want to be top five.
“I want to ride in the Breeders’ Cup races someday. I want to ride in these big races and I know that I can do that just like anybody else. I’m going to keep working hard because that’s my goal and I’m not going to give up until I achieve something. I’m not going to be picky about what it is but I’m really…,” Sheena hesitates as a look of sheer determination crosses her face. “I would love to go to the Breeders’ Cup and ride any of those races.”
The path to realizing big dreams is traveled one step at a time. Deyotte was able to get Ryan a mount on a promising two-year-old named Dragon’s Cry for the powerhouse Bob Tiller stable. She seized the opportunity and guided the colt to a strong runner-up finish in his debut and a win shortly after. When Tiller gave Ryan a leg-up on the lightly raced colt in The Bull Page stake on October 10, the Hall of Fame trainer was showing the utmost confidence in her. In what would be her first stake score at Woodbine, she didn’t disappoint him, guiding the willing youngster to the front and never looking back.
Ryan was thrilled to capture her first stake victory at Woodbine. “Going into the race I knew I had a chance. It seemed like everything was coming together. When we crossed the wire in front I didn’t believe I had won at first – I hugged the horse and he was like – what are you doing?
“I was nervous but I didn’t get really nervous until that day. I had butterflies. Bob said ‘Just do the same thing with him - you know what to do jock.’”
On Breeders’ Cup weekend, Ryan has a chance to double up with Dragon’s Cry this Saturday at Woodbine. Tiller will boost her into the saddle for another stakes try in The Clarendon.
It’s a long trip from Olds College in Alberta to the infield winner’s circle at Woodbine. Ryan looks back now and realizes that going to Olds and learning the ropes at the jockey school was an important part of her development.
“Going to the school was definitely a must for me because I had no idea about the racetrack and I think you need some kind of basic knowledge. For someone who knows nothing about the racetrack it’s a really good step into it. They help you out and assign you a trainer.
“This game teaches you a lot. Like in my very first race I fell off and broke my arm. It was devastating emotionally and mentally. My arm hurt but that was the most minor injury that I had. It was a learning lesson and it made me a lot stronger. When I came back I won my first race. I have to thank (Alberta trainer) Ron Grieves – he always believed in me and always had my back and gave me my first winner. He pushed me.
“After that incident I wasn’t sure if I could do this and I was down on myself, and he was like, ‘no, get out there.’ He never gave me a chance to doubt myself and I’m really happy that he did that for me, and I learned and grew so much from that and each thing that’s gone on.
“You have your ups and downs in this game and you really have to appreciate it when things go your way, when you win some races. Like winning the stake race for Bob Tiller, a Hall of Fame trainer – I’ll never forget that day and I’m so grateful for it. You take the downs as they come and learn from it because you can get a positive experience out of everything.”
Words of Wisdom
Ryan has advice for young riders who want to make it at the track. “Buy an equicizer (mechanical horse) right away and get your butt on it everyday or as much as you can. Watch as many races as you can, make notes, ask people questions about that.
“I probably would have started yoga a lot sooner because I’ve had some injuries in the past. Since I started to do my yoga and I have a personal trainer now who has helped me deal with my injuries and I feel great. I kind of wish I had done that sooner because yoga helps to prevent injuries as well."
“I don’t regret any of the decisions I’ve made. Whether they were right or wrong I learned a lot of stuff from all the places that I’ve worked at, the trainers I’ve worked with, the people I’ve worked with at each place, all the different tracks I went to…you just really have to dedicate yourself.”
The dedication to her career is clearly evident as she speaks. “I think I’ve always wanted it. I’m in a really good place right now and I feel like I’ve kind of got all of the little things in my life sorted. Everything has come together this year. I think you really need that before you start riding. If something is not going good in your life, you need to get that sorted first because it shows in your riding.
“You just have to make yourself happy in life, and it’s not just a rider thing. I’ve kind of been doing that as well. You just have to be happy, and don’t get mad about little things and don’t take things to heart, and it’s not personal, it’s business. Try to look at the positive side of every situation. The only way to be successful is to be happy, I believe.”
Sheena Ryan and Ryan Deyotte have a lot to look forward to with the great partnership they have formed. The synergy they share will carry them a long way, maybe even to the Breeders’ Cup one day. For now though, they both seem happy to enjoy the journey one ride at a time.