Roaring ahead

Balmertown, Ont., native Hannah Twomey (6) races ahead of the pack during an event at Woodbine Mohawk Park during the 2018 season.

Hannah Twomey is ready to resume her pro jockey career — as soon as the horse racing scene in Canada does the same.

The Balmertown native is sitting tight in her current home in Mississauga, Ont., under quarantine after spending her winter and part of the spring in Florida to train. Toronto’s Woodbine Mohawk Park announced earlier this week their thoroughbred season would begin on June 13. It had been pushed back for nearly two months.

“I’m pretty optimistic. I’m looking realistically there will be horse racing this summer,” saidTwomey. “Obviously it’s not going to be like how it was before. There’s going to be a delayed start date and there might not be as many fans in the stands or when they’re going to be allowed back is another thing. I foresee there’s going to be empty stands for a long time.”

Twomey admitted Canada has been taking things much slower than their American counterparts. Considered an apprentice jockey for the past five years in the U.S., Twomey was galloping horses in between races when large gatherings were banned due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When the pandemic hit, Gulfstream Park (outside Miami) was running,” she recalled. “They implemented their safety precautions so they can continue running. . . . Their security there is pretty good. You’re not allowed on the grounds unless you’re wearing a mask and gloves. Here in Canada as of (this week), the same thing has been implemented at the facilities. It’s mandatory everyone has to wear a mask.”

A return to the track in June would mark a restart of the 25-year-old Twomey’s budding rise as a jockey. She was off to a good start on Canadian soil. Twomey delivered a pair of stirring wins during a two-week span in the 2018 Woodbine season aboard horses Show Me The Prize and Light My Path. Unfortunately due to illness, Twomey missed the entire 2019 season at Woodbine which runs from April to December.

Now, she’s poised to pick up where she left off.

“After this quarantine, I’ll be right back at the race track looking for mounts and getting things going again,” she said.

Aside from the physical and mental demands of being a jockey, networking plays a big role in advancing in the competitive horse racing game. Twomey has an agent, Ron Burke, who is contact with various owners and trainers. The more races and training sessions you earn, the more you build your portfolio.

“When (Burke is) out looking for specific mounts for me, he looks at what would be a good fit,” Twomey said. “Really, there’s no real restrictions. For a jockey starting out, there’s only one I can think of is not being paired with a two-year old race horse. . . . Why would you put a beginner with a beginner is kind of the idea behind that.”

Also adding personal and career support is Twomey’s partner, fellow jockey Jorge Espitia. The two met when Twomey was a student at Olds College in Alberta where she graduated in both the race horse grooming and racing program in 2014.

However, Twomey’s love for horses started long before she filled out a college application.

“Hannah always loved animals and they always loved her too,” Twomey’s mother, Janet, said in an email interview. “Oh my, she never played with dolls as a little girl. Always farm animals and when her older sisters Sarah and Kathleen would play dress-up, Hannah always insisted on being the puppy!”

While living in Balmertown, parents Tim and Janet Twomey enrolled their six-year-old daughter at Red Lake’s Sunset Stables.

“Her riding instructor Lee Green was also her swimming coach,” Janet recalled. “Tim and I even took horseback riding lessons there so that we — mostly me — wouldn’t be so hesitant about Hannah being around horses. We never owned a horse.”

The family moved to Thunder Bay when Hannah was 15. She attended and graduated from Superior Collegiate, but never lost the passion for the thrill of the race.

“It kind of kept going as I got older. There were horse camps I’d participate in. I kept on getting yelled at for riding too fast. Then I decided to get into a profession where I was allowed to ride fast,” said Hannah, the youngest of the four Twomey kids along with Sarah, Kathleen and Connor.

Janet admits there’s a natural concern every time Hannah announces an entry into a new race.

“This is such a dangerous sport. A 115-pound person on a 1,000-plus pound animal going at 50 km/h and faster is hard to watch as a Mom,” Janet said. “They need to be light but very strong. We always pray that Hannah and all the riders and horses would have safe rides.”

Hannah can attest to that, citing that many consider jockeys to be in a top tier class of athlete.

“They say jockeys are pound for pound the fittest athletes or the strongest in the world compared to, say, football players because of weight restrictions and the fact we have to be so strong,” she said. “It’s not just us who are the athletes. We also work with our horses which are athletes. They have to be at their peak physical condition too.”

The potential banning of fans at Woodbine this season will make things tougher for members of Hannah’s family who live in the Red Lake area, Thunder Bay and Toronto, to see their star jockey in person.

Hannah’s grandmother, Anne Sliz, and her aunt, Donna Emberson, live in the Toronto area, but her immediate family is still in Thunder Bay.

“I try to get back home to see them,” Hannah said. “Not as often as I’d like.”

Twomey said she will miss not only her family, but the fans in general this season. She has attended a handful of Queen’s Plate finals in Toronto and the 2013 Breeders Cup at Santa Anita Park.

“There’s a unique electricity and excitement in the air. You know and everyone else knows that they’re not just about to watch history happen, but actually be a part of it,” Hannah said. “It’s truly unreal being in a crowd of about 50,000 and witnessing them go silent after initial cheers as the race progresses to the backstretch and the gradual crescendo as the horses hit the top of the stretch until it’s so loud you can no longer hear your own voice. The experience for me was amazing and humbling in a sense and just really special all the way around.”

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