Motivation and inspiration are always close at hand for Fraser Aebly, an Albertan who moved his tack to Woodbine in October.
When he slipped on the sky blue silks featuring an ornate white butterfly on the front, along with white and black hoops, the 19-year-old apprentice rider was always focused on giving his horse the best shot at winning the race.
As he made his way from the Woodbine jockeys’ room to the paddock for the first race on October 13th, Fraser Aebly felt, somewhat ironically, a few butterflies of his own as he got a leg up on Lulu’s Lullaby, a 3-year-old daughter of Wicked Tune-Lulu’s Blues, trained and owned by Krista Cole-Simpson.
“My parents [Derek and Dale] had driven, in my car, all the way from Vancouver to Toronto,” recounted Aebly, who hails from Grande Prairie, Alberta, a city of around 75,000 residents that lies 460 kilometres (265 miles) northwest of Edmonton. “They were at the races that night.”
He hoped to give them something to cheer about on his second day riding at Woodbine.
Although he had won races in Western Canada, namely, Hastings Park, Assiniboia Downs and Century Mile, Aebly moved his tack to Woodbine in October and was looking to record his first victory at the country’s highest-profile racetrack.
Lulu’s Lullaby came into the race winless in five starts and was sent on her way in the five-furlong sprint over the inner turf at 7-1.
Aebly kept his filly out of the three-horse tussle up front and settled the bay into fourth. Content with where he was positioned into the turn, Aebly called upon the Florida-bred for her best run. The duo began to reel in their rivals at the quarter-pole methodically and swung out four wide to seize command at the eighth pole.
When Aebly glanced at the infield tote board, he liked what he saw.
“It was my first time riding on the inner turf,” started Aebly. “It was a perfect trip with how everything set up for us. You see that wire getting closer and closer, and you start to get this feeling of happiness that comes over you.”
Lulu’s Lullaby crossed the wire, a 1 ¾-length winner.
“To see how happy everyone was, Krista, the groom, and everyone associated with the horse – that was amazing,” said Aebly. “My parents had huge smiles on their faces, and you could see what it meant to them. It meant a lot to me, too.”
However, there was one notable absence at the rail that Friday afternoon.
His sister, Andie, passed away on September 30, 2021, after injuries suffered in a dirt bike accident. She was 14.
“It’s tough for all of us,” said Aebly. “It’s not something you ever want to deal with. Andie was a great sister and a great daughter. She persevered through so much. She has been and will always be a great inspiration to me.”
Born on January 5, 2007, Andie suffered severe midline complications. She was immediately airlifted to the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton, where she spent the first 16 months of her life while surgeons reconnected her esophagus and repaired her trachea. Andie spent the first nine of those months unable to swallow even so much as her own saliva.
Andie underwent countless procedures and multiple significant surgeries over her 14 years but never wavered in her will to lead an everyday life.
She was a hockey player, a gymnast, a soccer player, a wagon driver and a barn hand, to name a few.
In her obituary, it was shared that whenever anyone asked what she wanted to do, Andie always responded with the same line, “I am up for anything.”
That is precisely how Aebly recalls his younger sister and only sibling.
“She really was up for anything. We learned to ride horses together on our parents’ farm. We just did a lot together.”
Andie would no doubt be proud of her big brother.
Aebly went to Vancouver to gallop horses for trainer Steve Henson before beginning his riding career at Hastings Park in 2022.
His first win came that September with Quagmire, a dark bay son of Storm Victory-Yodeling Ann, who sprung an 11-1 upset over 6 ½ furlongs on the Hastings dirt.
Aebly, who won three races from 23 starts that season, would hit his best stride in the saddle in 2023.
Highlights include a three-length victory in the CTHS Sales Stakes on August 28th at Hastings with Just Jimmy. The pair finished fourth in the BC Premier’s Handicap (G3) in October.
“Winning that stakes race stands out for sure,” said Aebly. “Riding in the BC Derby at Hastings and the Canadian Derby at Century Mile were also big accomplishments.”
So, too, has made a name for himself in one of North America’s most competitive jockey colonies.
Aebly has been getting regular mounts while riding for some of Woodbine’s top outfits. His agent is former rider Gerry Olguin, who also started at Hastings before moving his tack east to Woodbine, where he had a successful career before announcing his retirement in 2017 after winning his 2,000th race.
He made a solid first impression on Olguin.
“Fraser wants to learn. The people who helped him at Hastings Park helped me, too. They are good horse people. I liked what I saw when they called to tell me to watch this kid ride. When I watched him – I think he won three races at Winnipeg that day – you could see the horses running for him. And then when I talked to him, I just had this feeling that he was going to do well.”
Olguin’s intuition proved to be right on the mark.
This year, Aebly has won 68 races and finished in the top three at a 44 percent clip. His purse earnings sit at just over $1.1 million (U.S.).
“I think I have a good sense of what’s going on around me when I’m in a race,” Aebly said about his riding strengths. “I also have a good clock in my head, which helps me to get the most of each horse.
“This year has been very good. It exceeded what I thought it would be. I set goals, and I was able to reach them. I’ve ridden in many tough places, and Woodbine is definitely no different. It’s the goal of every rider to race here, so you have to be at your best every time you go out there.”
With the curtain closed on the 2023 Woodbine season, Aebly will rest briefly before he heads to Florida, where he will gallop over the winter at a farm in Ocala.
“Being around the horses is my happy place. I want to take that time to improve myself, stay connected with the horses, and be ready for the new Woodbine season. This year was good, but I want it to be even better next year.”
If all goes according to plan and he is granted a winter extension, Aebly will maintain his five-pound apprentice allowance until September 2024.
But he isn’t about to get ahead of himself.
Thoughts of winning a Sovereign Award as a top apprentice, riding his first stakes winner at Woodbine, surpassing the number of wins he posted in 2023 – all of that can wait for now.
“I’m so happy with how things have gone, but you must continue to work hard and improve in this sport. I have goals like anyone else, but it will be one step at a time. I want this to be the start of something special.”
Aebly knows precisely where to find inspiration along the journey.
“My parents are amazing people. No matter what I would have chosen to do, they would have supported me 100 percent. And with Andie, I know she will always be with me every step of the way.”