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A TALE OF TWO DREAMS REALIZED

TORONTO, February 8, 2024— Seconds before she was called upon, Isabelle Wenc smiled, knowing her story would be unlike any of the others shared that morning.

As each student in the Communications 108 class at Oxford College in Burlington, Ontario, took their turn talking about what led them to the Primary Paramedic Program, Wenc listened attentively, fascinated by what she was hearing.

Then it was her turn to speak.

“I had to introduce myself, and the question came up, ‘What did you do before this?’ I told them I was a jockey and that I had spent a lot of time in the back of an ambulance as a patient, so now I’m ready to make the transition to be the one to help people.”

After 10 years in the irons, navigating the highs and lows of riding 1,000-pound Thoroughbreds, Wenc, now 29, is embracing a new chapter in her life, one whose origin story dates back long before she had her first mount.

Jockey Isabelle Wenc's first win at Woodbine aboard Tornando Cat on August 26, 2017 (Michael Burns Photo)
Jockey Isabelle Wenc’s first win at Woodbine aboard Tornando Cat on August 26, 2017 (Michael Burns Photo)

Becoming a jockey was, in many ways, an ideal calling for someone who learned to outrun the odds from the moment she came into the world.

Born three months prematurely, her parents, Brian and Carolyne, were told by doctors that their daughter might not pull through.

If she did, there was a strong likelihood she would encounter physical or mental disabilities.

Her legs were braced and fitted with casts when she was learning to walk.

“I had to overcome a lot,” recalled Wenc. “There were always hurdles to get over and I think that made me both resilient and strong-willed. If there was something I was told I couldn’t do or wouldn’t be able to do, I found a way to do it.”

That determination eventually led her to the racetrack, although it wasn’t her original career objective.

“I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to be a paramedic, even before I wanted to be a jockey. My dad is a pediatric intensive care nurse, and my sister, Tiffanie, is going into nursing and works at a hospital. My brother, Ben, worked security at a hospital, and he is now a corrections officer.

“Before I became a jock, the plan was to go the paramedic route. Then, after high school, I started my life as a jockey. But I knew in the back of my mind that one day I would be a paramedic.”

The Thoroughbred Life

On August 16, 2014, the 4-foot-11 rider from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, rode in her first race, the milestone coming at her hometown track at Marquis Downs.

She partnered Lasting Cash in the 6 ½-furlong race and finished sixth.

In 19 starts in 2014, Wenc went winless. Her best results were a pair of seconds and a trio of thirds.

The following year, Wenc won 11 races, including her first victory. On June 13, 2015, she piloted 20-1 Misty’s Last Storm to a nose victory at Marquis Downs.

At season’s end, she was named as a finalist for the 2015 Sovereign Award in the Outstanding Apprentice category.

Then came the day afternoon of Sept. 9, 2016, at Northlands Park in Edmonton.

An on-track spill during morning training resulted in multiple broken vertebrae.

“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.

Isabelle Wenc on Twitter“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.”

It would not be her only serious riding injury.

In one instance, she snapped her right clavicle in half and separated her shoulder.

On Apr. 21, 2017, on Opening Day at Woodbine, while working a horse in the morning, Wenc was catapulted onto the all-weather track.

“My left humerus bone in my shoulder had a fracture, which kept me out about five weeks.”

A Difficult Choice

It was around four years ago when Wenc started to consider a career change.

“I love riding, but my whole career was kind of tough and eventually, it took a toll on me mentally. One day, I realized it was just time for me.”

That moment came on Dec. 15, 2023.

“Leaving was a very hard decision,” said Wenc, whose father and nephews, Michael and Carter, were trackside and in the winner’s circle when she won her last race in August. “I had been thinking about it for a few years. It was by no means an overnight decision.

“I can’t even tell you the number of tears that I cried. When I think about it now or tell people about that, I get choked up. My whole life, my whole personality was horses and horse racing.

Isabelle Wenc and her nephews after a race at Woodbine in 2023
Wenc had 829 career starts and won 69 races. 

“The last few times I rode, I would cry every time I headed back to the room. When I walked out that last day, I felt a sense of peace.”

Wenc, with 69 career wins to her name, reached for her phone on the way to her car.

“My dad, who was there to see me win my first race at Woodbine, was the first person I called. He answered and I said, ‘I did it.’ I had retired on my terms. No one had told me that I was scared, I didn’t have any injuries – it was my call. That was a rewarding feeling. As heartbreaking as it was, there was that contentment.”

There was also a plan already in place.

Wenc’s long-held aspirations of a paramedic career were now on the fast track.

“I was on the waitlist for the paramedic program in Saskatchewan for two years and later found out it would be at least another year or more before I got in. So, I decided to apply here in Ontario and figured I would see what happens.

“I was hesitant about doing it out here because my family is out west, but I knew I had to make a change. I took a shot, and I got in right away. I found that out this past September.”

Adapting to a new way of life and going back to school has had its challenges, admitted Wenc.

Bidding farewell to the racetrack world has also been difficult.

“I was telling someone in my class that I was glad I went the route of being a jockey first. It is a very tough gig, and it made me a tougher person. It made me more resilient than I was before. I don’t think the me from 12 years ago who showed up at the track and worked as a groom could be the same person who applied for paramedic school.

“I think everything that I went through, all the ups and downs as a jockey, will benefit me in the long run for this. I think of it in terms of that everything does happen for a reason. I got to live out my dream and learn a lot in the process. It made me who I am now.”

Isabelle Wenc and her nephews after a race at Woodbine in 2023
Isabelle Wenc and her nephews after a race at Woodbine in 2023

One constant, however, is the high standards Wenc demands of herself.

Her father saw it in her early on.

“She’s always been a perfectionist,” said Brian. “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.”

A mindset that continues to guide Wenc.

“The paramedics course is considered a two-year program, but it’s more like 15 months or so. You have three semesters in school and a fourth on ride-outs. It’s intense – they tell us it’s three years of information condensed into a year program. I am in eight classes this semester. There aren’t many breaks.

“For the most part, it’s straight through. I don’t have much free time these days, but that’s okay. When you look down the road and know what is there, it makes it worth it.”

She is prepared to handle anything that comes her way.

Finding Peace

Having traded in her racing silks for a paramedic’s uniform has been a perfect fit, both literally and figuratively.

Isabelle Wenc in her Paramedic Student uniform
Isabelle Wenc in her Paramedic Student uniform

In 2025, when she graduates from Oxford, it will be Wenc in the role of providing care to those injured.

It’s a role she was destined to be in.

“I am a very empathetic person and I like helping and taking care of people – it suits my personality. I don’t think I could go from what I was doing to an office job. I need something where I am in the midst of it all.”

Just as she was for 829 career starts on the racetrack.

“I keep coming back to the notion that everything happens for a reason. I know it’s cliché, but it is so true. I try not to see any of the negatives in my riding career as that. I see them as something that helped shape me into the person I am today.”

Support for her decision to hang up her tack has come from far and wide, including the horse racing community.

“I always have cheerleaders on Facebook who reach out and are happy to see me doing well. It was nice to know people appreciated how hard I worked. These are the same people who are happy to see me go on and embark on this new chapter.”

They are not the only ones.

She recalls a meaningful conversation with her longtime jockey agent Al Raymond last fall.

“Al, who is like a second father to me, has always been supportive about everything. If I had to cry, I would go to him. When I told him I had an opportunity to go to school, I asked what he thought. He looked at me and said, ‘You know what you should do.’ And I did know.”

On this night, like most others, Wenc is in study mode.

As hectic as the pace of school life is, there is also a sense of peace.

“There are those moments when I am a little doubtful, but I do genuinely believe this is where I am supposed to be.”

Chris Lomon, Woodbine Communications / @WoodbineComms

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