Francine Villeneuve has already cemented herself in racing’s history books with her successful career in the saddle and then as a trainer. Now, she ventures daily into Woodbine’s backstretch to secure mounts for her jocks Justin Stein and Skye Chernetz.

“I had an idea of what the job entailed because I’ve been a jockey and trainer and I’ve seen how agents operate. In fact, I had my own book in the past when I was at Fort Erie and at certain points in my career I did handle my own business,” said Villeneuve about her current role as a jockey agent.

It’s fair to say that racetrackers take on various roles throughout their careers in the industry: hotwalker to groom, groom to assistant trainer, jockey to trainer. In Villeneuve’s case, unforeseen circumstances led her to change lanes unexpectedly.

“I was training, and I was diagnosed with cancer. So that was a huge setback – mentally, emotionally, financially. I had to have surgery and went on medication. I was able to get back to work, which was great. Started back again last year in 2023 and was looking forward to a great year.”

Unfortunately, Villeneuve got injured about a year after she was diagnosed with cancer.

“It was quite a serious injury. You would think after years of riding, being stepped on by a horse would be the last thing that would kind of end my career. But I feel like it was due to the medication I was on. My balance was off, and it just threw me off completely. It was very heavy-duty medication and I realize in hindsight that was probably what was causing it,” said Villeneuve.

Last summer, after spending a couple of months recuperating from her injury, Villeneuve received a phone call that would propel her into a new direction.

“One day Justin Stein called me up and asked me if I might be interested in taking his book and I thought, ‘Wow, I didn’t think about this, but this might be a good alternative and something that’ll keep me in the industry and I’ll see how it goes,’” said Villeneuve.

The former jockey-turned-trainer secured her jockey agent’s license last July and has worked with Stein since then. Stein started his career back in the early 2000s, capturing multiple graded stakes wins and Canadian classic races along the way. After a two-year hiatus from the sport, Stein returned to race riding in 2019 and continues to add more glitter to his already decorated resumé. Last year, he secured the Grade 3 Grey Stakes with Two Ghosts and captured a Canadian Triple Crown race, winning the Prince of Wales with Velocitor.

Aside from representing Stein, Villeneuve is also working with Skye Chernetz, who has been riding at Woodbine for 12 years. She received a Sovereign Award for outside apprentice in 2013 and has won over 200 races since beginning her career.

“Skye has been a hard-working girl over the years here – a mainstay, very nice person and good rider. She asked me to help her out and I thought this girl should be doing way better than she is doing. She should be riding more horses and having more success. I was pleased to jump right in and help her as much as I could,” said Villeneuve.

Villeneuve understands the business of race riding from various perspectives. After all, she was a professional jockey for over two decades, riding in over 8,000 races and securing 1,000 wins. She also received the Avelino Gomez Memorial Award back in 2004, recognizing her contribution to the sport.

As a trainer, Villeneuve had over 300 starters, won 47 races and secured a million dollars in career earnings. Her resumé as a trainer includes stakes highlights, with wins in the 2019 Flaming Page Stakes with Gionvanna Blues and the Puss n Boots Cup with Reallylikethisone.

No doubt, Villeneuve understands what trainers are looking for when it comes to selecting jocks to successfully pilot their horses to victory. Working as a jockey agent has given Villeneuve a new sense of joy.

“I enjoy talking to trainers that I have a good rapport with, and we can talk about horses, and it still gives me a fix that way. I get just as much thrill watching my jockeys win races, almost just as much thrill as if my own horses were winning races or if I was winning a race myself on a horse,” said Villeneuve.

Given her successful career in the irons, Villeneuve also understands what it takes to crack the top 10 in the jockey standings.

“Well, riding quality over quantity is really important, because now with all the statistics right in front of you people look at percentages right away. Owners are very involved. They can just look it up on the computer – what is this guy’s riding percentage, win percentage, in-the-money percentage, and of course everyone wants to have one of the top riders. You can’t be too selective, but you try to pick the horses that you think will reflect well on your jockeys, the ones you have the best chance of winning races on.”

According to Woodbine’s jockey and agent list posted on Woodbine’s website, as of May 24 there are over 50 riders in the colony. Ten of those riders are apprentices trying to gain a foothold or jumpstart their careers in the industry. Since the beginning of this year’s meet, 46 different jockeys have ridden at the Woodbine meet. It’s important to note that three of those riders are not actually based in Canada, but selected to ride for a stakes race or two.

In terms of agents, there are about 20 different jockey agents representing Woodbine and Fort Erie riders. Villeneuve and Madison Meli (who represents jockey Edgar Zenteno) are the only women within that number.

As fears of a dwindling horse supply continue to impact a rider’s ability to secure consistent mounts, Villeneuve commented, “It has made it difficult for the riders here because there are so few horses and there are getting to be more and more riders. It’s made it very competitive. It’s kind of hard to make a living. The top riders, the top four or five, are doing well. The others are scrambling for mounts. It all depends on who wins all the races and who gets all the best mounts early on in the meet and then you pick up loose ends,” said Villeneuve.

No role in the racing industry is easy, including that of a jockey agent. Despite the ongoing pressure to find mounts for her jocks, Villeneuve has embraced the job with gusto. And she’s even had a chance to try on a different hat while doing so.

“It’s been a very good transition for me, I think. I also do a little bit of consigning yearlings at the sale, so that really gives me a hands-on part of the business, too, that I enjoy very much.”