07/05/2013 1:19PM

Fort Erie: Villeneuve enters next stage as trainer

Michael Burns
Francine Villeneuve holds her 2004 Avelino Gomez Award.

F ORT ERIE, Ontario – Standing outside one of her stalls on the Fort Erie backstretch, Francine Villeneuve, in blue jeans and T-shirt, looks as trim and as fit as she did during her riding career.

Villeneuve, in her jockey role for more than two decades, had a career full of special occasions, including a ride in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff with Wilderness Song, who finished seventh behind her winning stablemate Dance Smartly in 1991. She also rode Wilderness Song to a second-place finish behind Dance Smartly in that year’s Queen’s Plate.

Another notable mount was Concern, who was ridden by Villeneuve to a second-place finish in Oaklawn’s 1994 Rebel Stakes. That colt went on to win the Arkansas Derby and the Breeders’ Cup Classic that same year, with different riders.

“My riding career was full of moments to remember,” said Villeneuve, “and the honor of winning the Avelino Gomez Award for Canadian jockeys was very special.”

Villeneuve received that award in 2004, in recognition of her significant contributions to Canadian racing.

“Once I hit my mid-40s, I decided that It was time to retire and move on, so I set a goal of 1,000 wins and once they were achieved, I hung up my tack,” she said.

Villeneuve, who has done everything from walking hots to mucking stalls and grooming during more than 25 years on the backside, has decided to take on a new role: a trainer of Thoroughbreds.

“I feel I have the background from working with top trainers over the years, and during that time I learned every aspect of a trainer’s role while willingly grooming and galloping as necessary”, she said.

Now, at age 48, Francine Villeneuve has her trainer’s license in hand and is looking forward to her new career.

“I’m used to getting up in the early morning, and I just love the backside, where the people and the horses join together to create a wonderful community atmosphere,” she said.

Last summer at Saratoga, Villeneuve galloped horses for Nick Zito.

Last winter, at Tampa Bay Downs, she continued galloping for friends while at the same time taking care of her farm, located an hour’s drive from the track.

“I brought two horses from Florida, and each has run once, finishing third and fourth,” Villeneuve said. “I was pleased with the results and look forward to having a few more runners and a full summer of racing.”

Villeneuve is goal-oriented as proven by her riding career, and she looks forward to building a stable of as many as 10 horses and to continue her hands-on approach to training.

“I believe I have all the tools necessary to be successful, and I look forward to working with new owners and their horses,” Villeneuve said. “I recognize that it is a tough business, but I am competitive and look forward to the challenge”.

Thinking ahead and planning for the fall, Villeneuve would like to return to Tampa with a small stable of runners.

“I have seen other Canadian trainers go south for the winter and do very well,” she said. “My goal is to work with new owners and their horses and have them join me in a team effort of success.

◗ Nominations closed Thursday for a highlight of Fort Erie’s 2013 racing season, the $75,000 Rainbow Connection Stakes. The Rainbow Connection is for Ontario-sired fillies and mares at five furlongs on the turf.