Have you been to Fort Erie Racetrack lately? If so, you may have noticed that an apprentice jockey with a contagious smile by the name of Melanie Pinto, has become quite the frequent visitor to the track’s Winners’ Circle this year. In fact, the 28 year-old beauty has been keeping an industrious schedule of late, as besides riding at the ‘Fort’s’ three day a week schedule, and leading all apprentice jockeys there in wins, Melanie continues to make the most of her now frequent visits to Woodbine, where ‘business’ is starting to pick up. And if that’s not enough, you can add a side trip to West Virginia’s Mountaineer Park in early June, where Melanie piloted the Fort Erie regular Spiritwood to victory in a Marathon Starter Allowance, this one a 1-1/2 mile event for trainer Paula Loescher.
Growing up in Brampton, Ontario, Melanie was for the sake of another term, ‘horse crazy’, and admits that she was just like any other young girl that adored horses. “I read the classics like Black Beauty,” she says, “ books that I think, only helped inspire me more to become a professional jockey, when I grew up”.
Well for Melanie Pinto, being a serious reader of the ‘classics’ combined with perseverance and a good work ethic has certainly paid off for her quite significantly in her relatively short career. One date in particular that has a special significance for her is the 9th day of September 2007. “That was the day I won my first race ever”, she recalls, adding that the horse that galloped around the sloppy Fort Erie Racetrack was named Campari and gave her a win in only her third race as a licensed jockey. And the day took on even more significance when two races later, Melanie won her second race ever, this time on a horse named More The Mari’er. Two wins on a single day and as Melanie duly noted, “I still didn’t have a stick (whip) yet!” Although this day in 2007 was probably her biggest moment as a jockey so far, Melanie adds that last year when she rode four winners in a day, on two consecutive weekends at Fort Erie Racetrack, could also rank right up there as well.
Another big moment for her, took place this past December, when Melanie was voted one of three finalists for the Sovereign Award given to the leading apprentice jockey in Canada. Unfortunately Melanie did not win the voters recognition on that particular evening. However, always one to put a positive ‘spin’ on things, in Melanie’s eyes, just to be considered for the Sovereign was a ‘feather in her cap’, and if anything, it has made her even more determined this year, her second full year of race riding. In fact, perhaps winning the Sovereign Award this year is at the top of Melanie’s agenda, a feat that may be made a little more difficult, when she loses her trusty ‘bug’ (weight allowance given to apprentice riders), at the end of July. Never fail though, as there are other ‘bigger fish to fry’, and who is going to tell this petite 99 ‘pounder’, anything different. In fact, it is hard to believe that this regular visitor to the Fort Erie Winners’ Circle over the past two years has accomplished so much in such a short period of time. And it is even harder to believe that she never even sat on a horse until she was 19 years old!
Last year, when the curtain closed on Fort Erie’s 111th year of racing at the end of October, Melanie finished the meet as Leading Apprentice, and her 46 winners at the ‘Border Oval’ placed her sixth overall in the track’s jockey colony. A few trips down the QEW to Woodbine, ‘chipped in’ for another 5 wins, and as the racing season came to an end, Melanie’s stats were good enough as mentioned, to be one of three finalists for the prestigious Sovereign Award for leading apprentice jockey, ultimately, losing to Western native Janine Stianson. A disappointment, maybe! But not something to dwell on.
“Obviously”, she says, “I would like to win the Sovereign this year, however I would like to be leading apprentice here at Fort Erie, and win more races than I did last year!” Is leading rider at Fort Erie out of the realm of possibility for her? “Definitely not”, she says. “My agent (former Fort Erie regular rider Paul Souter) and I haven’t ruled this out. It is just a matter of working hard and trying to get on the best horses possible.”
Melanie says that the acceptance of her as a jockey has been very good and says that she has received quite a few pointers from the journeyman riders; in particular she mentions Woodbine’s Emma-Jane Wilson and Constant Montpellier.
How about her first race as a jockey, does she remember it? “Like yesterday” she says with a smile. “I was riding a horse for trainer John Ross that was coming off a long layoff. I went right to the front with him. Unfortunately about the 3/8th pole the anchor went out and he stopped very quickly, almost to a walk. It was great though. I was so excited and as soon as I dismounted, I couldn’t wait to do it again.”
Any butterflies? “There were a few that day, but luckily there haven’t been many since”, she adds.
And what does the future hold for Melanie Pinto? “I would just like to continue improving my race riding”, she says. “This past winter I exercised horses for several large barns in Florida, including John Ross, and Will Phipps who is stabled now in Saratoga and was at one time an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. Eventually, once my ‘bug’ is done, I wouldn’t mind trying one of the racing circuits in the United States. My long range goal would be the first women jockey to win the Triple Crown!” she adds with a laugh. “Realistically though, I want to win as many races as I can, and become leading rider here at Fort Erie. Also, in this business, you are never too old to learn, and I have been lucky that I continue to pick up pointers from different jockeys that I know will help me to be a more well-rounded rider in the future!”