It is a moment during post parade that lasts mere seconds, but it expresses a lifetime of gratitude for jockey Amanda Vandermeersch.
The gesture likely goes unnoticed by those who sit in the Woodbine grandstand or for the others who tune in to watch the races broadcast from the Toronto oval.
“My grandfather Frank Vandermeersch, who passed away two years ago, was always a huge support. When I was a kid and I would ride horses, he’d come to every single one of my shows. He had a chestnut tree, and he would sell the nuts in town. I have an acorn that I carry with me every race. So, if people ever see me kiss my fingers and touch my heart, it’s because of the little acorn that is there for him.”
He’d no doubt be proud of his granddaughter.
Competing in one of North America’s biggest and most competitive jockey colonies, Vandermeersch is doing more than hold on her own against her fellow riders.
On May 28, she won her fifth race of the season to go along with 14 top-three finishes and $133,696 in purse earnings from 33 starts.
Her current campaign got out of the gates in ideal fashion when she rode Silver Tunes to victory in the first race of the 2023 Woodbine meet.
Trained by Barrington Siddo for owner Radcliffe Racing Stables, the Florida-bred filly seized the lead early in the 4 ½-furlong race on the synthetic main track and then fended off her closest rival by a head at odds of 8-1.
“Especially at the big tracks, you want to have that good first impression,” recalled Vandermeersch. “It didn’t have to be the first race of the season, but whatever your first race of the year was, you want to make that first start one you can build upon. But it was extra special that it did happen to be the very first race of the Woodbine season. You know everyone is watching.”
Many also chided Vandermeersch after her curtain-opening triumph.
“The big joke was that I was leading rider for a whole 45 minutes. I was saying, ‘Is everyone okay if we just stop the season right now?’ But everyone in the barn was very confident with her. I know the groom was very confident in the filly. I had never sat on this horse before. I rubbed her a few times when her head was sticking out of the stall. Looking at her form, she always breaks sharp, she always comes out strong, but she has a tendency to fade. I knew I was going to be in the race, hoping we could win, but thinking we had a big chance to hit the board. It was a really nice surprise. She just exploded for me down the stretch.”
Just over a month removed from the win, Vandeermeersch continues to view the victory as a confidence-building moment, a chance for her to set the tone for a prosperous year in the irons.
Win, top-three placing, or off-the-board finish, she sees every race as an invaluable experience.
“Just stay positive, that’s how I look at my life. I have a really good support team. My family, my friends and people on the backstretch are constantly messaging me with encouraging words, to keep up the good work. A lot of it is in your head. If you start overanalyzing things and overthinking … I won’t say you can think too much, but there’s a fine line between having a plan and 10 backup plans – it’s racing so it’s rare everything goes to plan – and you need to stay positive going into each race. You won’t win all of them.
“In the races where I finished middle of the pack or even last, I want to try and take something away from it. I was able to gain some bit of insight or a tip that could help me down the road. For me as [an apprentice] rider, there are lots of things I can still learn, and I want to do that with a positive attitude.”
An approach she learned long ago working on her parents’ Ontario tobacco farm.
Early mornings, late nights and hard work set the foundation for whatever career Vandermeersch chose to pursue.
Race riding initially took a back seat to a different field.
“I’ve always been a farm girl. Mom and dad raised to be a hard worker, and to work for what I want in life. So, that has always been a part of who I am. Going into nursing, that was a little different. I’ve always liked caring for people and animals. At one point, I was planning to become a vet, but going into nursing was the main option at the time. I did that for about five years, but I also had my farm on the side, where I was boarding and training, so I never got out of farming or working with horses even though I had my nursing job. My heart was always with the animals.”
Vandermeersch’s foray into Thoroughbred racing came through Maureen Hewitt-Topp, who had a couple of horses at a farm where Vandermeersch was training a horse for pleasure riding and asked the young rider to exercise one of her Thoroughbreds.
She then took a job exercising horses with trainer Saul McHugh and rode her first race in the fall of 2021, finishing sixth in a maiden claiming race at Fort Erie.
Her first win came aboard bay mare Tiz My Right in the summer of 2022. Just over two months later, Vandermeersch recorded her first Woodbine victory, teaming with Nadiabizniz for a thrilling head score on the Tapeta Footings main track.
The objective, for now, is to keep her strong start to the campaign rolling.
“Things are going really well. I have my own personal goals, but they are constantly evolving. I like to give myself practical goals because this industry and this career is tough. One week can be great, the next one can be a tough one. I like to keep a level head.”
Perhaps the biggest difference for Vandermeersch this season compared to last is her comfort level in the irons.
“I have a lot more confidence this year. I’m as relaxed and confident as I’ve ever been. It’s that feeling of, ‘You’ve got this, Amanda.’ I feel like I’m improving in a lot of areas. It’s definitely a different year.”
One constant, however, is Vandermeersch’s open-minded approach to her craft.
Odds-on choice or longshot, each horse she rides is viewed as a chance to heighten her skillset.
“There is always something to learn in this industry, on and off the horse’s back. I’m grateful for the opportunities and my approach is to make the most of them.”
Vandermeersch is also committed to making the most of her time away from the stresses and pressures of the racetrack.
During the summer months, trips to a lake are commonplace. Just don’t expect to find her with her toes in the sand.
“I have three of my own horses who I take out for trail rides and enjoy being around them. But I also enjoy being out on the lake. I do have my own Sea-Doo, but I don’t get to ride it nearly as much as I’d like to anymore. If I’m not on a horse, I love to be out on the water. I don’t like to swim, but to lie there and float, it’s a peaceful feeling out there. People like to stay at the shoreline and look out, but I’m the one who goes out as far as I can, have no one around me, and just float there. I do enjoy woodworking, but I haven’t been able to do that for a while.”
Continuing to fashion a riding career that she can be proud of remains her top priority.
Vandermeersch recently found herself looking back at the journey that brought her to where she finds herself today.
“I was thinking about that path a few days ago and I said to myself, ‘Amanda, you’re doing well. You always said you wanted to have a career with horses and here you are.’ That was my dream and the fact that I’m living it now and, in my opinion, doing it very well, is a really nice feeling. I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of people, past and present, who support me.”
It’s why Vandermeersch, come every post parade she’s part of, is proud to wear her heart on her silks.
Courtesy of Woodbine Communications/Chris Lomon