Don't ever judge a book by it's cover.....or a person by their last name. Take Tori Gandia for example, a 20-year-old apprentice jockey, born and raised in
Dublin, Ireland who made her riding debut last weekend at Fonner Park in Grand Island.
No, it wasn't her first rodeo, as she broke into the professional ranks over a year ago,
winning six races at Hawthorne Racecourse, located just outside Chicago, followed by a
stint at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, Canada, where she netted another dozen riding triumphs.
While in Canada, Gandia developed a relationship with trainer Jerry Gorneau, who
convinced her that Nebraska was the next logical stop.
"So, here I am," says Gandia, who quickly found the Fonner winner's circle in just her
fifth riding assignment, guiding a three year old fillie, Fast Maggie, from far off-the-pace,
to win, impressively, in a four furlong sprint.
You guessed it. Fast Maggie is trained by Gorneau and, at ten-to-one odds no less,
even the 'wise guys' stood up to take notice, some scratching their heads in disbelief.
At first glance, Miss Gandia certainly doesn't look Irish. Even she says her father comes
from Cuban decent; but, oh my, when her mouth opens, and the words come gushing
out, the thought of popping the top off a tall, cold can of Guinness Beer seems all too appropriate.
Since the age of six, Gandia had always dreamed of becoming a jockey, being smitten
by an innocent trail ride on the beach. For the next ten years she worked around show
horses, or jumpers; yet, never losing the desire to crawl on the back of a thoroughbred.
Surprisingly, Gandia's equine interests had very little influence from her upbringing. The
family had no connection with horses.
Nevertheless, at the age of 15, she saught employment at a racing farm and parlayed
that experience by enrolling in a 10-month jockey-training program, and ultimately set out
to fulfill her lifelong dream--when reality came knocking.
Gandia's journey quickly led to Scotland and on to England.
"European racing is so hard to break into as an apprentice, especially if you're a woman,"
explained Gandia. "It's not uncommon for a new rider to get maybe one or two mounts a
year. That's when I decided to come to America."
Thus, another dose of the real world. We call it....the weather.
Dealing with bitter cold temperatures has been an eye-opening experience for the lassie
with the heavy, Irish brogue accent.
"I've learned you've just got to bite the bullet in this sport, regardless of the weather," said
Gandia. "Keep chucking on, working hard....I want to make everybody happy. The horses
happy. Me happy."
Since Fonner's opening weekend, Gandia has hooked up with agent Jerry Jewell, a former jockey
on the Nebraska racing circuit, to assist in lining up new clients. Jewell figured it only took
one race to realize there might be something special about this European transplant, stating
matter-of-factly, "When she turned for home and switched that stick to the left hand,
that was an eye-catching move to me...one that only an ex-rider might notice."
Obviously, the book on Tori Gandia is still in its infancy. No title comes to mind, just yet.
But, don't be misled by it's cover. This gal seems focused. She's leaning heavily on lots of
trusting advice, from folks she barely knows. Instincts tell her that something positive can and will happen right here in the friendly confines we call Fonner Park.
Follow your dream, Miss Tori, and 'may the horse be with you'!