Real Life

Taya Wenn: The race of my life

Deemed too beautiful for the sport of kings, this kiwi jockey is proving the doubters wrong.

When Tayla Wenn first started racing, there were many who told the 18-year-old she shouldn’t be a jockey – because she was too beautiful.

But despite her tiny frame, blonde hair and softly spoken voice, the Te Aroha apprentice, who last month came second on Carlotta at the Ellerslie Melbourne Cup Day races, has defied all expectations to become the jockey to watch. And she couldn’t be happier to prove her doubters wrong.

“Before I started racing, a lot of people thought I was too much of a girl to do it,” she says. “But I’m not. People – other jockeys, trainers – used to underestimate me, but then they saw me race.”

Instead of finding a fascinator and heels to match a dress, Tayla dons her jodhpurs and helmet on race day to take on men and women three times her age.

Tayla has always been destined for racing. Her step-father, Scott Wenn, trains horses at their Waikato stables; her aunt, Michelle, is a successful jockey; and her grandparents on both sides were trainers.

It’s much to her family’s amusement, especially her mum, Trish, that Tayla transforms when she’s on a horse. Gone is the quiet and smiling character. Instead, she will do whatever it takes to win.

“She can get quite aggressive. She’ll try everything to pass the person that’s in her way,” Trish says. “She’s not the girly girl she comes across as, what people think she is. She was like that on the netball court, too. She’d be the first to have blood on her, but was always the first to get up and revenge the person who pushed her. She was out there to win. I had to give up coaching her because it was too much!”

Though becoming a jockey has been her dream since she was a little girl, Tayla was forced to wait three years longer than her peers because she is so small – even for a jockey.

“You can start as an apprentice at 15, but I was too little,” she says. “It sucked having to wait, but horses are strong, and even now I can’t hold them sometimes.”

“They still bolt away from her,” nods Trish.

“But my whole life is horses. I love what I do and can’t imagine doing anything else. Now I’m racing, it’s awesome,” Tayla says.

Her day begins around 5am, when she gets up to start training six of the family’s 18 horses. With riding in the morning and stable duties in the afternoon, Tayla’s days are jam-packed, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I left school in term three this year,” she says. “It got too hard, fitting in training and racing with the work. But I got my NCEA level two, which I was happy about.”

“I knew towards the end that something had to give,” says Trish. “Her reports were saying that if she put in the hours, she would achieve top marks. But there wasn’t enough time for her to achieve what she was capable of.”

While Tayla’s star is shining bright, her success has come at the cost of her aunt.

Because Tayla is still an apprentice, she is allowed to be 4kg lighter than senior jockeys, like Michelle, which is a huge advantage for the horse.

This means that while Tayla is getting plenty of race time, Michelle is not – but it’s not a cause for contention within the tight family.

“It’s okay, it always goes around in a circle,” says Michelle. “You have to be understanding and forgiving.”

“And if you’re angry, you suck it up and move on!” adds Trish.

And now she’s racing professionally, there is of course the added pressure of watching her weight, although luckily her teenage metabolism is doing a pretty good job of that for her.

“I don’t worry about it much at all,” says Tayla, who weighs in at 47.5kg. “I think the boys worry more.”

“And if you stay active, you’re fine,” says Michelle.

With an insanely busy race schedule, including the Christmas Carnival Boxing Day races at Ellerslie, Tayla’s excited to get some more wins under her belt over the summer.

“I really want to win,” she says. “I like proving people wrong, so hopefully I can keep doing that.”

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