FOR someone who has been around horses a long time, Tayla French admits she sure took her sweet time getting her harness racing drivers’ licence.
After a failed medical test at age 16 put her plans on hold, French finally took the plunge again last year and gained her licence in August.
Now that she’s got it, the 21-year-old daughter of Heathcote trainer Terry French plans on making the most of every moment.
Success came early for French, who notched her first winner at Kilmore just three weeks into her career.
“That was a real eye-opener … I didn’t really know at that point what it was like to be in the front of the field,” she said.
“It was Illawong Lively, who is trained by Lynne Mercieca in Toollen.
“She’s done a really good job and really supported me. And it was against one of our horses (Nelbell).”
French, who has started sharing the training duties with Terry in their hometown of Heathcote, had to wait a little longer for her second winner, but that only served to make it even more special than the first.
Her success aboard Joeys Hangover at Shepparton on February 13 was the first together for the father-daughter combination.
“I jumped off another horse of ours at Echuca on New Year’s day and Michelle Phillips drove it for us, so the first win for dad could have come a bit quicker,” she said.
“But it’s hard to say ‘no’ to an outside drive if you have one of your own in the race.
“You need the outside drives, so you jump on when asked. I was very happy for Michelle though.”
French knows it won’t be the last time she comes up on the losing end of a race involving one of her horses.
“I do actually smile and a bit of the crowd has picked up on it … they’re saying why are you smiling when you finished back in the field … but I’m like, my horse just won,” she said.
“It’s happened to me a few times, so I’m getting used to it.”
Previously trained by Shane Gilligan at Shepparton, Joeys Hangover added a second win for the French team at Shepparton earlier this month, with Tayla confident there were plenty more in-store for the four-year-old gelding.
French’s progress in the sport has accelerated through her association with one of Bendigo’s top trainer-drivers Chris Svanosio, with whom she works a couple of mornings each week at the stable he shares with veteran trainer and harness racing identity Bruce Morgan at Junortoun.
It’s the start of a frenetic work day for the young driver, who travels straight back to Heathcote, where French and her partner are building their home, to work her and Terry’s six horses.
She is also employed five days a fortnight as the medical surgery receptionist at Heathcote Primary Health.
French praised Svanosio guidance, both around the stables and during track work, as ‘first-class’.
“His stable is absolutely flying at the moment – there are a few last-start winners in here,” she said.
“I am really happy for Chris and all us girls, who work here behind the scenes, because he does do a lot of work.
“Whether he’s got a horse at Mildura the night before and getting home at 3am, or is at Swan Hill or Ballarat, he’s always up early and straight at it … and he won’t go home until the work’s done.
“He always has an encouraging word for us. I can only see it being onwards and upwards from here.”
As one of a bunch of promising young female drivers from the Bendigo region, French – together with Shannon O’Sullivan, also from Heathcote, Michelle Phillips and Monique Burnett – took on roles as ambassadors during the industry’s recent Team Teal campaign, to raise awareness and funds for ovarian cancer research.
She described the experience as ‘humbling’ and ‘a huge opportunity’.
“It’s unbelievable getting to wear the teal pants and to understand the meaning behind it and just how big an issue it is, “ French said.
“And to actually get a winner in my first year in teal pants was huge …. awesome.
“I’ll definitely remember that first winner, especially because it was with dad too. It’s a good feeling to get under your belt.”
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