BARELY a five-minute drive separates the French and O'Sullivan family stables in Heathcote.
But the gap in trajectory in the blossoming careers of two of Victoria's rising stars of the sulky - Tayla French and Shannon O'Sullivan - is seemingly even less.
Both have held their driver's licences for a period of about two years - O'Sullivan a few months longer and French for about 23 months.
This month, both young reinswomen ticked past 50 career winners, an amazing achievement for two drivers still forging their way in the industry.
The thrill of their respective milestones was matched by both being achieved on horses trained by their fathers.
O'Sullivan was the first to 50, when she steered her father Jim's horse Neangar Guy to victory at Ballarat on July 9.
French followed suit a week later when she combined with her father Terry to score a win with Hard Rock Shannon at Bendigo's Lord's Raceway.
If only all milestones could be so perfectly scripted.
French and O'Sullivan have been quick to add to their tallies, with O'Sullivan successful last Monday at Bendigo aboard Realy Under Fire, and French victorious on Goodtime Rusty at Shepparton on Wednesday.
Again, both horses were trained by their dads, who -unsurprisingly - the girls nominate as the leading influence on their respective flourishing careers.
Fifty wins is just the tip of the iceberg for French and O'Sullivan, who are making their way in the ultra-competitive Victorian trotting driving ranks.
In fact, winning races has likely never been tougher, as much due to the continuing emergence of an ambitious and success-thirsty band of junior or concession drivers, to match the bevy of established stars.
The likes of Kima Frenning, James Herbertson, Darby McGuigan, Ryan Duffy and Jack Laugher are blazing a trail for their peers like the Heathcote pair.
O'Sullivan , who turned 21 in April and also counts Inter Dominion star Natalie Rasmussen among her biggest influences, says there are simply no easy wins in harness racing.
"When you are racing different horses every week, you really have to do your form and get an understanding of what horses are going to do in a race and what drivers are going to do in a race," she said.
"Then there's the hindrance of the draw and different tactics.
"It's never easy to win a race, there's a lot of thought that goes into it, but once you are on the track it comes a bit more natural.
"But there's a lot of luck involved too, maybe 99 per cent."
The daughter of Jim, an Australasian harness racing legend and winner of the prestigious Gordon Rothacker Medal in 2017, O'Sullivan's passage into harness racing was by no means assured as a youngster.
"Probably when I was a bit younger, I wasn't really interested in the horses too much. There wasn't much I could do with them when I was quite young and small," she said.
"But when we moved back down to Victoria from Queensland we got a pony and I started getting into it.
"Dad wouldn't do anything with the pony, so it was our responsibility to work it every day and feed it.
"From then on, and participating in the pony trots, I got keen about driving horses and it didn't stop from there.
"Now, I don't know what I'd be doing if I wasn't doing horses, I really can't imagine myself doing anything else."
That's not to say she has all her eggs in the one basket.
O'Sullivan completed one year of an exercise science degree at Bendigo's La Trobe University in 2019, but put the study on hold this year.
With the COVID-19 pandemic ensuring most of a university student's study has been confined to online and at home, the young driver is certain she 'pulled the right rein'.
"I don't think I'd manage staying home and studying. With the horses nearby I think I'd like to spend more time with them," she said.
"But i'll go back and probably do it part-time, just so I can juggle the horses."
I don't know what I'd be doing if I wasn't doing horses, I really can't imagine myself doing anything else.Shannon O'Sullivan
Success on the track did not come quickly for O'Sullivan, but when it did, it arrived in a memorable fashion.
Her first winner came in race drive number 52, but was achieved at harness racing headquarters at Melton aboard the Neville Pangrazio-trained Showgun Thomas in January 2018.
The winners have flowed since, including 30 in the current season.
Highlights have included her first country cup win at Elmore on Boxing Day last year with Fourstarzzzspecial and a victory on Ballarat Cup night aboard Neangar Guy.
Just as exhilarating, particularly in terms of her development, was a trip to New Zealand in 2018.
"In my first year I was able to go to New Zealand and drive for (leading trainer) Robert Dunn and get a pretty handy fourth," O'Sullivan said.
"I was also able to make a lot of friends over there.
"Travelling and being able to drive in another country was definitely a highlight.
"I think everything along the way in racing is a victory in itself, even coming second to some horses is like a win."
With her experience overseas in mind, O'Sullivan dreams of a day she might join her father, Rasmussen and world champion reinswoman Kerryn Manning as one of a select few of Australians to win the New Zealand Trotting Cup.
A shorter-term goal remains working towards 100 career wins.
O'Sullivan could not be happier seeing French enjoy her current wave of success and was hopeful that despite some of their similarities, people were not sitting back making comparisons.
"Hopefully, people just see us as two girls, who are doing well with the opportunities we get, and as two girls who are taking it up to the boys," she said.
"Tayla is flying at the moment.
"She has really improved quickly and is always making the right decisions in races, which is what people should be noticing.
"She's had 41 wins this season, so she's certainly proving her talent and showing plenty of people what she can do.
"She has been getting some really good drives, with trainers really prepared to back her."
For her part, French said if any comparisons were being made, it was not by the girls themselves.
"There's competition out there between all junior drivers, so when you are out on the track you are cheering for the females. You always like to see the females win," she said.
"Obviously we are close in our wins at the moment and going neck-and-neck, but I'm happy for anyone who wins a race
"I definitely think people read it as competition, not just between us, but a lot of the juniors, not so much the competitors themselves, but the punters and Twitter fans look at it as competition.
"It's always good being out there and battling against Shannon, but you out there to drive for the trainer really and not against someone else.
"Shannon is a great front-running driver, when she gets those horses rolling in front, they run well for her."
In just her second season of driving, French has rocketed past 50 winners, with 41 coming this season, 22 of them since the early-April introduction of regional racing.
The 50-win milestone provided a chance for reflection from the 23-year-old, when such moments are rare during the week due to her hectic schedule of work and racing commitments.
"It's huge and exciting to look back and see how many wins I've had in such a short career," she said.
"The first year was pretty slow, but this year I've been very happy.
"I picked up quite a few during the regional racing period, which I'm very thankful for the trainers respecting me and getting plenty of drives."
"When I took off things were pretty slow, as they are for most junior drivers - it takes a while to get your name out there.
"But I probably didn't think I would be where I am now, given the amount of drives I've had."
French was quick off the mark in her career, notching her first winner after just three weeks aboard the Lynne Mercieca-trained Illawong Lively in August 2018.
Undoubtedly the highlight of her flourishing career arrived earlier this year when she partnered the Ross Graham-trained pacer Animated to record her first metropolitan success at Melton.
The win came hot on the heels of another thrill, her first Group 2 race drive in the Bendigo Pacing Cup in January aboard the French's horse Form Analyst.
"We finished back in the field, but it was definitely his best run," said Tayla of the six-year-old gelding, who remains with the stable and has won one race and been placed in six others in 18 starts, since coming across from Emma Stewart.
"We weren't unhappy at all. He didn't finish far away at all.
"Bendigo Cup is first on the list of the races I want win."
I don't think people compare us. There's competition out there between all junior drivers, so when you are out on the track you are cheering for the females. You always like to see the females win.
French is grateful for the support of trainers, who have supported her during her first two years, in particular Ross Graham, Tim Mannix, Keith and David Semmens (two wins and eight placings in 12 starts on Downunder Barkers), and Keith Cotchin, for whom, she won three-straight races aboard Betternbetter during the regional racing period.
Then of course there is dad and former Bendigo trainer Chris Svanosio, who she credits with giving her one of her first big breaks.
"I wouldn't be the driver I am today if it wasn't for Chris, he's given me plenty of pointers, and just letting me do the trackwork that I do now has helped me no end," she said.
Barely a day goes by when French does not travel between Heathcote and Svanosio's property at Romsey to work horses.
She also manages to squeeze in three days a week a work at Bendigo Primary Health as a receptionist.
Is there a day when French sees herself winding back some of those commitments?
Maybe, but probably not anytime soon while she is taking it in her stride and enjoying it.
"I do get a lot of patients come into work and say they won money on me, 'or good drive that day', or ask 'when's your next drive'," she said, acknowledging she was proud of her Heathcote roots.
"It's like I've got two different lifestyles.
"One day I have my horse hat on and the next day I have my professional health hat on."
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