AFTER ending a breakout 2021 season with the ultimate high in harness racing, it hasn't taken Tayla French long to pick up where she left off.
Fresh from her maiden Group 1 victory aboard the Alex Ashwood-trained Parisian Artiste at Tabcorp Park Melton on New Year's Eve and a career-best 69 wins during the 2021 season, the 24-year-old from Heathcote has been quick to get her tally moving in 2022.
A total of 16 drives early in the new season have yielded a trio of wins, with the latest coming aboard the Ashwood-trained La Serena at Geelong last Wednesday, and four placings.
The win on La Serena was the second of two already this year for the five-year-old Quaker Jet mare, both of them in heats of the Vicbred Platinum Trotting Mares Sprint Championship, indicating she will be a key performer in the upcoming final.
It's just the momentum French was hoping for to build on the impressive gains of a crucial 2021 season, her third full one since taking up driving late in 2017-18.
There could have been no bigger ending to 2021 for French than her first Group 1 triumph in the $100,000 Vicbred Super Series Final for three-year-old trotting colts and geldings, with Parisian Artiste, despite doing plenty of work throughout, getting the better of his nemesis Aldebaran Zeus in the straight to win by 4.7m
She admitted to being shell shocked in the aftermath.
"I went a bit speechless and was certainly a bit gobsmacked, but it was an awesome feeling. Credit to every on at home," she said.
"I felt more confident (in Parisian Artiste) day by day, but that said, you can't go into the race too confident, especially in one of those big races.
"You just have to play it day by day and then, leading up to the race, hour by hour, but I couldn't be happier with the result for all of us (at the stable).
"It would be nice if they (Group 1s) came around a bit more often."
Equally as touching as her first Group 1, which came in the same season as her first Group 2 victory aboard Aldebaran Alissa in the Lyn McPherson Memorial Breed For Speed Silver Series Final at Melton in early March, was the response from friends and peers.
"I actually said to a few people I didn't know I had so many friends until after the race," French said.
"It was unbelievable the number of texts and calls and well done and congratulations that came through on my phone.
"I'll never forget that either."
In respect to holding a special place in her heart, French said Parisian Artiste, who she has driven 11 times for seven wins and three placings, was only rivalled by Form Analyst.
Trained since late 2019 by her father Terry French, the now eight-year-old gelding gave Tayla her first ever drive in a Group race in the 2020 Bendigo Pacing Cup.
She is already envisioning a future with both horses playing a central role in her life.
"I've already told Albs (Ashwood) that he (Parisian Artiste) will be paired up with Form Analyst in the paddock when he's retired," she said.
"Hopefully it goes that way. It will be a bit of a fairytale.
"Albs asked me to drive him one morning, it was actually his first fast work back from a spell, and after we worked I said to Albs he's never driving him again.
"I pretty much stuck to my word and the rest is history."
His Vicbred triumph made it four straight wins for Parisian Artiste, who has won eight of 23 starts overall, vindicating Ashwood and French's long-held view the horse was gaining strength with each run.
The future indeed looks bright for the gelded son of Love You and the mare Schleck, who went winless in his first 12 starts for his former trainer Anton Golino before the horse's transfer to Bendigo.
"He's out in the paddock at the moment and is going to have a pretty good spell, but he will be back for the four-year-old races. Pretty much the same as he's gone through this year, but as a four-year-old," French said.
"I think with age, he's just going to get stronger.
"From his two and three-year-old seasons, you can see how much more mature he is and how much he has grown in himself.
"In age and time, he'll go from strength to strength."
The same can undoubtedly be said of French's career, which continues to reach new heights, seemingly by the month.
Her return of 69 winners last season was nine more than in the 2019-20 season, which ran four months longer than a traditional season.
A key to that has undeniably been the blossoming partnership with Ashwood, who notched up a career-high 115 driving wins of his own and added 61 as a trainer in his first half-season out on his own with French.
The pair is excitedly looking forward to the move to their 90-acre property at Axedale later in the year, from their current base at Lord's Raceway.
"I can't complain at the moment, it's going along very nicely," French said.
"It's very beneficial that we have our own horses, which I get to drive a lot of.
"A lot of junior drivers aren't fortunate to get that experience and those opportunities, but I have.
"Hopefully I can go forward from here."
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