She always knew her career would revolve around horses, but for the longest time, Cassandra Garcea never figured it would be as a Thoroughbred jockey.

When Blushing Brat, her seventh career mount at Woodbine Racetrack and 15th overall for the 28-year-old Garcea (pronounced Gar-chee-ya), crossed the wire first in the final race of a Wednesday evening card in the fall of last year, the milestone win brought a multitude of things to mind for the apprentice rider. 

“It was a great feeling, but it was something that sunk in about three hours afterwards,” said Garcea, who began her career with a second-place finish aboard Bold Storm at Fort Erie on October 4, 2010. “A lot went through my head. It was very surreal. I thought about how lucky I was to be riding against a very talented group of jockeys. I also thought, ‘I can’t believe I’m actually doing this.’ I love horses and I’ve always been around them, but I never expected to be a jockey.  Not in a million years.”

But for Garcea the win was bittersweet. Her Dad, the late trainer Eric Garcea, the man who taught his daughter much of what she knows about horses, succumbed to cancer two years earlier.  Her initial win was a deeply meaningful one.  Garcea knows her father would be proud.

“I thought of my Dad, definitely,” said Garcea, of the 2 1/4-length victory that resulted in a $19.30 win payout. “He instilled a great work ethic in me.  At a young age, I was out in the barn mucking stalls and putting in an honest effort. I’m really thankful for what he taught me. I don’t mind hard work and long hours. That’s how you get results.”

With the Opening Day for the 2011 Woodbine Thoroughbred meet set for this Saturday, April 2, Garcea hopes to capitalize quickly on the work ethic and abilities instilled by her late father.

Cassandra had worked with show horses in Vancouver up until six years ago. She then joined her father and made the journey east to Woodbine.

She enjoyed a highly successful career in show jumping, competing throughout the United States and Canada, including the prestigious Royal Winter Fair, on several occasions, and often dreamed of representing Canada at the Olympics.

“I pretty much grew up around the barn and took to the horses right away,” said Garcea, who had never galloped horses until she arrived at Woodbine in 2005. “I loved show jumping and I did well at it, but there came a time where I was burned out. I decided to try other things. I wanted to see what it would be like to have a 9 to 5 life.”

Jobs as a bartender and as a partner in a clothing line business that catered to show jumping apparel didn’t last long, leading Garcea to once again get involved with horses, this time working alongside her father and others, including Woodbine-based champion trainer Reade Baker.

“I suppose I knew I’d always have to do something that revolved around horses,” laughed Garcea, who travelled with some of Baker’s top stakes horses, including Canada’s 2008 Horse of the Year, Fatal Bullet, Bear Now and Kentucky Bear. “The clothing line was successful, but I really didn’t have the backing to make it the success I wanted it to be. But regardless, I really started to miss the horses. I always come back to them.”

Garcea also worked as an exercise rider and assistant to trainer Chad Brown, who is best known for saddling Maram to victory in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, in New York and Florida. She returned to Woodbine in the spring of 2010, this time with the intention of making a go as a jockey.

She paired up with jockey agent Don Parente, who also handles the book for Eurico Rosa da Silva, Woodbine’s leading rider in 2010 and winner of the past two Queen’s Plates (Big Red Mike, Eye of the Leopard).

“It was a lot of work and long hours,” said Garcea, of her work in New York. “After doing that for about a year, I sat back and thought, ‘What do I really want to do?’ I love being on the back of horses. That’s my passion, that’s what I love to do. I didn’t want to be on the ground anymore. I hated the idea of looking back and realizing I didn’t give riding a shot. People would always ask me and I finally decided it was time.”

Her first year, though an abbreviated one, produced four wins from 51 starts at Woodbine, along with 17 top-three finishes. After reaching the four-win mark, Garcea shut down for the campaign, enabling her to keep her five-pound apprentice weight allowance.

“She’s got a chance,” said Baker. “She’s very dedicated and willing to listen. The most impressive quality she has is her ability to learn.”

Garcea hasn’t been fazed by the transition from show jumping to Thoroughbred riding.

“Going from one competitive arena to another really helped me with my confidence,” she offered. “As soon as I’m sitting on the back of the horse, I’m not nervous. I’m more nervous in the jock’s room anticipating the race itself.”

She’s set goals for the 167-day meet, ones she’ll keep to herself for now. But just like she did in the show jumping arena, Garcea is aiming high.

“It’s very competitive at Woodbine and that’s a good thing,” she offered. “The jockeys are very good to me. I feel I can ask them anything and they’ll help me. As for the track itself, it’s just beautiful. To be able to ride at this track, against quality riders, that was a big goal for me. This is exactly where I want to be.”

It just took Cassandra Garcea a little time to realize it.