SHAKOPEE, MN – As Betty Jo Williams sat astride Lil Mighty Mo on the backstretch of Canterbury Park Saturday afternoon, she contemplated the moment. She had not ridden a race since 2012 and only a few minutes remained before the gates would open and her “comeback” would be official.
“It was so quiet on the backstretch,” she said after the race. “I just love Canterbury Park. It’s such a special place and I was so happy.”
Williams has won 109 races, yet most folks in and around Canterbury have no idea that she once rode races regularly, never mind was a finalist for the Sovereign Award for Champion Apprentice rider in 2011.
“I don’t go around telling people that – I’m pretty quiet anyway,” she said. “I think it’s because I haven’t ridden here and I have a baby so people don’t put together that I could be a jockey. A lot of people are shocked at my background, they just know me as Nik Goodwin’s wife. Now since I’ve come back they are researching and finding out ‘yeah, you did ride before – you were pretty good’.”
Williams was born in Orangeville, Ontario, Canada. As the daughter of horse trainer Bob Williams, Betty Jo spent most of her childhood in barns and on the backs of horses. Her first job at a race track was hot-walking horses when she was twelve. By 16 she was galloping horses for her dad but it wasn’t until she was 21 that she started riding professionally with her first official mount at Mountaineer Race Track in West Virginia.
Though she has ridden in several locations in the US, Williams considers Woodbine and Fort Erie as her “home” racetracks.
“I was really lucky in the jocks room at Woodbine, where I started riding with my bug,” she said, recalling those early days of her career. “I was surrounded by amazing women riders: Emma Jayne-Wilson and Chantal Sutherland were both at the peak of their game and were the top female riders in the country. Those were my mentors. I was able to ride with them, come back after a race and they would tell me things I could do to get better – they were very encouraging. It was great, they were awesome to ride with.”
Williams had 1069 mounts and amassed purse earnings of $1,575,481 in her four years of riding. In her Sovereign Award nominee year she rode winners at a 14% clip and her mounts earned over a half million dollars. Then a series of injuries and events transpired to take her off the track – at least in the afternoons.
“I had to stop because I got heavy and I got hurt. While I was hurt I gained weight. I had a concussion, broke my hand, my collarbone, got flipped on and suffered a badly bruised pelvis. Then I got pregnant,” she laughed. “It was always in the back of my mind ‘do I want to really ride again’?”
Once she determined that the answer was yes, she we went back to exercising horses in the mornings after taking some time off to have her son, Weston Goodwin, in 2015.
“When I came back on my 10th day of work,” she recalled, “I had a horse go down under me and I broke my collarbone so I was off for another 8 -10 weeks.”
Her main source of strength and support as she worked her way back to riding again? Her husband, Canterbury jockey Nik Goodwin.
“Nik has always been really supportive and pushing me to get back to ride. I’ve never rode a race with him so I think when it comes to that it may be a little odd. I know I’ll really want to beat him,” she laughed. “He’s been so supportive in everything that I want to do. It’s been amazing.”
Once again it was rest and recovery time for Williams, but this time she didn’t let her time off affect her riding weight.
“Last summer  was my first full summer back galloping and over the winter I stayed healthy, she said. “My weight is down and really stable. When I got here this summer I thought, ‘I really want to find some horses to ride.’ I had some people that enlist me to ride in the mornings.
“I ride salary for Joe Sharp and I just started galloping for Ed Ross Hardy, getting my first experience galloping quarter horses,” she continued. “They are such nice people and great horses. I’ve really learned a lot riding for them both.”
Her first afternoon ride was for trainer Tim Anderson and she hopes to branch out a bit more eventually.
“I hope that my next ride is soon. When I got back to the room and watched the replay, I knew that this is what I crave. Every rider wants to go out there and ride and win races and it just doesn’t go away. It’s like an addiction – you just want to keep doing it again and again,” she explained.
“I guess what I was looking for out of my first race back was to see if I still had that feeling; do I still love this?” she asked herself. The answer was immediate and her face lit up as she said, “I went out and there and I do love it. I love it so much.”
With talent, experience, support system and her love for the game it would be hard to bet against Betty Jo making a successful return to race riding.
“Right now I’m taking it day to day and I’m hoping that people will decide to give me a chance and, by the end of the meet, I hope that I’ve gained the respect of the people around Canterbury,” she said. “Leaving the meet happy and healthy and having a few winners would be great.”