The tragedy of losing Simone. Why we must never forget.

August 17, 2013

It’s been a few weeks now since racing lost Simone Montgomerie.

There were wonderful tributes at the time. The kindest of words, for a talented jockey who was anything but a household name.

Those headlines have now faded. Her colleagues are back riding, many still with heavy hearts.

She lost her life, doing something she loved. On Darwin Cup day. Before the locals, who had adopted her as their premier rider.

There are few jobs where you might lose your life before clocking off. Jockeys face that reality every day. Every ride. Every furlong.

When Simone died, the outpouring of emotion from those in the racing game was overwhelming. Genuine distress. From people who knew and loved her. And others who’d never met her.

Social media came into its own. The industry shines at such awful times. Participants who can bicker about the state of the track and the price of a pie, come together as one.

There were so many impressive gestures. The Darwin club donating the Cup prizemoney to Simone’s family. Tommy Berry giving up his winnings for a day. Clubs around Australia naming races in her memory. All that money, going to a foundation to help her daughter Kodah.

I’d never backed one of her runners. In fact I’d only ever seen her in action a few times. But in the days after her death, like so many others, I felt close to her and her shattered family. From a distance, we wanted them to find some kind of peace.

It also made me think about all the other jockeys, who take those same risks. Hoops I know, personally, and through Facebook and Twitter. Hard working, fun, courageous people.

It’s so easy for us to bag them, when things don’t go our way. We want perfection, every time. Our pockets talking. But when we see a fall, no matter how minor, we hold our breath.

Life moves on, of course. The trick now, is for us to never forget Simone. A mum who didn’t make it home. We owe her that much.

The never-ending search for apprentices with old heads on young shoulders.

March 16, 2013

We all have to start out somewhere. And make some mistakes along the way.

Michael Clarke lost his off stump more than once as a kid.

Billy Slater didn’t break every tackle. Believe it or not, he wasn’t always the first picked in those early teams.

Someone had to teach Dawn Fraser to swim. Way back, when someone encouraged her to do another lap.

In racing, the stars of the future begin as apprentices. It’s anything but glamorous.

Few other sports have their best young prospects start work at 3am. Not many footy young guns deal with buckets of animal poo throughout their working day.

Apprentices will muck out stables, and ride as many horses as they can. Gruelling hours, for little return.

The lucky ones will get a few mounts for a leading stable. Most of their winnings will be kept from them, until their apprenticeship is complete.

Can you imagine the next Broncos superstar having his cash withheld for the first years of his contract? You’d hear the whingeing from your back yard.

There’s no reserve grade for young jockeys. They’re out there for all to see. Risking their lives, just like the seniors. At the mercy of punters like us, complaining through our pockets.

More than once, I’ve been guided by the old punting adage. Take off 3 kilos for an apprentice, then add 4 kilos for an apprentice. Harsh, but often true.

Some are outstanding, from the first time they jump on. Dig out a video of Darren Beadman winning the Golden Slipper as an apprentice in 1984. Or Wayne Harris when he kicked off. Class, with pimples and a mullet. Hugh Bowman too. Was always destined for greatness.

Look hard today, and you’ll see some amazing talent. I might be biased, but I don’t see any better than young Tegan Harrison in Brisbane. She gets horses to win for her. Soft hands. Great balance. Wonderful judgement.

Watch her in action this afternoon. She gives them every chance, every time. Tegan is a worker. That old story. The harder you work, the luckier you get.

I saw her win at Doomben last weekend, in a driving finish. Cost me the cash. Even so, it was mighty impressive. She’s riding beyond her years.

Not every kid gets it right. Some get sick of the hours. And the crap. From animals and humans.

Others get caught in the lifestyle. Too many parties makes it mighty difficult to start work before dawn.

They will fall by the wayside. End up doing something much easier. While the chosen few ride their way into greatness, and riches.

An apprentice rode our horse during the week. He was a visitor from interstate, and I didn’t know him from Adam.

To say he butchered our bloke would be an insult to those who wear white aprons and cut up rumps. We cornered around 12 wide. He was so close to the cars he almost got charged for parking.

It didn’t cost us the race, but it sure didn’t help. Would Beadman or Bowman have been out there? I doubt it.

That’s the thing with apprentices. They have to learn the trade. Even if it costs us along the way.

Clarkey ended up Australian skipper. Billy is an Origin hero. And Dawn? Well, she went alright too.

I hope we’ll be singing Tegan’s praises in twenty years time. And plenty of other kids starting out now too. Just one tip. Stay away from the bloody outside fence.

Saluting Shane Scriven. Why we’ll miss a true heavyweight on and off the track.

September 15, 2012

Can you imagine not eating for the last 30 years? Bar the odd grain of rice and teaspoon of fish.

Every kilo counted, every day. Where a big meal could actually stop you doing the job you love.

Ask Shane Scriven. Group One winner. Career jockey. Heavyweight.

You might have to wait a bit to get an answer. I’m guessing Shane is spending every waking hour shoving carbs into his mouth. Making up for lost time.

He retired this week. One of Queensland’s most successful hoops. Punter’s pal. An inspiration to hundreds of young jockeys, who’ve picked up tips from one of the best.

For over three decades, he did a job that his body wasn’t suited to. Too damn big. Yet he forged ahead, because that’s what you do when you’re a natural horseman.

I feel for our racing heavyweights. The blokes who more often than not ride with the number one saddlecloth.

There are times when the planets align, and the fridge is locked, and they drop a few kilos. But it never lasts. That constant battle with the scales.

Think of the great Roy Higgins. Amazing that he rode as many winners as he did, given his size.

Steven Arnold has ridden more topweights than anyone. My mate Chris O’Brien, who does as many bike rides as Anna Meares to keep his weight down. And then there’s Scrivo.

I don’t know him. But I feel like we’ve been friends for years. A jockey who did the right thing by owners and punters alike. He was always trying. Knew no other way.

Those of us with heads stuck in the formguide are always wondering if a topweight can carry the load. Especially in big races. There’s an art to cuddling horses carrying the grandstand. Get it wrong, and they’re no chance.

Time and again, Shane Scriven got them home. Somehow convinced them that it wasn’t REALLY that much weight. Just a bit further. Beautiful balance. Old fashioned strength.

He’s famous for his association with another old marvel, Scenic Shot. I can’t  remember ever backing them in their many victories. More fool me.

But I backed plenty of others with Scrivo up top. Those bread and butter Saturday events, that keep the game ticking over. Just when the experts had decided something couldn’t possibly win with so much lead in the saddle, away he’d go.

Then there were the comebacks. After becoming the size of a small house, that fighting instinct would kick in. A punishing few months, breaking his body down, and he’d be back.

He pinched a whip at Ipswich one day. In the straight, not the jockeys’ room. The stewards suspended him. I would have given him a medal. Winners grab whips. Losers let them go.

There was a lovely tribute to Shane this week from our top racing journo, Bart Sinclair. Look it up and have a read. His piece in the Courier-Mail let slip that they’ve been mates since the jockey was a gangling teenager. Fair to say that was many moons ago.

It’s a mark of both men that the relationship is as strong as ever. Both doing their job with expertise. Not taking things personally. Something that doesn’t always happen today.

I hope Scrivo isn’t lost to racing. He’d be great out on the track doing the post-race interviews, as the horses come back to scale. It would be done with a grin and a cheeky line or two.

Just make sure his mount has a padded saddle. The little bloke won’t be little for much longer. He has three decades of meals to catch up on.

Why it hurts so much when we lose a jockey. Take a minute, and think about the dangers they face.

November 19, 2011

I didn’t get a chance to back Corey Gilby. A battling bush jockey. One of those characters who ply their trade away from the big smoke.

He was based in Mt Isa, but had ridden all over the place. From the NSW South Coast to country Victoria. Central Queensland to the Northern Territory.

The young bloke had cheated death once on the racetrack. Can you believe, he was hit by lightning while in the saddle? And survived.

That should have been enough. But fate can be awfully unfair.

Last weekend, Corey rode on the five race card at Julia Creek. About as far as you can get from Flemington. A training gallop was organised after the last. Not uncommon at country meetings.

Just two horses. Both passed the post. Then something went wrong.

Corey’s horse, a galloper that will never make it to Randwick or Eagle Farm, floundered. It seems the young bloke was crushed underneath.

He died in Townsville Hospital on Sunday night. Corey was 25.

The thing about being a jockey, is that tragedy doesn’t discriminate. Group Ones count for nothing. Accidents can happen if you drive a Mercedes to the track, or catch a bus.

Ken Russell was a huge name in the eighties. The King of the Gold Coast. Doncaster winner. He got them home everywhere.

He was one of the industry’s most popular hoops, with thousands of senior rides under his belt.

The Queenslander lost his life, on a black day at Rosehill, in 1993.

I know racing people who still get emotional about his death. All these years on.

Then there are those jockeys who survive. But have their lives changed forever.

Alan Cowie is one. Another much-loved rider, who had the ability to make horses travel sweetly for him.

I was at the Gold Coast the day ‘Pup’ fell. It was one of those terrible moments, when you feared the worst.

He’s in a wheelchair now. With an incredible spirit. He does form, and manages jockeys. Rare to see him at the track without a smile.

The problem is, the horses they ride are so bloody big. Over 500 kilos. On four skinny legs. Going like the clappers.

The margin for error is so tight. It only needs to go slightly wrong, and we hold our breath.

They face dangers like few other sportspeople. Lives are on the lines, every half hour. Often for very little reward.

It’s worth remembering, the next time you grumble about a jockey. I thought about that, after seeing a mid-week special go under this week, thanks to a ride that may or may not have involved a blindfold.

Yes, it was infuriating. Yes, the family will be eating beans for a week. But there are worse things.

Let’s hope Corey Gilby’s family knows how much we feel for them. That sometimes, a terrible price is paid, simply for doing something you love.

Our jockey friends will go around again today. And tomorrow. And next week. There’s no racing game without them. And we thank them for it.