Making it to the top as a leading jockey is a tough business.
Horsemanship is a given. But top jockeys need a few more skills than the ability to make a horse run quickly. They need tactical awareness, to know how a race might be run and plan their ride accordingly.
They need race smarts – the ability to sum things up in a split second during a contest and adjust tactics accordingly – as well as emotional intelligence and social skills, to be able to deal with owners and trainers before and after races. Some well-paid lawyers might struggle to find ways of describing to a disappointed owner just why their valuable galloper didn’t quite perform as well on the day as expected.
They also need the ability to get on with the media and speak confidently and with substance, rather than presenting the tongue-tied cliche of the squeaky-voiced jockey with little to say.
In the digital age comment, analysis and discussion on racing takes place 24/7 and every rider’s talent, judgment or luck is discussed ad nauseam.
So jockeys need a thick skin and a sense of perspective to ignore the slings and arrows of Twitter and Facebook invective that can come their way if they have been beaten on a hot favourite or well-backed runner. That is especially the case for those just starting out on the road to the top, the apprentices who hope, one day, to become the Damien Oliver, Hugh Bowman, Craig Williams or Dwayne Dunn of their own age cohort.
At present Victoria is blessed with a talented and stylish crop of young riders who, despite their tender years, have amassed many of those qualities needed to succeed at the top.
Names like Regan Bayliss, Ben Thompson, Dylan Dunn, Beau Mertens, Ben Allen and Jye McNeil, in particular, are already familiar to racetrack regulars and off-course punters. They are frequent visitors to the winners enclosure, both at metropolitan and provincial racetracks the length and breadth of the state.
And on Thursday evening several of them took a significant step towards the senior ranks by graduating from the Racing Victoria School Apprentice Jockey Training Program (AJTP) at a ceremony held at Flemington racecourse. They do, however, remain apprentices until the date four years after their first race ride.
The AJTP is a program set up by the local governing body to educate would-be jockeys in every facet of the industry. Many do come from a racing background and understand that side of the sport very well but not the myriad other factors that can influence whether they will have a successful career or not. Others have no racing antecedents, come in raw and have to be taught the basics, including how to ride.
Coached by former riders Matthew Pumpa and Matthew Hyland, Jockey Wellbeing and Safety Officer Ron Hall and Athlete Development and Industry Careers Advisor Melissa Weatherley, the youngsters get a thorough grounding not just in race riding, but also the importance of sports science and nutrition, and the media and business skills needed to make the most of their time in the saddle and life after racing.
The two major awards, the Victorian Jockeys Association (VJA) outstanding apprentice jockey and the Andrew Gilbert Principles of Sports Science Award, were also presented on the night and it was Ben Thompson, emulating the feat of Patrick Moloney last year, who scooped them both.
Thompson, 19, had his first ride in the Melbourne Cup this year aboard unplaced longshot Rose Of Virginia, and also had a first shot at the Caulfield Cup on outsider De Little Engine. So far in his short career the youngster, who is indentured to Craig Williams’ former jockey father Allan, has ridden 130 winners.
He and numerous others who are still yet to graduate, will be the face of racing in this state in the decades to come – as long as injury, weight issues or bad luck do not derail what at this stage are very promising careers.
The Graduating Class of 2016
· Regan Bayliss: The 19-year-old is apprenticed to co-trainers David Hayes, Ben Hayes and Tom Dabernig and has ridden 206 winners, including 75 on metropolitan racetracks, during his time in the AJTP;
· Dylan Dunn: The 21-year-old is apprenticed to co-trainers David Hayes, Ben Hayes and Tom Dabernig and has ridden 130 winners, including 55 on metropolitan racetracks. He won the apprentices championship last season.
· Kassie Furness: The 25-year-old is apprenticed to trainer Kym Hann at Bendigo and has ridden 72 winners in her career, including 12 since joining the AJTP at the start of 2016;
· Beau Mertens: The 19-year-old is apprenticed to Mick Kent at Cranbourne and has ridden 112 winners, including 25 on metropolitan racetracks;
· Boris Thornton: The 19-year-old is apprenticed to his father, trainer Glenn Thornton at Modewarre and has ridden 88 winners during his time in the AJTP
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