Can there be a tougher way to earn a quid than being a jockey?
It’s the only sport that has an ambulance trailing you around while you’re competing.
And at a touch under 55kg you’re taking your life in your hands when you’re trying to guide a 500kg hunk of horse flesh around a tight course in the helter-skelter of a race.
What about the constant battle to control your weight ? Or having to rise at some unearthly hour to ride trackwork on a frosty winter’s morning ? Or answering to a cranky owner or trainer after you’ve ‘butchered’ a ride ?
What motivates a young bloke to become a ‘hoop’. In search of the answer, I track down one of Wangaratta’s finest-ever, Brian Johns, who experienced most of the highs and lows that the racing game can throw up.
Brian rode for 32 years. There was hardly a track in provincial and country Victoria, or southern New South Wales, that he didn’t know intimately. He even ventured up north and turned trips to Darwin and Queensland into working holidays when the weather would start to turn sour down here.
He looks misty-eyed as he explains the adrenalin-rush that he’d experience when he was on a good horse and it was ‘going flat-stick’.
” Your eyes become watery and you’re willing it to go faster…faster. I’d compare it to what it must be like to drive a Formula 1 racing car. You become addicted to it.”
“And you never lose that urge to win”.
On his occasional trips to the races these days, he gets itchy feet ; wondering what tactics he’d use as a race is unfolding. He recalls the atmosphere that would prevail in the Jockey’s room, pre-race, in the old days.
“If four or five fellah’s reckoned they were a genuine chance to win, it could get a bit testy ; there wasn’t much chatter. One bloke was a give-away. He’d nervously pick at his nails. We knew if he started doing that, he felt he was on a ‘good thing’.”
“After the race it might become a bit strained, too, if someone became critical of another jockey’s tactics. But when the last race was run, that’s when you’d conduct the post-mortems.”
I asked him why he didn’t head to Melbourne to further his career. “Simple. I was having too much of a good time here. I’m a country boy”.
Brian was 12 when he caught the racing bug.
His uncle, Ron Arnold, had given his sister Debbie a horse, which was in foal. When the foal duly arrived -and grew- Brian jumped onto it and would ride it around the perimeter of Jack Stamp’s dairy.
Well-known local, ‘Lacky’ Richens who used to shoe the horses, would be often onto him, suggesting that he should become a jockey.
“So when I turned 15 and left school, I went and knocked on “Lacky’s” door. He took me down to see Jimmy Hoysted, who put me on as an apprentice”.
It wasn’t all beer and skittles. He took a long while to adjust to the 5am starts and Jimmy would often have to pull the blankets off him to crank him into action. There would be 20 horses to ride at trackwork.
“I remember that Jimmy was crook one morning. He got me to drive the float full of horses down to the track. Not a bad effort at the age of 15 !”
At 15 years 9 months, and tipping the scales at 36kg, he got his jockey’s licence and rode Arisaig to third place at Corowa . It was the first race of the 10,300 he was to negotiate throughout his career.
“We used to get $20 a race (plus a bit of a sling if you won). Now they pick up $200 a ride and 5% of the stake for a win, so they can make a reasonable living these days”, he says.
Brian got away to a flier in his first year and was the North-East’s leading apprentice. The wins started coming. Hardened horsemen liked his style. They said he showed no fear, was determined, cool as a cucumber and seemed to have a natural affinity with the horses in his charge.
The first of his seven NEDRA jockey’s premierships came when he was still an apprentice. After four years his indentures were transferred to Jim Hoysted’s cousin Mick, with whom he served the final two.
On his first visit to the ‘big smoke’, aged 16, and unperturbed by the surrounds of Moonee Valley he landed his maiden metropolitan winner, Dark Prince.
He would make occasional forays on city meetings. But when I quizzed him about how many other winners he rode in Melbourne, he had to rack his brain.
“Let’s think. There was Beau Bundrie at Caulfield. It was trained by Denis Gray……. For Granted was another, and Right Aspect won a Byron Moore Stakes on Oaks Day. That was a big win.
And, of course, there was his association with Lad of the Manor. He rode the champ to victory in the Brent Thomson Handicap and also the Group Two Waterford Crystal Mile on Cox Plate Day, 2004.
‘The Lad’ holds special memories for Brian Johns. He remembers being aboard when it made its debut at Wangaratta.
“We missed the start by about 6 lengths. I went past a couple of horses at the 600 metre mark and their jockeys looked across, astonished. My horse was just cruising,” he recalls.
Lad of the Manor won 11 of its first 19 races and he was in the saddle for eight of them, including a win in Ballarat’s rich Gold Nugget.
He rode a brilliantly-judged race in the Turnbull Stakes, as Lad of the Manor moved away from the field in the home straight, only to be pipped by dual Melbourne Cup winner, Makybe Diva, in the shadows of the post.
At its next start, he piloted ‘The Lad’ in the fabled Cox Plate. I ask him if this was his biggest thrill in racing.
“Yeah, I suppose, apart from some of the big wins. It was enormous. Imagine, you’ve got a dozen quality horses, there’s all the tradition surrounding the race and the focus of the nation is on you.”
But Brian’s effort to be there was a story in itself. Four months earlier he had been involved in a freakish trackwork accident.
A young horse reared and went over backwards. He says : ” I survived the fall all right, but when it saw me at its feet it kicked the shit out of me”.
The result ? Broken ribs and a punctured lung. But soon after being discharged from hospital he got an infection and was re-admitted to Royal Melbourne Private. “I was that crook, I thought I was headed for the box”, he says.
Plenty of bike-riding and pool work was the way he rehabilited his aching 5 foot 3 and a half-inch, 55kg body, to come back to full fitness.
The following year he broke a leg at the Wangaratta Cup meeting. He only found out about the fracture when X-Rays were taken four days after the fall.
Then, in July 2007, he was on a horse called Migaloo, at Darwin’s Fannie Bay course when three horses fell at the half-way mark of a race. Both wrists were fractured, he incurred severe bruising to his body and had a broken shoulder.
Much as he would have liked to keep going, the injuries were so severe that Brian knew it was time to give the game away.
He had ridden 1020 winners, which had amassed something like $10 million in stake money.
Included in his CV were Cups at Wangaratta, Corowa (2), Tatura (2) and Towong. He had once ridden 5 winners out of 6 at a Wodonga meeting and on three occasions came home with four winners. He saluted four times in Benalla’s coveted Town Plate.
In moments of nostalgia he could recall the terrific country horses he had ridden, like Romantic Sea (a fine mare on which he won 10 races), Hunka Magic, Caesar’s Right, Well Satisfied, Beau Time, Right Aspect, Pride Rock and many others.
And the trainers from the North-East, and beyond, who had given him their support .
It was one hell of a ride.
Footnote: Brian once did a TAFE course in electronics and reckons that’s the path he would have trod if he hadn’t become a jockey. He now works at Brown Bros.