Apprentices forging their future

9 January 2024 Written by Michael Sharkie

Embarking on the journey to become a jockey may seem intimidating, but with the right support and guidance, apprentices can grow their expertise in the racing industry with every ride. For Tom Spillane, Sarah Field, and Carleen Hefel, their paths to the world of horse racing have been diverse, but their dedication and determination have led them each to pursue their dreams.

A few years ago, while sitting in a Melbourne accountancy firm, Tom Spillane had an epiphany about his future. The prospect of spending his life in an office didn’t feel right, and a newfound desire to become a jockey began to take root. There was an itch he needed to scratch, an itch that he knew would raise some eyebrows amongst those closest to him.

“It was the last semester of my university degree, I was working in a Melbourne firm, and I realised that I was going down the path of sitting in an office every day for the rest of my life,” Spillane explained.

“Becoming a jockey wasn’t an obvious option for me, we had no family history or connection to riding and barely to racing. But I had the right build and this nagging feeling to give it a go.”

The nagging feeling was due largely to encouragement from Lachie King, a successful hoop in his own right, winner of the 2020 Victoria Derby with Johnny Get Angry and Spillane’s Xavier College schoolmate. Lachie is also the son of 54-time Group 1 winner, Steven King, who counts the Melbourne Cup, Caulfield Cup and Cox Plate among his accolades.

King Jr’s cajoling combined with a want to test himself has seen 25-year-old Spillane named amongst the latest intake of eight apprentice jockeys with Racing Victoria. 

“Lachie exposed me to racing. Growing up together, his dad was still riding and I used to watch him and keep track of him. Obviously, Steve was a superstar in his day. They encouraged me to give it a go. I guess I looked like a jockey, and they thought I might as well see if I could ride.”

Spillane didn’t even sit on a horse until he was 21 years old, a far cry from the majority of apprentice jockeys who grow up riding ponies or hacking about on the family farm. Spillane was a city boy, so sought out Victoria’s king of the kids, Gerald Egan, to learn to ride. He stayed at Egan’s Mansfield farm to learn the ropes.

“I hadn’t really been around country people at all, let alone horses. I went to Gerald’s for a week in the middle of winter. It poured down every day but from the first moment that I got in the saddle but I just loved it. I was only there for a week, but it lit the fire,” said Spillane.

Soon, Spillane’s life was split between university, work in the accountancy firm and time in the saddle, learning the basics. On pedigree, he was way out of his comfort zone – there was nothing on Spillane’s page to suggest he could make it.

“No one ever rode a horse in my family. Dad owned a few shares in horses but that was it as far as involvement went. I am an outlier for sure,” he said.

Egan saw enough in Spillane to recommend him to Lindsay Park and that is where the Melburnian has been learning his trade in recent times, riding track work and graduating to jump outs and trials under the watchful eye of Racing Victoria apprentice coaches Alf Matthews and Darren Gauci. 

“I’m so lucky to be where I am. To be an apprentice at Lindsay Park, to have the support of the Hayes family and then mentors like Alf and Darren, I’m very grateful. When I watch videos of myself riding now, I can see the improvement. There’s a lot more to learn, but I’m getting there.”

Getting there was never a question for Spillane’s fellow apprentice Sarah Field. The 25-year-old is a late starter as far as an apprenticeship is concerned, but horses have been part of her life for as long as she can remember, she was never going to do anything else but work with them.

“I always had horses at home, I did pony club and was into the eventing side of things. School just wasn’t for me as a kid and as soon as I was able to leave at 14 years and nine months I got a job at Kyneton with Bob Challis,” she said.

At 18, Field moved to Ballarat and started work for Matt Cumani and that is where she decided to become a jockey.

Sarah Field had a memorable first race ride at Donald in July when she steered Field Of Flutes to success. (Pat Scala/Getty Images)

“I really got stuck into riding track work at Ballarat. Matt really encouraged me to give it a go and I loved it. I first applied for an apprenticeship in 2015 but got knocked back. To be fair I probably wasn’t ready, but I’m pretty stubborn and just kept at it.”

A head injury delayed another application and Field actually applied at least four times before her approval this season. 

“It’s very competitive and I just couldn’t get my foot in the door, but I’m so excited to get an opportunity this year with Ciaron (Maher) and Dave (Eustace).”

Field has been with Maher and Eustace for four years, and credits Eustace in particular with encouraging her to keep chasing her dream to become a jockey. 

“Dave has been the making of where I am now. He has given me lots of opportunities but he’s also there to pull me back into line when I need it.”

No opportunity was as important though as her first official race ride at Donald in July, a day made all the more special when Field was able to steer her favourite horse Field Of Flutes to the most memorable of wins.

“I ride him every day, and have ridden him in loads of jump outs, I just love him. He’s my favourite for sure,” she said.

“I was just so happy to get it (the win). He did it all, I’ve got a lot to improve on. The whole journey has been great so far. I couldn’t make it up.”

The life of an apprentice jockey is geared around honing riding skills to a standard that will see each rider able to compete at a professional level. Daily schedules can vary depending on the individual but the standard early morning start is a feature.

“You might have to do a bit around the stables first thing but if you’re riding track work that is your focus,” said Field.

“You have your assigned horses for the morning and the work they need, after each one there is usually feedback for the owners, especially after trials or jump outs. You ride until mid to late morning then it’s off to the races when you’re at that stage or apprentice school when it's scheduled.”

Carleen Hefel at the Victorian Racing Awards in August 2023, where she took home two trophies for her maiden triumphs in the Victorian and Metropolitan Apprentices’ Premierships (Racing Photos).

The Racing Victoria Apprentice Program provides the technical classroom element for new riders and is the school-based component. Across the four-year apprenticeship, inductees complete a Certificate IV in Racing – Jockey qualification, covering subject matter including exercise science and athletic performance, personal and professional wellbeing, finance, media and business skills, defensive driver courses and of course the rules of racing.

Riding-specific technical training and performance analysis are major parts as inductees begin to find their seat in the saddle, with coaching by former top jockeys Alf Matthews and Darren Gauci.

At the other end of her apprenticeship is Victoria’s leading apprentice jockey Carleen Hefel, another latecomer to race riding having started her apprenticeship at 29 years of age.

Reflecting on her own experience as she nears the end of her apprenticeship and prepares to transition to life as a senior rider, Hefel’s advice to new apprentice jockeys is to slow down and enjoy the experience.

“Looking back now, I wish I just slowed down a little. I thought I was ready for race riding before I probably was. I’d done hundreds of trials as a track work rider, but the next step is a big one,” she said.

Although she had a background with horses and part-time work around racing stables, Hefel chased a career in remedial massage before making the switch to become a jockey.  

After a steady start, Hefel has built momentum with purpose and is now one of the most talented apprentice jockeys in Australia, landing her first stakes race aboard Sigh for Peter Moody in the Group 3 Sir John Monash Stakes in July.

At times she wondered if she would ever scale those heights and admits that a poor ride can really knock a young jockey off their stride.

“Confidence is such an important part of this job. It can take you weeks to get over a bad ride and I’ve definitely had some low moments,” she said.

“But the support is there to get you through. Alf Matthews and Darren Gauci are great. I called on Ron Hall a lot too – he gave up so much of his time to help me. Even current jockeys, whenever I’ve reached out, they have been there to help.”

Spillane and Field have a long road ahead to make it as a jockey in the competitive Victorian riding ranks, but Hefel has seen first-hand what commitment and dedication can achieve.   

“Everyone wants to get out there and go ride in a race, but don’t rush things, listen to the people supporting you. It’s an exciting time of your life. Just always remember that hard work pays off.”