Mastering the juggle

27 October 2021 Written by Michael Sharkie

He scaled the highest peak in Australian racing last year with his win in the Lexus Melbourne Cup, and after a year of ups and downs, Jye McNeil is striving for spring success once again.

A thought dawned on jockey Jye McNeil recently as he reflected on his famous Lexus Melbourne Cup victory with Twilight Payment.

Whenever he found himself as a face in the crowd at an event or function as a young man, McNeil would apply a benchmark against the various guest speakers, a measure of how good they were in their chosen field. When it came to racing, that benchmark was always the Melbourne Cup.

“I’d sit there listening, thinking to myself, ‘gee they must have been a bloody good jockey or trainer to win a Melbourne Cup …’ it’s actually only just dawned on me that I meet my own requirements now, my standard of what a successful jockey is,” he said.

For some young men and women, success at the highest level has the danger to become all-consuming, not only the defining moment of a career, but potentially the defining moment of an individual.

And for a while the Cup was all-consuming. The media commitments and appearances kept coming and the juggling act of media, trackwork, race day and home life stretched McNeil further than he’d have liked.

“All the attention was a bit of a distraction for a while there,” said McNeil.

“I’d say my form after the Melbourne Cup probably did drop off. There was that hangover from the win as they say. But we’ve managed to build up again and work through that and we’re back on track.”

Even though his phone still rings more than it used to 12 months after his biggest success on the track, McNeil finds himself more grounded than ever before; quite literally in some respects thanks to COVID restrictions, but grounded and bound by the youngest member of his family whose existence ties in almost perfectly with the three-handled trophy on the mantlepiece of his home.

Oakley McNeil was a babe in the arms of mum Jess Payne when photographers celebrated his dad’s Melbourne Cup in the days after the race, but now the only time Oakley is in his parent’s arms is when he is asleep.

“He runs rings around us, to be honest,” McNeil smiles.

“He’s 14 months old now, pretty much running around non-stop. He can say mum and dad and he’s at that beautiful age where he’s learning to communicate more and more every day.”

2020 COVID was a tough grind for the new parents, with McNeil on the road working hard and earning as hard as he could as the uncertainty of the pandemic hung over racing and society in general. Face time – the kind we enjoyed before Apple devices – with young Oakley was limited.

“In those early months I was away from home working a lot and it was hard because he had that bond with Jess but wasn’t as familiar with me. I think it’s something a lot of dads go through and it’s not easy ... you want to be there,” he explained.

“But now, I walk into the house and he’s got that smile on his face and he knows I’m home. He can turn a frustrating day at work around very quickly. He’s amazing like that.”

Family life suits McNeil. His own early life in the quiet town of Koondrook near Kerang in country Victoria was very much a humble, family affair. When he and his brothers Sam and Logan weren’t pitching in on the family dairy farm with dad Darryl and mum Michelle, the family were together at local sports clubs, playing football, tennis, cricket, or whatever the season was at the time.

The simple things were what mattered then, and they still do now on the eve of the 2021 Melbourne Cup Carnival.

Which is why McNeil has been so frustrated by the one nagging box to tick in the aftermath of the Cup: a celebratory meal with friend and mentor Deane Lester.

Lester has been a trusted advisor to McNeil and other top jockeys for many years and was instrumental in him landing the ride on Twilight Payment in 2020.

When COVID-19 stopped international jockeys from coming to Melbourne for the spring, owner Lloyd Williams began to seek counsel on the most suitable local riders for his team of horses arriving from Ireland. He sought Lester’s opinion and McNeil’s name was put forward as a candidate for the Joseph O’Brien-trained Twilight Payment.

On the morning of the race, Lester told McNeil to “be brave”, it was the last-minute pep talk that shook off the nerves and instilled a stirring belief that he was in fact good enough to win Australia’s greatest race.

“I still think of that chat,” said McNeil.

“We speak pretty much every day. He gives me a great insight into the horses I’m riding day-to-day, how they’ve been ridden before and when they’ve performed to their best. The things he has noticed that might help me get the result.

“For someone who has never physically ridden in a race, it’s unreal how he understands how a race is run and how jockeys think their way through it.”

Lester, who grew up on thoroughbred farms foaling down mares and riding Shetland ponies, has endured spina bifida from a young age. The COVID outbreak meant that he was at higher risk of serious illness should he contract the virus, and so he has laid low for much of the last two years.

And that has meant that family and friends like McNeil had to keep their distance, even when it came to sharing a drink out of the three-handled loving cup.

“It’s a real shame that we haven’t even been able to catch up in person yet and celebrate the Cup. We had a small window prior to the most recent lockdown in August and then we were locked down again – the timing has been all wrong,” said McNeil.

“It will happen, and it will be fantastic when it does.”

Twilight Payment’s owner Lloyd Williams has also been on the phone and on the eve of the Melbourne Cup Carnival, that contact is music to McNeil’s ears given the strength and depth of Williams’ staying arsenal.

“If I ride well or have a good day Lloyd will text to congratulate me. I think he is someone that really appreciates the work that goes into achieving success, and he’s so passionate about racing, he genuinely takes an interest in your form and success,” McNeil said.

With interstate jockeys effectively locked out of Victoria this spring, opportunities abound for local riders who are fit, in form and focused, and that is exactly what McNeil wants to be seen as come Cup Week.

“When it comes to goals, I want another one, another Cup, and why not? It is still the race I want to win,” he said.

“It would be fantastic to ride another one for Lloyd. The way things are going with COVID we are working really hard and keeping an open mind to try and find the right horse again. There will be some very good opportunities this spring, and I want to make sure I’m at the front of the line for them.”

And with the right sort of luck, McNeil will remind himself again what a “bloody good jockey” looks like this spring.