Mounting yard whispers : the secrets of jockey-trainer conversations

6 November 2023 Written by VRC

Have you ever wondered what a trainer and his jockey talk about just prior to a race, as they stand, heads bent together in the mounting yard?

There’s an old racing adage that has been around since the sport began : “The good ones don't need them – and the bad ones can’t carry them out anyway.”

Them, in this case, are instructions – the last-minute directives those in the paddock like to give the man or woman on top just before they leg them up and the horse and rider go out onto the track.

You have all seen them whenever you go racing; trainers and jockeys in quiet communication, sotto voce lest anyone hear; owners making their views known.

It is also highly likely that the jockey’s agent or supporters have given him or her the benefit of their wisdom earlier in the process, after they have studied the form and tried to work out how the race might pan out.

So many opinions, so many voices.

But do these paddock instructions actually make a difference? Do jockeys listen at all? Is it all part of the theatre of the event?

Damien Thornton, who won the Group 1 Australasian Oaks for Australia’s leading trainer Chris Waller aboard Toffee Tongue in 2020 as well as last season’s Group 1 Thousand Guineas on Yearning for another top stable, Team Hawkes, says in an ideal world jockeys would be left to their own devices.

But he acknowledges that all involved will have a view on how to maximise their chances.

“Chris (Waller) likes his horses ridden a certain way, and most of the time Anthony (Freedman, another leading trainer for whom Thornton often rides) will say how he wants them ridden, too, but every now and then he will say, ‘I will leave it up to you’.

“Chris likes it done a certain way … it’s almost always to get cover. Sometimes you can be third, fourth with cover, but usually it’s to be mid-field or worse with cover, finishing off well.”

But, says Thornton, races are so unpredictable that the rider has to be able to think quickly and adapt.

“Every circumstance is different. If you miss the start or something unexpected happens you have to think on your feet anyway. I am sure I would have made decisions many times that were not expected.

“I would rather have no instructions personally and just be left to ride the horse. Wayne (Hawkes) often says to just ride the horse wherever they are comfortable, it doesn't matter where they are. It can really help if you ride horses a lot of the time at trackwork and in the mornings. You get to know how they are.”

Mick Price is a multiple Group 1 winning trainer who regularly employs the likes of Damien Oliver, Mark Zahra and Jamie Kah.

He prefers to use top jockeys when he can because they have proven their ability to make the split-second decisions that can make the difference between victory and defeat – worth millions of dollars where Group 1 winning colts are concerned.

“I have a generalised chat with them. Most times it is about expectations between the owners and what I think is best for the horse, and then I take in strongly what the jockey recommends. That all fits in within Plan A.

“Plan B is what happens when the gates open. The top jockeys make their own quick decisions based on what’s happening in the first 100 metres. The better jockeys have quicker responses. The A-grade Group 1 jockeys have a sixth sense that allows them to ride better in the majority of races.

“I respect that, and they have the license to do that from me. For me it is flair, initiative, and confidence to back your own ability and your horse’s ability, your confidence to back your judgment in races, your ability to understand your horse’s feel. The feedback you give, the proper service you give to my owners. It’s all of the above.

“The best jockeys ride with a sense of timing. They are not too early; they are not too far out of their ground. Ollie and Mark Zahra both ride with a beautiful sense of timing, and it is these small differences that mean riders like them end up in the A grade.”

But what if they ignore specific edicts?

“Jockeys go against instructions and win all the time, certainly the top ones. More often they get it right, so it is a mistake to tie them down to trainer or owner instructions.”

Patrick Payne rode champions like Northerly to victory in the Cox Plate when he was a rider, and he has established himself as one of the most promising of his generation of trainers.

Payne says that he too wasn’t bothered much about instructions when he was riding – and he is not too concerned about weighing down his regular rider, Billy Egan, with too many now.

Most trainers, he says, “left me to it. We would have discussions about horses. But you hope to have formed a pretty good relationship with trainers where they are the boss in the morning for the training of the horses, while the jockey is responsible during the race. There should be some mutual respect there and if they are going to retain you, they are probably going to trust that you will do a good job.

“I would think that maybe more pressure might come from the owners or outside influences. Everyone wants to put their two bobs’ worth in, but with the mechanics of the horse and the way things pan out in races, it isn’t always possible to follow the plan.

“It looks very easy sometimes from the comfort of the couch, but that’s not always the case.

“My philosophy was generally that if I thought a horse could win, then I would do my own thing and all’s well that ends well. If I didn’t think it could win, I would think, ‘I’ll do what they want’.

Now that he is a trainer, he has built up a strong partnership with Egan.

“I would like to think I let him get on with it most of the time.

“Sometimes I will say how a horse should be ridden depending on its level of fitness – sometimes in their early couple of races I might tell him that its fitness level is not fully there yet, so he might have to ride it conservatively in the early stages.

“Then I might say, it’s really fit now, so you don’t need to ride it too cute.”

Brent Thompson is a star rider from an earlier era, but the same pressures arose for him in the 1970s and 1980s in his position as stable rider for the legendary Colin Hayes.

“Back then, jockeys were required to ride work every morning, so you did get to know horses before race day, but CS wasn’t one to really tie you down with instructions anyway. That’s why he employed you, because he expected you to know.

“There was trust. You can give any instructions you like, but if a horse doesn’t break well, the whole complexion of the race changes completely for you, especially if you are stuck on the fence in a slowly run race – you can’t jump over the top of them. Sometimes all you can do is sit and suffer.

“It’s the same if the horse flies the machine and you bounce a length clear. In those circumstances, you have to think quickly and ride them accordingly.”

He remembers one memorable occasion when he didn’t exactly carry out orders, but got the job done on the champion Dulcify.

“When I won the 1979 Cox Plate on Dulcify, I didn’t intend to get to the front at the 600-metre mark, but he just took me there. Sometimes things work in your favour, sometimes they don’t.

“But if it all went pear-shaped, there was no point coming back and making up all the excuses in the world. You are far better off coming clean rather than telling porky pies, and if your owner or trainer was bitter and angry, the less said the better.”