No stopping James McDonald

20 October 2022 Written by Michael Lynch

Last year’s Melbourne Cup-winning jockey James McDonald has already won some of Australia’s biggest races and broken records. But there is so much more to come.

Veteran jockey Damien Oliver set an Australian record for the ages when he equalled hall of fame rider George Moore's total of 126 group 1 winners after scoring a narrow win on Willowy in the VRC Oaks on the third day of Flemington’s 2021 Melbourne Cup Carnival.

But a young jockey, almost 20 years Oliver’s junior, managed to trump even that historic achievement later in the week when he smashed a long-standing record for the most number of winners ever ridden in Cup week – and signalled that, despite his youth, he had Oliver’s overall Group 1 total in his sights.

That young jockey was the now 30-year-old New Zealander James McDonald, who not only landed his first Melbourne Cup aboard superstar racemare Verry Elleegant but rode a total of 10 winners for the week, surpassing the previous record of nine held by Brett Prebble.

Ironically, as McDonald passed the post to notch the last of those victories aboard Zaaki in the Group 1 Mackinnon Stakes the man following closely behind in second place was Prebble on Godolphin’s Cascadian.

It was the sort of symmetry that suggests the racing gods are clearly in McDonald’s corner: Prebble had been an inspiration to young schoolboy McDonald when he visited New Zealand more than a decade earlier, and the photograph of the older Australian embracing the younger Kiwi who had just taken his record was the perfect symbol of the baton being passed on.

McDonald has already ridden more than 70 Group 1 winners: he will have to continue his impressive strike rate to reel in Oliver, but there are few in the racing world who would not agree that if anyone is going to overhaul “Ollie”, then the man known as “JMac” is the most likely candidate.

But it hasn't always been plain sailing for the talented McDonald, who established himself as a rider to note when becoming leading apprentice in his native country.

Top Sydney trainer John O’Shea was looking for a polished rider in the off season of 2011, and decided to make a play for the then 19 -year-old McDonald. It was a fateful decision for both men: O’Shea got first use one of the most successful riders of his generation, while McDonald established a relationship not just with an employer but with a man he still describes as a great friend and a key mentor.

“It was the winter in Sydney, all the senior riders had left town and we were struggling for riders, and I had some contacts in NZ who said this is a good kid.

“I brought him over to ride three horses for me at Randwick on a Saturday, [and] we got him a full book of rides. I think he rode three winners the first time he had ever been to Randwick, so I realised he was even better than I thought he was.”

O’Shea then brought McDonald back and forth as he developed his riding skills before moving permanently the next season.

But even then there were hiccups.

“I think in his first 30 or 40 rides for us he never rode a winner. I was under a bit of pressure from my owners – that was an understatement – but he was riding a few bits and pieces outside of our stable and doing well, so it was incumbent on me to remind our ownership group we had to be patient because he was so very young, and that in the long term we would be rewarded.

“And sure enough as he settled into life at Randwick he did very well for us, we had a lot of faith in him, and he repaid it.”

It is a debt McDonald, who these days is associated predominantly with the all conquering Chris Waller yard, is happy to acknowledge.

“John O’Shea has been very important to me. He’s definitely the best and biggest mentor. He got me over [to Australia], he put all his faith in me.

“At the time there were owners in the yard that didn’t want to use me, but he took the ball up and said I would ride them. He’s been my main man always, and we are still great friends. Whenever I need advice from John, whether it is racing or anything else, he is the first one in my corner to help me punch my way out.

“When you have a trainer like John O’Shea banging down the door it gives you a lot of confidence.”

McDonald admits he has been lucky with support at the crucial times. These days it is from the Waller stable, but before he even started out and got to O’Shea’s yard it was prominent NZ owner and breeder Sir Peter Vela who recognised the potential in the ambitious youngster.

“I talk to him quite regularly. He was probably the first person when I started riding to give me a chance.

“I had several stints in Europe due to him. The first one was probably when I was 16 [when] he organised a trip to Ireland where I spent time with [trainer] Fozzy Stack. I went to Aidan O’Brien’s and I also spent a bit of time with John Oxx (trainer of Sea The Stars). I spent three months over there and he was instrumental in organising all that. A year later he did it again.

“He was a great help for giving me that leg up for overseas experience. I think that was the making of me, helping me get out of my comfort zone. Without him I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

Winning so many top races on so many good horses at such a young age is a testimony not just to McDonald’s ability in the saddle – like all great riders he has great balance, hands and a super sense of timing – but a testament to his work rate and professionalism.

He will be long associated with Verry Elleegant – and not just because he was her rider in that wonderful Lexus Melbourne Cup win.

McDonald partnered her in all but two of her Group 1 wins (Mark Zahra was in the saddle for her Turnbull Stakes win at Flemington and her Caulfield Cup triumph) and she occupies a special place in his heart. That made it so memorable that she was the centrepiece of his record breaking Flemington week.

“It was a pretty cool thing to do. It's everyone's childhood dream when you are in the industry to win the Melbourne Cup.

“To do it on Verry Elleegant, such a special horse for me, was good. She’s been a remarkable filly and mare. When she arrived [from NZ] she had a world of ability but it had to be harnessed in the right direction and Chris Waller has done that under his training regime.

“It was an unbelievable week last Spring at Flemington, everything that could go right did go right, from the Cup right through to the end of the week. Every horse ran so well, I had a strong book of rides and was lucky enough that they all ran accordingly.They were all prepared to a T, it was awesome.”

He also of course has a special relationship with Nature Strip, partnering the ‘gentle giant’ and sprint superstar on many outstanding occasions, including the King’s Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot in June.

McDonald is so focused and driven he doesn’t get a lot of time to have hobbies, but when he does get a break he likes to play golf and squash.

And Verry Elleegant is not the only special female in his life.

He has been with his partner, former champion Victorian apprentice Katelyn Mallyon, for more than five years, and the pair are expecting a baby in November, which ensures that McDonald will have another magic spring, no matter what happens on the track.