The thrill of a race

13 December 2023 Written by VRC

Just how does it feel to be on the back of a racehorse thundering down the Flemington straight? We get insight from some jockeys themselves.

Get on board with Damien and relive his last ride.

Damien Oliver entered the barriers for the final time at Flemington on TAB Champions Stakes Day during the 2023 Melbourne Cup Carnival and took his last ride down that famous straight that he knows so well. Likening the thrill of a race ride to doing a lap of a Grand Prix track in a Formula 1 car, Ollie’s final fling past the clocktower may not have provided him with a win, but it did give the greatest jockey that Flemington has ever seen another ride of a lifetime.

Most footy fans will never experience what it feels like to kick a goal in front of 80,000 people at the MCG, but anyone who has played the game at local level knows the thrill of competition and what it feels like to kick a goal for their team.

Similarly, in cricket, only a minute percentage of those who pick up a bat will be good enough to make a century for their country. But local competitions present the opportunity for those nowhere near good enough to play at international level with the chance to know what it feels like to crack triple figures.

Racing fans, however, will never experience the thrill enjoyed by the athletes who participate in a horse race.

Plenty may have ridden a horse, but that’s nothing compared to riding a thoroughbred at full speed.

When some jockeys were asked to provide some insight into what that feels like, each had difficulty articulating it in a way that the common person would be able to relate to.

Damien Oliver, the recently retired champion hoop, could draw the strongest comparison.

“The closest thing that I came to it was when I was out for about 15 months after I broke my back and I got a chance to be a part of the celebrity Grand Prix,” Oliver said.

“Being in one of those cars was probably something that was a little bit similar to the feeling you get riding in a horse race. You’re in a race, so you’re in a quite competitive atmosphere, and you’re on a track. But as strange as it sounds, given we were going up to 180km per hour, it seemed like you were going slower than you actually were, but I felt safer in that car even though we were going three times faster than you would on a horse. It’s a really hard one to describe.”

It is probably appropriate that one of the hardest, and most dangerous jobs, is one of the most difficult to describe.

The starting point is feeling comfortable aboard an animal that can be up to 600kg and will move at more than 60km per hour. So bravery is a pre-requisite.

Especially when you consider you’ll be among a field of up to 24 runners with every one of your fellow jockeys wanting to find the position that is going to give their horse the best chance of victory.

But bravery counts for little if you are too heavy. Racing is one of the rare sports where being small is an asset. At the same time, however, you need to be fit and strong.

You also need to be intelligent. A rapport needs to be developed with the horse, but there is also a necessity to be able to read what might be about to unfold in front of you. You must be conscious of regulations such as the whip rules, which limit not only how many times a jockey can use the whip but where they are allowed to do it.

Ex-jockey and now media personality Simon Marshall, although retired for a number of years, still remembers the excitement  of a race well.

A star apprentice who rode 16 Group 1 winners, Marshall has his own unique description of what the thrill of a race ride is like.

“It’s a mix between being in a go-kart, at peak hour, while standing on top of a car. All while going at 60km per hour,” he said.

It emphasises the uniqueness of the sensation, which Marshall said combined with the loss of routine most have only known since starting their apprenticeship as a teenager, can make retirement tough for jockeys.

“You can go out and ride a motorbike or go water skiing, whenever you want, but it’s a different kind of adrenaline rush,” he said. “Nothing can replace it.