Top of the morning

7 December 2021 Written by Michael Sharkie

There are many roles in racing that add up to having a successful horse, stable and industry. One of these is the track rider, who plays a crucial part in preparing horses for race day. Like most people in racing, it is their passion for the horse that gets them up in the (very early) morning.

Jessica Shelden’s motto is “ride like the wind” but in her day-to-day job as a track rider at Longwood pre-training property Leneva Park, she has to tame that need for speed.

Not that it bothers her too much. Shelden is horse mad and just being around thoroughbreds each day puts a smile on her face.

“I started riding when I was five growing up in Nar Nar Goon,” she said.

“I can still remember those early rides, it was an amazing feeling. I just loved it. I went through pony clubs and all that before I got introduced to a bloke named George Eccles. He taught me how to ride thoroughbreds and took me under his wing.”

Eccles, a student of the great Angus Armanasco, had been a jockey himself but when Shelden met him he was “training a few” and re-homing and breaking in horses of various breeds for everything from pony club hacks to stock horses and equestrian prospects.

“He taught me to always be kind to horses and they would try for you. A young thoroughbred is like a teenager, they have all the energy and all the excitement, but they need guidance. If you’re firm but caring with them they will learn quickly and gain confidence. You want them to be confident without being cocky,” she explained.

Shelden started riding work around Cranbourne and Pakenham before finding her way to Leneva Park in 2020 where she rides horses in pre-training for clients like Mick Price and Michael Kent Jnr, Michael Moroney and Lloyd Kennewell.

Being a track rider means early mornings, with most metropolitan racecourses opening at 4am. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

“It’s so much fun. You are in control of an independent animal and I reckon there’s a bit of a wild streak in all the best riders. You have to be a bit fearless really,” she said.

Shelden reckons she can pick a horse with ability based on their stride and their balance, but said there are always surprise packets and exceptions to the rule.

“When you find a good one you just want to go faster and faster, but that’s not my job. The good ones give you such a great feel, if I never end up becoming a jockey I’d just love to get on a good one once and feel what that’s like at top speed.”

British native Junior Richards was once a jockey, albeit briefly, but rather than chasing dreams of winning at Royal Ascot, riding in a race was more of a box-ticking exercise.

“I rode a couple as an amateur and a couple as a professional over jumps. I really did it just to say I’d done it.

“You’re that close as a work rider I thought, why not, I’ll tick that box. But ultimately, I didn’t want to live that lifestyle, the wasting, the sweating. I didn’t fancy that much at all.”

What Richards did fancy was the thoroughbred, and at the age of 16 he enrolled in the Northern Racing College – now the National Horseracing College – in Doncaster, Yorkshire. The college is renowned as a source of high-achieving racing professionals across Europe and has produced leading riders Hollie Doyle and Danny Tudhope as well as Sir Michael Stoute’s assistant trainer, James Savage.

“The idea of being a work rider really appealed to me and once I finished my studies I worked for Karl Burke who trains in Yorkshire. I learned a lot there and of course went on to have a few race rides before I started to look abroad,” said Richards.

The call of a warmer climate and a change of scenery saw Richards arrive in Australia in 2011 with a few mates and he’s been here ever since, working his way across the country riding for Gary Portelli, Tony McEvoy and now for Lindsay Park where he is a lead work rider and breaking rider.

“The lifestyle is great. You’re up early and you’re working hard, the work is challenging and rewarding, but it’s not like you’re doing manual labour for 12 hours a day. Once you’re done by late morning you’ve got your day to yourself,” Richard said.

There is satisfaction for Richards in watching a young horse that he has worked with go to the races and perform well, but he takes most pride in working with cheeky and rebellious horses and turning them around.

“Personally, I like that challenge. I don’t like those straightforward horses that you get on and they just do what they’re told; they’re too boring for me, I like a challenge. Give me the ones that want to mess around and push back. Bringing them over to our side is really satisfying,” he said.

“Horses are like people. They have different personalities and sometimes they have a bad day. You can have a perfect, quiet horse for days and days on end then for whatever reason they wake up grumpy one day. You still have to work with them and try to bring them back, you’re always on your toes, thinking your way through each ride.

“I’ve always said I’d get away from horses but here I am, I’m 33 and I don’t see myself doing anything else. It’s my passion. I could never work an office job or anything like that, it’s the horses that keep bringing me back.”

The frustrating reality for many racing stables around Australia at the moment is a shortage of riders like Junior Richards, and a shortage of riders full stop. In a COVID-19 world, the regular migration of trackwork riders from overseas has come to a jarring halt, reducing the number of available and competent riders.

Trackwork gives trainers such as Gai Waterhouse an opportunity to cast a keen eye over their horses, and check on their progress.

Fortuitously though, COVID-19 also brought former jockey turned riding coach Matt Pumpa home to Victoria, and the timing couldn’t have been better given the knowledge he brought with him.

“I’d been working in Singapore running a training program for two years. Tom Dabernig was passing through before COVID-19 hit and we caught up and I showed him what I was doing with apprentices and track riders,” Pumpa explained.

“When COVID-19 began he got in touch and asked if I wanted to come back to Lindsay Park and run a program there – they weren’t immune to the rider shortage and wanted to train up existing staff to try and make up the shortfall.”

The Lindsay Park riding school had its first intake in early January with four existing staff members completing the eight-week program to upskill their riding to the standard required to ride trackwork under the watchful eye of Pumpa and farm manager Richard Nettleton.

Students learn across the various tracks and surfaces across the Lindsay Park Euroa property. Most have some riding competency when they begin, with the aim to polish those skills to a standard that allows them to ride fast work.

Dabernig departed Lindsay Park to start up his own stable in July 2021, but Pumpa and his riding school remained and has gone from strength to strength.

“They don’t all make it to that standard, but all of them so far have loved the experience. You see it in their faces at the end of the eight weeks, that satisfaction and feeling of achievement,” Pumpa said.

“It’s exposure to that sort of work too, they tell their friends and family about it so it spreads the word about trackwork riding. When they ride out for their final assessment the staff all turn out and cheer them on; it’s created a great energy around the program.”