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By Damian Browne | Thursday, May 14, 2020

It is always good seeing an up and coming jockey hit a high note and then go with it as Matthew McGillivray has done so admirably in the last twelve months since landing his first Group 1 winner aboard Winning Ways in the 2019 Queensland Oaks.

If you go back even further in time, it must have been two or three years ago, there was a period where I could see Matt as being at the crossroads where he could either go on and become a good rider or go the ‘wrong’ way so to speak.

I could relate to that because I myself was probably in a similar sort of situation going back twenty odd years now where I had to decide if I was going to have a real crack at my riding career or whether I was just going to become another statistic.

It took me a lot longer to do the right thing than it has taken Matt. He has gone on in leaps and bounds since deciding to focus on his career and he has done that in spite of some very real setbacks … such as his stuff up on EF Troop in the Magic Millions where the large amount of criticism he copped really would have been a big body-blow to his confidence.

So, Matt has faced and overcome some serious challenges and bounced back to the point where he won that Group 1 last year and in the last twelve months he has raised his profile from somebody who people always though could ride well to someone who is now considered as one of our leading jockeys.

All credit is due to him for that and also for the non racing decisions he has made. I can’t talk for Matt but I have little doubt that a big part of his professional success, as it was a big part of me getting my life on track, can be traced to the fact that he has obviously has a stable and happy family environment at home.

It certainly helps you focus when you realise it is not just about you any more and you have to provide for your family. You’ve got to step up. You’ve got responsibilities. It did the world of good for me and it has obviously done the same for him.

You are paid back over and over again for that commitment because there is very little you can’t overcome if you have a solid support base from your immediate and extended family.

Like I said, it is no exaggeration to say Matt could have gone either way but he has really come up trumps and he has to be congratulated on the positive decisions he has made on a number of fronts.

I take my hat off to him.

People have asked what I look for in a jockey or what attributes of a rider catches my attention.

There are so many different varieties of jockeys. Some of those are great horseman. Some of those are great jockeys … and there is a definite difference there.
Let me start with the ‘natural ability’ factor.

Some riders have got natural ability … which you can’t learn. The first thing you notice is when someone has natural ability on a horse and you’ll probably see that at the track before you ever see it at the races … such as if there is a troublesome horse and the rider stays calm and is able to work with the horse as opposed to a rider who might start panicking.

Those with natural ability also seldom lose their temper with a horse … and there are other signs … and I think that good horsemanship shows itself very early.

A jockey like James McDonald is an absolute example of a naturally gifted horseman.

For those not in that category of having natural ability it can be more of a struggle initially but there are guys out there who make significant progress in their careers by putting their heads down and getting stuck in.

Craig Williams wasn’t a natural horseman but he kept working at it. He went to England and did all sorts of things until he started getting his opportunities, which he has certainly made the most of, and we all know where he sits in the pecking order now.

Michael Hellyer comes to mind in this respect in terms of local riders. I’m sure Michael won’t mind me saying that he maybe wasn’t the most flash jockey early on but he has just worked his arse off … and he has continually improved. He stuck at it and now he is reaping the rewards of his efforts with rides on David Vandyke’s horses and opportunities like that. He has a lot to be proud of.

Having natural ability is a great start but it can only carry you so far and it does not guarantee success as a jockey, the same as not having natural ability does not necessarily lead to failure.

When riders go from jump outs and trials to race-days, riders move into another dimension and other differences are exposed. This is an environment in which quick decisions have to be made and, again, you are looking for someone who can make those decisions calmly.

Race pace is a whole different ball-game as is shown by the fact that there are some great trackwork riders who unfortunately didn’t make it as jockeys because, when they got into that race situation, they weren’t able to think on their feet type of thing. (By the way, there are also great jockeys who just can’t ride work. Sometimes you will find you are riding a Group 1 for a trainer on a Saturday and you might say do you want me to come and gallop the horse and he will say … no, no I’ll just stick to the bloke who rides it every day … and there is a message in there somewhere).

So, you are looking with someone with brains … a quick thinker with racing savvy or racing intelligence … whatever you want to call it.

We’ve all seen some very good riders who didn’t have that to the required level and they just blew it. Put them on a horse and they were outstanding. Subject them to the high-speed decision-making pressure of race day and they didn’t survive that well. (That is not a criticism. It just reflects how tough is it out there. Even at the best of times it is never plain sailing!)

Then you are looking for that swift thought to be complemented by sound riding principles.

You are looking at balance. You are looking at hands. You are looking at temperament. You are looking at attitude and I guess, these days, you are looking for someone who can also handle the off-track pressures and issues … dealing with media, owners and trainers and the general public’s views which often is not complimentary … well enough to not let any of that affect their riding performance.

Of course, the majority of these factors are continually being refined through experience and there are so many progressive boxes a rider has to tick to become a top jockey. It is therefore not surprising that only a very few have truly mastered the art of race riding.

The bottom line is whatever attributes you have in your bank as a jockey, if you don’t have a very strict work ethic on your list your career is likely to find some trouble somewhere along the way.

In fact, the old adage that there is no substitute for hard work rings true.

Matt McGillivray, for one, can vouch for that!

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Damian Browne
Damian Browne
Matthew McGillivray … pictured on the day he became a Group 1 winning rider
Matthew McGillivray … pictured on the day he became a Group 1 winning rider
Michael Hellyer and David Vandyke after their win with Baccarat Baby in the 2019 Sunshine Coast Guineas

Photos: Graham Potter and Darren Winningham
Michael Hellyer and David Vandyke after their win with Baccarat Baby in the 2019 Sunshine Coast Guineas

Photos: Graham Potter and Darren Winningham
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