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Mount Gambier jockey Geoff O’Loughlin stages surprise comeback at 48

Geoff O’Loughlin weighed 56 kilograms and had just 2 per cent body fat when he “struggled” with his weight not being light enough.

He’s not crazy. He’s a jockey.

Things could have been different had he chosen to take growth hormones and play professional soccer in England as a child. Instead, he kept his height and set his heart on becoming a jockey.

O’Loughlin, based in Mount Gambier in South Australia, rode 431 winners in his 22-year career.

Had he weighed less, he could have recorded more wins — a common story in the industry.

“My weight was just spiralling between race rides because you don’t race consecutive days … it got too hard towards the end,” he said.

A man wearing a black riding helmet and high vis jacket sits on a horse in a stable.
Geoff O’Loughlin says he retired from racing when the sacrifice outweighed the reward.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

When O’Loughlin retired in 2010, he weighed 56 kilograms. At the time, the top weight allowed in handicap races was 57 kilograms, leaving the Mount Gambier jockey a narrow window within which to compete.

Now a decade later and a couple of kilos lighter, the 48-year-old made his return to competition racing last week at the Penola Racecourse.

No-one was more excited than his wife, trainer Belinda O’Loughlin.

When the two raced together they achieved a success rate of 23 per cent winners and 43 per cent placegetters, one of the best strike rates in country Australia.

“I’ve put a lot of jockeys on since Geoff retired … (but) Geoff… he’s one of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever had,” Belinda said.

A woman stands with a horse smiling, a man in a bright green jockey racing shirt stands next to her.
Geoff O’Loughlin was an apprentice and Belinda a strapper when the couple first met.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Boiling baths, long runs, one meal a week

Belinda recalls the decades in their relationship when Geoff would eat just one meal a week.

They would go for dinner with friends before a race and Geoff would ask to be picked up 5 kilometres down the road.

“And he would jog three quarters of the way home wrapped in great big thick jackets,” Belinda said.

The jackets were to help Geoff sweat more weight off before race day. There were lots of ways he did that.

“Public holidays made it hard in the country because the gyms would close so then you’re restricted to having hot baths to lose the weight,” Geoff said.

“I got to the stage where I thought I best … join the real world and get a job.”

A young man in a yellow racing jumper rides a horse around a grass track.
Geoff O’Loughlin on a winner in 1998.(Supplied: Geoff O’Loughlin)

Older, wiser and lighter

Geoff still has a three-days-a-week labouring job while he eases back into racing. He credits his job with helping to get his weight down.

“It’s constant movement, you’re just on the go all day,” Geoff said.

Belinda added: “He’s lost a fair bit of muscle bulk being older (as well) … he’s still able to maintain a reasonable diet.

“Hopefully this time around it will be a lot better for his body, it won’t be as stressful.”

The biggest stress is the nervous energy associated with getting back on the track.

“There was a fair bit of ribbing at first,” Geoff said.

‘I’ll have to prove myself again’

Although Geoff retired as a jockey, he always remained in the industry.

On top of full-time labour work, he has been helping his wife train their horses most mornings.

“There’re days where it’s hailing … and he’s soaked and he has to go in those wet clothes to work and then work an 8-hour day,” Belinda said.

“He’s never not worked for me, he’s been tireless.”

But, while he enjoyed his time “on the other side of the fence”, something was missing.

A large commentary tower stand next to a white set of stands next to a country racecourse.
The stage for Geoff O’Loughlin’s first race since returning from retirement, Penola Racecourse.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“There’s no better feeling than going full throttle on a thoroughbred in amongst a field; it’s a thrill that only a jockey’s going to get,” Geoff said.

That said, he is not expecting an easy ride as he returns to the racetrack.

“I’m by no means at my age thinking I’m going to step back in and all of a sudden I’m riding five or six days a week,” he said.

A silhouette of a woman walking a large horse in paddock with a cloudy sunrise behind them.
Belinda O’Loughlin almost gave up training when her favourite jockey, her husband Geoff, decided to retire.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

‘I missed him so much’

No-one is more excited about Geoff’s return than his wife, because she wants to “be able to share it with him again”.

“I got into training because it’s something Geoff and I did. I’m glad that coming back to race riding he’s got a chance to get those rewards back.

The sun rises over a quiet dirt race track, spreading colours of pastel blue, pink and orange.
Geoff has continued to help train Belinda’s horses most mornings, often before heading off to work.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Their relationship aside, Belinda appreciates the determination Geoff brings to the sport.

“If he’s made a mistake, he’ll take that blame upon himself … he’ll own it,” she said.

“I’m definitely looking forward to him coming back and riding for me.”

Back in the saddle

Their horse Runbro may not have been a placegetter at Penola on Tuesday, but the O’Loughlins were not too worried. They have found the winning formula before.

Either way, Geoff is just happy to be back.

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