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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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Jockey Hugh Bowman cops six-week ban over race fall that saw horse euthanised, fellow rider hospitalised


Prominent jockey Hugh Bowman has been suspended for his role in a race-day fall that forced a horse to be euthanised and left a rival jockey hospitalised with multiple broken bones.

Bowman, who piloted Winx to many of her victories, was banned for six weeks for careless riding aboard Smart Image at the final meeting of the 2019-20 season at Rosehill.

Bowman was attempting to angle off the fence on Smart Image near the 300-metre mark to position himself outside the heels of the leader, Mr Colorful, ridden by Glyn Schofield.

As he shifted, he made heavy contact with Andrew Adkins’ mount Hot ‘N’ Hazy, which clipped heels and fell.

The horse was euthanised, while Adkins broke both bones in one of his legs, fractured his shoulder and suffered seven broken ribs.

He underwent surgery on his injuries, including having a rod placed in his leg, a plate in his collar bone and had to have a chest tube inserted to relieve a collapsed lung.

A jockey in a red shirt with white hearts is seen from behind running down a racetrack towards a black curtain between two cars.
Jockey Andrew Adkins was left with serious injuries and horse Hot ‘N’ Hazy was put down after the fall.(AAP: Bianca De Marchi)

Bowman maintained his position that he took due care aboard Smart Image and other factors contributed to the scrimmage.

Bowman said the social media reaction to his role in the raceday fall had taken a toll on him and his family, and before the hearing said he would “like that to be considered” in any penalties.

He pleaded not guilty to the charge of careless riding and said while head-on footage showed there was insufficient room for his horse between Mr Colorful and Hot ‘N’ Hazy, the rear angle presented a different case.

Bowman did admit his timing might have been slightly out because he had not ridden in a race for five weeks and also expressed remorse at the consequences suffered by Adkins and Hot ‘N’ Hazy.

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“Unfortunately, the injuries sustained to Andrew, they’re not life-threatening but they’re significant,” Bowman said.

“I’ve been found careless and despite the fact of pleading not guilty, I am remorseful the incident happened.

“I understand what we do is dangerous and split-second decisions can turn out to have bad consequences, as one has in this case.”

Stewards generally use a careless-riding template to determine penalty but that was thrown out the window due to the seriousness of the incident.

Presiding stipe Wade Birch said their starting point was a three-month ban, but given Bowman’s outstanding safety record — he has been suspended once for careless riding in the past 12 months — and the number of feature race meetings he will miss, the penalty was reduced to six weeks.

Bowman has not taken rides at Randwick on Saturday and will begin his suspension immediately.

He will miss the first Group One race of the Sydney season, the Winx Stakes on August 22, and will return for a carnival meeting at Rosehill on September 12.

AAP/ABC



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Meet Australian jockey Zac Purton and the Aussies racing to riches in Hong Kong


Updated

January 04, 2020 05:58:54

At just 14 years of age, Zac Purton made a decision that would change his life.

He decided to skip school for a day.

“I jumped at the opportunity,” Purton recalls with a cheeky smile.

Instead of walking through the gates of Coffs Harbour High, the schoolboy went to an RSL club for a jockey recruitment seminar.

Not long after, before finishing year nine, Zac walked away from the classroom permanently to join a local stable and become a student of horse racing.

“I studied all the best jockeys around the world; I asked them a lot of questions to try to find out how they think,” he says.

“I just tried to replicate what they do.”

The 37-year-old is now one of the best jockeys on earth, and the reigning champion rider in Hong Kong.

He piloted horses that won a record $43 million ($HK235 million) in prize money last season, and personally pocketed at least $2 million from that haul.

The boy from the bush is a celebrity in a Chinese region where horse racing is the number one spectator sport.

Turning an issue into a career

The megabucks of Hong Kong’s racing scene are furlongs away from Purton’s humble beginnings.

“I had terrific parents and a good family, but we never had a lot of money.”

Purton was born in Lismore, New South Wales and lived in New Zealand and South Australia before his parents settled on the NSW mid-north coast. His dad Phil drove taxis while mum Liz took to running a laundromat.

The couple soon became worried about their eldest son’s development and Zac was diagnosed with delayed growth. He was years behind other kids his age.

Even when he started with local horse trainer Trevor Hardy, he weighed just 27 kilograms and was too weak to control a 500-kilogram thoroughbred around a racetrack.

“It definitely hasn’t been smooth sailing all the way through,” he says.

But his raw talent was undeniable.

Within four years of his first race, Purton claimed the 2003 Brisbane jockeys’ premiership — while still an apprentice.

Before long, he was 24 years old and gambling his own future on the glitzy Asian racing hub of Hong Kong.

“I thought, ‘If I want to take my skills to the next level, I have to go and test myself in the toughest environment in the world.'”

Best in the world?

After more than a decade, Purton has certainly passed that test.

In 2014, he became just the third Australian to win Hong Kong’s jockeys’ championship, and has twice reclaimed that crown.

For every hour the Australian has raced at Happy Valley or Sha Tin racecourses this season, his horses have claimed about $2 million ($HK10.5 million) in prize money.

Jockeys get 10 per cent of the cheque for each win and 5 per cent for a placing.

“Zac Purton could be the best jockey in the world,” says Hong Kong-based Australian journalist Michael Cox.

“He dominated last season.”

Purton appears in ads on billboards and trams around the city — sporting a three-piece suit with bowtie in some and racing silks in others — and cannot go anywhere without being recognised.

“It is nice that people on the street wish me luck and say hello,” he says.

“But I quite like the anonymity that’s involved with going home [to Australia] and just being able to morph back into society.”

While his contract limits the time he can spend racing outside Hong Kong, Purton has also claimed major Group One races on Australian tracks, including the Caulfield Cup in Melbourne and Doncaster Handicap in Sydney.

Escaping the unrest

Around $250 million ($HK1.35 billion) in bets are placed on every race meeting in the territory, which is home to about 7 million people.

“Hong Kong racing features the highest per race prize money in the world, and huge betting pools,” Mr Cox says.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club is the largest single taxpayer in the semi-autonomous region. And luckily for its battered government, racing escaped 2019’s pro-democracy unrest mostly unscathed.

Gambling revenue during the first three months of this season — an estimated $6.5 billion ($HK35 billion) — was roughly the same as last year.

That’s despite crowds plunging by an estimated 40 per cent and several meetings being cancelled as a precaution.

“I think they’ve done very well to avoid the type of trouble that other organisations in Hong Kong have suffered,” Mr Cox says.

“[But] the Hong Kong Jockey Club would be very nervous.”

How nervous? The territory’s unloved leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, stayed away from the opening race day of the season where the feature event was the Chief Executive’s Cup.

Relationships the key

The jockey club is one of the city’s most elite institutions, boasting a membership list stacked with the rich and influential.

Building relationships with two of the wealthiest horse owning families, the Kwoks and the Sius, has powered Purton’s career.

The Kwoks started an Asian cosmetics empire now worth about $1 billion and their aptly-named Beauty Generation is rated the fourth-best thoroughbred in the world. Purton has ridden it exclusively over the past two seasons.

“He really does handle his off-track business in a very professional manner and his relationships with the trainers and the owners,” Mr Cox says.

The straight-talking Aussie was previously out of favour with leading trainers but now he’s regularly aboard the best horses owned by the most powerful racing families.

“That business side of racing here … can be the difference between jockeys of equal ability making it and not making it.”

Purton will meet owners morning, afternoon or night for coffee or a meal, talking with them about their horses while in turn collecting nuggets of business and financial advice.

“I’m interested in their story, how they’ve been successful, the way they think, the way that they run their businesses,” he says.

“I try and absorb that and when it comes to making a decision, I can put all that into practice.”

High reward, low risk

Purton now has a growing investment portfolio of property, shares and other assets, as he and wife Nicole work to give their children Roxy and Cash the best start in life.

“If I’m going to do the right thing by my family, [Hong Kong] is the place that is going to set us up,” he says.

“I’ve got a lifespan as a jockey; I’ve got to make the most of it while I can.

“Hopefully I invest wisely and when I do retire, I’ve got enough passive income coming in to continue to enjoy my life.”

Fellow Australians Blake Shinn and Regan Bayliss call the city home, while a handful of other Aussies — including champion Hugh Bowman — regularly jet north for hit-and-run missions.

Journalist Michael Cox says Hong Kong’s lure for horsemen is simple to explain: “Huge prize money, low tax, and racing twice a week only.”

Aussie trainers raking it in

While the club’s riding championship has often proved elusive for Australians, the opposite is true for trainers.

In nearly five decades of professional racing in the jurisdiction, Aussies have claimed the training crown for most wins in a season over 30 times.

Queenslander John Size has notched up 11 premierships since touching down in 2001 and holds the record for most prize money won in a season — $32 million ($HK176 million) in 2017/18.

Size only claimed his latest championship after going neck and neck with fellow Australian John Moore until the final day of last season.

Not that Moore is short of trophies and accolades; he holds the Hong Kong records for all-time career wins and prize money.

“I’ve earned in excess of $HK1.5 billion ($340 million) in the 30 years I’ve been here,” Moore says.

“That’s probably a GDP to some of the countries [around the world]!”

The Moore dynasty

Moore has called Hong Kong home since 1971 after heading to Asia for a “working holiday” as a junior jockey.

His late father George Moore — a legendary rider in Australia during the 1950s and 1960s — soon followed and the pair trained horses together for many years.

George Moore claimed 11 trainers’ premierships with John as his assistant.

“The Moore family was very important to the building of Hong Kong racing in the 70s and early 80s,” John Moore says.

Now, it’s John’s son George and the bloodstock business he runs in Hong Kong — finding and selecting horses from around the world for buyers – that will help continue the family’s connection to racing in the region.

Why? Because this is John Moore’s last season as a trainer in the city.

He’s about to turn 70, hitting a local age limit the jockey club previously extended just for him.

Now to tick some remaining items off his wish list, including back home.

“I still haven’t won a Group One [in Australia],” John Moore says.

“So that’s definitely part of the bucket list.”

Topics:

sport,

horse-racing,

hong-kong

First posted

January 04, 2020 05:55:28



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