"It was an emotional race for me, the Cox Plate."
GROWING UP on a property outside Dunedoo in the NSW Central West, Hugh Bowman has been riding horses since he was two. Before he was 14 he’d done just about everything on a horse, bar “back one out a chute” (what bush types call rodeo). Young Bowman knew the horse. Old boys, observers, noted his hands and his carriage, his “feel” on horseback. They told him and his parents that he was too good to be bombing around picnic races – that he could make a good go of the jockey life. Bowman liked the sound of it. A driven, goal-oriented lad, he was apprenticed at Bathurst, and rode a hundred winners. He headed to Ron Quinton’s stables in Sydney, broke his arm early in the season, and still rode 65 winners. Then they put him on Exceed And Excel, the brilliant sprinter, the Danehill colt. And that animal won everything. And Bowman was away, into the stratosphere, one of the racing game’s elite, up there with “names” like Beadman, Cassidy and Oliver. And he’s still up there today, at 35, battling away with 24-year-old punks James McDonald and Tommy Berry for the title of very best jockey in the land. He spoke to Matt Cleary.
Last year you addressed the Sydney Roosters NRL club. Anything in the speech about staying off the drink?
Ironically I was out with them the night [the Mitchell Pearce incident] it happened. Well, I wasn’t with them. I went out to dinner with my wife, then went and had a beer with a couple of mates. I got there and my mates were saying the Roosters boys were here. They’d been on the boat and they were good, well-behaved. They were pissed but they were fine. They were getting selfies with me. Everyone was getting selfies with them. And I thought, "They’re just targets." Anyone else out doing the same thing ‒ and everyone else was ‒ there’d be no problem.
WS Cox Plate, Moonee Valley last year. You’re on Winx, the favourite, and with 300 to go you’re bombing around the turn and smashing them, six lengths in front. When did you know you had it?
Once I got to the 200 I was pretty sure. It was an amazing feeling. It’s an emotional race for me, the Cox Plate. I rode Lion Tamer in 2011; it was probably my most challenging time on a race course. He was fatally injured after the race. I’d won the Derby on him the year before. And Winx ... the Cox Plate was a bit of a query; it was a step up in class. But she had been so dominant in races leading up to it. I thought she could win by five lengths or not figure at all. One or the other. And it’s interesting that she went out and was so dominant.
The feel underneath you must have been fantastic. If anything, she was going away. It must be close to the biggest buzz in your game ...
Exactly. When I went through and got on the corner I was in top gear. I got on the right leg and I didn’t try to rush, I just helped her round the corner and she was still at top gear when I balanced up in the straight. I swapped legs and she quickened again! And then to sustain a gallop, it’s very rare for a horse to sustain a sprint at any level.
Afterwards you were heading back to the enclosure and there were tears. Surprising?
Obviously I’m driven and want to do my best and I want success. I try to keep emotions on a level whether I’m doing well or things aren’t going my way. It’s something I strive for but it’s my nature as well. So yeah, it was a bit of surprise. I suppose it showed how much it meant to me.
Chris Waller trains Winx, along with so many other great animals. He always deflects praise but he’s got something special. What has he got?
He has an amazing knack to put longevity into the animals. He doesn’t focus a lot on his young horses, though he’s won some great races with two-year-olds, particularly in Brisbane late in the season. But it’s these older horses that have been brought to him from overseas, horses that have had an education, that he seems to be able to rejuvenate and take them to another level. He’s set the bar world-wide. There’s also his ability to think outside the mould. There’s his management skills, the way he deals with staff, horses, owners. It’s extraordinary. And with all these different qualities he’s able to get the best out of his horses.
Remember your first meeting with Bart Cummings?
I do. It was humbling. I was certainly starstruck. Bart, he had an amazing way with people. He wouldn’t give much away. He usually took time to say hello but it’d depend on what sort of mood he was in. But when he took the time he was certainly worth listening to.
You’re 35 and a senior man now. On behalf of all the guys in your game, what’s something you’d improve in racing?
I think the current whip rule needs attention. To me it lacks practicality of the highest degree. And I think this rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne ... No one’s a bigger fan of Melbourne racing than me; I love it down there. But the programming could be better. But overall I think racing’s in a healthy position. We’ve got the benefit of an excellent breeding industry. That’s where Japan also does very well, and England and Ireland. They’ve been at it for centuries.
Racing has had its issues with cobalt. As a jockey can you feel if a horse has been got at? Have you ever got off one and thought, ‘Wow, that ran a lot better than it ever has’?
Not really, no. But then I’m not someone who thinks like that. Some people may. Punters are very sceptical by nature. I never think like that ever. Obviously when it all came out, you might think, I tried to get past a certain horse and it just wouldn’t stop. But I don’t think cobalt made bad horses good. It might’ve given them a bit of an extra second wind when the ding-dong go is on. But I would never think of it. The whole thing’s disappointing.
Damien Oliver was suspended for ten months for betting on another horse in the same race. Did you agree with the length of that punishment?
To be honest, that’s none of my business. He made a mistake, obviously, and was charged. But again, I’d rather not be worrying about or thinking about other people’s business. I’d rather just worry about myself. And I think that’s one of my strengths. It’s very easy to be sucked in to worrying what other people are doing. And you hear it all the time, why someone’s going so well. Soon as a trainer’s going well, you hear it – “What’s he got? What’s he using?” And I just don’t think like that because everyone has their chance.
How were you as a kid, coming to Sydney, riding at metropolitan race meetings?
I’d had a good grounding. I’d ridden a hundred winners in the bush. I came to Sydney in June of 2002 and I fell off, broke my arm, had six weeks out. Early August and we’re heading into the Spring Carnival and I was back riding in provincial meetings. And in five weekends while all the top jocks were in Melbourne I rode three trebles and two doubles for city trainers. And hung around and had 65 winners. It laid a platform.
Getting on Exceed And Excel was a turning point in your career?
Exceed And Excel was the first really good horse I rode. That sort of gave me an introduction to Melbourne; it got me up to that level. It didn’t keep me there.
It must’ve given you confidence that the connections and trainer had the confidence to put you on it ...
That’s right. Though [owner] Nick Moraitis didn’t want me on the horse. But I kept winning on him so he couldn’t take me off! Everyone needs a chance.
You had five weeks' riding in Japan either side of last Christmas. How was that?
It was challenging. And like all experiences, it was a good one. Main thing was weight. I was having to ride too light. To get rides, I had to do it. I was there on my own away from family. There’s no English spoken.
How’d you speak to owners and trainers to get instructions?
It was lovely – I didn’t get instructions! They left it up to me. And in my feedback I tried to be very simple and explain things in layman terms. Trainers could understand English, they’d travelled a bit, so there wasn’t a lot lost in translation. But it wasn’t easy, for me or them.
What’s the culture of punting in Japan? They have TABs?
They go to the track. The gambling side of things is huge. In Australia it’s a culture, like a bit of fun. I think the Japanese do it more as an interest. But the Chinese, they do it to make money.
How did you relax between race meetings?
I had a lot of down time. The races are Saturday and Sunday. I rode work on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Rest of the time I had to myself. Went to a couple of wine bars. Saw some karaoke. I was with my translator a lot, and a bit isolated. But what I enjoyed was going out to dinner. The food was amazing. Enjoyed the culture. Found the Japanese people very welcoming even though there was a language barrier. Everyone’s very pleasant. And quiet!
People are quiet in Japan?
Two things I noticed: how clean the taxi driver’s shoes were when I got off the plane. And how loud the flight home was. On the BA flight to the UK, I really noticed the different manner in us. I was there that long, it was interesting. I got back to Ireland with the family and everyone’s normal but I found it loud! Almost imposing. I was only in Japan six weeks ...
Reckon you could live there? Move the mob over?
I wouldn’t because of the weight. But they wouldn’t let me anyway; they wouldn’t license me. I can only go for three months a year. There are two expats there full-time, both light-weight. You need to ride at 52 kilos to get a license, and speak fluent Japanese.
What about Ireland?
I’d love to spend an extended period there in the UK, and the rest of Europe. I rode in Ireland for ten weeks when I met my wife, but that was more a working holiday. But when I went to the UK, that was more fair dinkum. And really enjoyed it. I’d love to spend more time in Europe; it’s a goal of mine. But the reality is they race for no money. I’m sure if I spent time there I could find a good contract. But I don’t see the point of giving up my position here to get a contract there. From a business point of view it seems a step in the wrong direction. But they’ve got the best horses, excluding maybe Japan. And I love the racing. It’s the home of racing and you can ride all over Europe, which inspires me. But it’s very hard to leave here.
Do you like Guinness?
I drank Guinness. It’s good. But you couldn’t drink it all the time. When I go there I say I’m not going to eat and drink much. But Christine’s got family everywhere and they’re all feeding you. And all I wanted to do was get into the pubs, get on the scoops. I came back one time and it took me two months to get back. Even this last time, two weeks, long enough. It’s the volume of those pints. Drink five pints of water a night, you wouldn’t fit it in ...
I googled “James Hugh Bowman” and came up with a listing at the Australian War Memorial, a private killed in the Second World War in Malaya ...
That’s who I’m named after: my great uncle, my grandfather’s brother. He was an athlete. Grandfather was too. They were both first XV rugby players, first VIII rowers at boarding school. They were big men – don’t know where I came from! And they were farmers. When they went back to the farm, they got called for duty. There were three of them: grandfather, his brother and his cousin. Two out of three had to go, one had to stay and look after the properties. They went down the river and drew straws. Two went and never came back. Grandfather stayed.
Wow. And here we are
And here we are ...