Top of the World – down under

Author: Shane McNally Photo: Sharon Lee Chapman

Recently named the best in the world and the man who gets to ride one of the all-time greats, champion Australian jockey Hugh Bowman is at the peak of his powers.

The rest of the racing world is finally becoming aware of something Australian racegoers have known for at least a couple of years – that Hugh Bowman is the world’s best jockey and the Longines Awards have made it official.

Hugh Bowman and Winx.
Hugh Bowman and Winx.

 

Some would argue, with reasonable logic, that if he’s the best jockey in Australia, he’s the best anywhere. Parochialism, you think? Perhaps. But Australian riders are recognised for their ability to judge pace, manage larger fields than most racing centres and ride in tighter spaces than anywhere else on earth. Australia provides Hong Kong with a front row seat to the brilliance of jockeys like Brett Prebble, Zac Purton and Nash Rawiller, while triple Melbourne Cup winning legend Damien Oliver is still a force along with former Godolphin hoop Craig Williams. Yet Bowman has surpassed their deeds in recent years.

Bowman has established a remarkable relationship with superstar Winx but it’s the same for him as everyone else as the sun comes up over Randwick Racecourse in Sydney’s inner east or Rosehill in the west. Putting a Group 1 horse through its paces for leading trainer and regular employer Chris Waller or giving another trainer feedback on a newcomer, he’s out there an average of four times a week riding dozens of horses in trackwork or trials, whether the air is crisp with the promise of spring racing or heavy clouds make it the darkest of wet winter mornings.

“So my dreams have been realised in the form of Winx and I try to enjoy the experience as much as possible, even with all the hype that comes with being associated with such a supreme athlete”

The regular rider of the world’s best horse Winx – officially second best but who are they kidding? – Bowman can add handling outward pressure to that list of Australian qualities. As the mighty mare went past 15 straight wins, headed to 20 and then kept winning, the racing world watched not just the mare’s every step but also the great jockey’s every move.

Hugh Bowman.
Hugh Bowman.

It’s testament to Bowman’s stature perhaps, that he says his job aboard Winx is one of responsibility more than pressure. While a lesser jockey might succumb to the weight of expectation, Bowman thrives on it.

”It’s hard to explain the pressure of riding Winx,” he says. ”I don’t see it so much as pressure because all I can do is my job and put her in a position where she can do her job. I certainly feel a high level of responsibility, which can’t be ignored. As a young jockey, I dreamed more about being associated with a champion racehorse than winning any particular race. So my dreams have been realised in the form of Winx and I try to enjoy the experience as much as possible, even with all the hype that comes with being associated with such a supreme athlete.”

In the Australian spring of 2017, Bowman turned that responsibility into the sort of success on which legends are built. He started the campaign with an ”impossible” win after missing the start four lengths in the Group 2 Warwick Stakes at Randwick and finished it with Winx’s crowning glory in joining the immortal Kingston Town as the only three-time winner of the Group 1 Cox Plate at Melbourne’s Moonee Valley five starts and 70 days later. In both cases, racegoers thought the mare was beaten at one stage of each race but Bowman refused to panic and got the best out of the champion.

”The Warwick Stakes looked very dramatic because Winx missed the start badly,” he recalls. ”The only concern I had was when the horse I was following, Inference, was left flat footed when the pressure built and as I eased to the outside, we had a lot of ground to make up. Winx’s champion qualities were there for all to see.

”As for the Cox Plate, as surprised as I was to see Humidor so close to us (200m out), I can honestly say I didn’t feel threatened by his presence. The fact that Winx broke the track record for a second time suggests to me it was one of the performances of her career. The ground was firm and Winx is certainly more comfortable with ease in the ground, which has always been evident.”

Bowman says he is honoured to be named World’s Best Jockey but believes it’s a title that could go to a lot of quality riders around the globe with the right opportunities. Nothing much has changed in recent years, he suggests, other than making the most of those opportunities when they’ve come along.

”It’s a good talking point over a cold beer or nice glass of wine, however as nice as it sounds I don’t see myself as any better than my peers,” he says. ”I’ve been in the fortunate position of being the jockey of some of the world’s best racehorses, for which I’m very grateful.

”I’m not sure that my riding has gone to another level. I think the experience I’ve gained from riding internationally at different stages of my career has certainly helped me to have the confidence to ride or adapt to riding in different jurisdictions. As I said before though, the quality of thoroughbred I’ve had the opportunity to ride over the last couple of years – Winx, Werther and Cheval Grand to name just three – has certainly taken things to a new level for me.”

Bowman is so respected by Waller that the leading trainer postponed Winx’s return to racing to accommodate a rare recent suspension for the rider. Waller had access to some truly outstanding riders but he wasn’t risking his superstar with anyone but the best.

Life is very good for Hugh Bowman. He’s come a long way since he left the tiny town of Dunedoo in the Central West of New South Wales to start an apprenticeship at regional Bathurst, 200km west of Sydney in the Central Tablelands. He was a respected force in Australian racing even before he won his first Sydney jockeys’ premiership in 2009 and he’s since added another three titles to the list in one of the toughest competitions in the world. He’s ridden in Europe and hopes to take on that stage again and he’s won multiple Group 1 races in Hong Kong and capped a remarkable run last November when he drove Cheval Grand home in the Japan Cup.

Consider the numbers. Bowman has won almost 2000 races and more than 70 Group 1s. He’s earned almost $150 million for connections of the horses he’s ridden. While being selective about his rides puts him just fifth on this year’s Sydney premiership, his strike rate of almost 25 per cent is well ahead of every other jockey, including internationally-recognised Kerrin McEvoy and current leader Brenton Avdulla.

Hugh Bowman and Winx. Photo: Sharon Lee Chapman
Hugh Bowman and Winx. Photo: Sharon Lee Chapman

But it’s more than just the numbers and the achievements. It’s not just that the 37-year-old is recognised as the best and rides the best, he and wife Christine have made their home with young daughters Bambi and Paige in one of the great cities of the world. On his Twitter page, which features a sweeping photo of the Sydney Opera House, Bowman describes himself as a proud husband and father of two girls and adds ”I like to ride horses”. Is it any wonder the great jockey is happy to make overseas trips to ride but wants to keep calling the Harbour City his home? When he’s not parading Winx in front of thousands of adoring fans, studying the form and every idiosyncrasy of the horse he’s booked to ride and its opposition or taking the time to answer a barrage of media questions all through the week, the morning of the races and as he dismounts from every winner, he lives with his young family in the Sydney coastal suburb of South Coogee. It’s a stone’s throw from Randwick, has sweeping views over cliffs to the Pacific Ocean and is a million miles away from the expectations of race day.

”With a darling wife and two young children, aged four and two, my home life is quite structured and pretty much like anyone else at the same stage of their lives,” he says. ”I find it difficult if I have extended stays overseas, however usually I just travel in and out which suits me.”

A  lot of jockeys trying to make a living north of the equator would be happy the best in the business is half a world away from them in Sydney and only rides against them occasionally. He’s very hard to get past in a tight finish.

This story was published in Gallop Magazine, Spring 2018.

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