Michael Walker has just picked up the plumb ride on Criterion for the Caulfield Stakes and Cox Plate. It is another feather in the cap for the jockey who took New Zealand racing by storm when he won the Jockeys Premiership as an apprentice. We caught up with him to learn more about his career and how it all started.
Do you come from a racing background?
I actually don’t. I had an Uncle who was a jockey but I never followed them when I was a little kid. Growing up I wanted to be a boxer and then a league player because I was quite big when I was younger, than everyone else grew. My passion for horses then kicked in and I wanted to be a jockey.
You started at a young age working for Allan Sharrock in the stables. How did that opportunity come about?
It is funny how that worked out. My uncle knew Colin Jillings who was a Champion trainer in New Zealand and took me to his stables one morning to be apprenticed to him. I met Colin and he looked at me from my head to my toes and when he looked down at my feet he said I would not make it as a jockey as my feet were to big. Little did he know that I had my cousin’s boots on and they were five sizes to big. That was all I could get when you grow up poor. I was a bit disheartened there.
I then went to Allan Sharrock’s stable in Waitara where my Nan moved to with her boyfriend. My Nan obviously brought me up. I went to his stable and I got knocked back again. He was in partnership with his father and he had just broken away as his father had retired and he didn’t want any pressures of having an apprentice so he said no to me.
Me being me and stubborn I didn’t care and I turned up at the stables that afternoon and he asked me what I was doing there and that he didn’t want a jockey. I said I am just going to work here and it started from there. A week later I was on a horse and two weeks later I was riding gallops and then three weeks later I was riding in jump outs.
In your first year as an apprentice you won the Jockeys Premiership with 131 winners. What a way to kick start your career?
I was very fortunate. I had ridden in trials from the age of eleven to fifteen. For me it was a buzz. I think I was paid $20 a ride so I had to set up a bank account so I could be paid. Everyone sort of knew that I could sit on but I didn’t know what was good and what was bad, I just did my thing and everyone said I was just a natural and it went from there.
When I kicked off it took me a month to ride my first winner and then another month to ride my second one and then in the last ten months I rode 129 winners. I think that in two months in a row I rode about 30 winners a month so I was flying.
Your partnership with Sharrock was very successful with 653 winners. Why do you think the partnership was so successful?
I think because I had been with him from such a young age at eleven and started riding for him at fifteen it was a father and son relationship as I didn’t have a father growing. He treated me like his son and I treated him like my father and we still are to this day very close. We speak all time every week and he rings me up when he sees me riding bad which I respect and him seeing me as a son he’s naturally going to do that.
Who did you look up to as a young jockey for advice and guidance?
A guy in New Zealand called Hayden Tinsley was my idol growing up. We are really good friends still. He was a lovely balanced rider with cool hands and cool head and he was someone I looked up to.
Tell us about your first Group One win in Australia on Danestom in the Brisbane Cup? It was a highly rated ride from many judges.
I was fortunate that he was one of those horses that raced up on the speed and I ended up with a beautiful run and I beat the favourite. I thought he could win and I needed too as I finished second on him in the Adelaide Cup and that was a Group One and I rode him half a kilo over weight. He had 50kg and I rode 50.5kg. Then in the Brisbane Cup to get down to the 50kg weight and come away with the win was really satisfying.
You hit a bit of a rode bump soon after and went off the rails. Was that due to the pressure you put on your own shoulders or the public expectations?
It was a bit of both I would say. I tend to look at my life now and I think I don’t look behind me because eventually you are going to get a sore neck looking back so I look to the future so I have forgotten all that stuff.
You returned to NZ in 2005 and linked up with Mark Walker which was another great partnership. That certainly re-ignited your career?
I was sort of in a bit of a limbo as I was riding over in Singapore and travelling overseas riding a lot and I was in Singapore when they rang and I said I would come back. For me it was a huge stepping stone being linked with Mark Walker, David Ellis and the Te Akau racing stables. They were really good to me and treated me well and we had a lot of success.
In 2008 you almost died after falling down a cliff while out pig hunting. Tell us about your injuries? Was that a turning point in your life?
May the 19th 2008 I will remember that day. I don’t know much of what happened but it was a turning point. I carked it a couple of times and was bleeding in over 30 places in my brain and I was on life support. They said I would not live and if I did I was going to be a fruit loop or vegetable but I got through that. Then I was told I would never ride again but personally I think I came back a year too early. It has only been the last two years that I have felt right again.
Sean Buckley handed you a life line to return to Melbourne in 2010. Was it a hard decision to comeback? Or was it a case of unfinished business?
I am very fortunate that Sean Buckley is a very good friend. He brought a horse to New Zealand called Dane Julia and I won a Group One on her then a year later he brought her again and I rode her. He then said he bought Wealth Princess from New Zealand and he wanted me to go to Brisbane to ride her so I did. We won the Glenlogan Park Stakes at Doomben and then took her back to Melbourne so I also went to Melbourne. He asked me to ride for him there so I did.
I rode for him for a few years and got going then I linked up with Nigel Blackiston and had a good stint with him and then I was injured and when I came back David Hayes picked me up.
You stuck up a great partnership with Hayes & Dabering. How much are you enjoying your racing at the moment?
I am loving it. I get a little disheartened sometimes when I get taken off horses here and there but that’s the way it works in big operations. I am definitely not number one there but I get the majority of the rides but I do the work. David Hayes and Tom Dabering and their owners and staff are amazing people. I can not thank them enough for what they have given me.
Is there a horse we should be keeping an eye on this Spring that could be worth following?
WaWail. She should have won the other day first up. I have won a couple of Group races on her now. She runs next Saturday. It would not surprise me if she wins one of the Group One fillies and mares races.
What advice would you give a 15 year old version of yourself?
Come and have a talk to me before you make any decisions. I am always happy to help anyone. From that age of fifteen years and on my advice would be to come to me and I would bend over backwards to help and guide you. Much like I have done with my mate Damien Lane.