Rachel Hunt never hesitated when offered the ride on Highly Geared at Rosehill.
Now based in Sydney, the apprentice’s connection to a grieving yet resolute Canberra racing community means the eight-year-old mare stands out among her four bookings on Saturday.
Canberra racing is reeling from the death of popular trackwork and picnic jockey Samara Johnson in a car accident and Highly Geared can boost spirits when she runs in the Mark Hughes Foundation Handicap (1100m).
Highly Geared’s trainer Garry Kirkup, Johnson’s partner, will watch the race unfold from his hospital bed in Canberra while his son oversees raceday duties.
Ben Kirkup and fellow owners wanted a jockey with an affinity to Canberra to ride Highly Geared and Hunt was honoured to assume a role in paying tribute to the 25-year-old horsewoman.
“Ben wanted someone from Canberra and I was happy to ride the horse,” Hunt said.
Hunt spent two years in Canberra apprenticed to Keith Dryden before joining Mark de Montfort at Warwick Farm earlier this year.
“It’s a very close-knit family in Canberra, and I was part of that family. A lot of my very close friends are there,” she said.
Her closest friend, Riharna Thomson, was killed in a trackwork accident in March, leaving Hunt to lament a heartbreaking year for the capital’s racing community.
“Riharna was my best friend. This just makes it even harder, we lost Riharna and now we’ve lost Samara. They were both really close friends too. It sucks.”
Hunt said she would prepare for Highly Geared’s race like any other, though she acknowledged there was added significance attached to her performance.
“It’ll just be a little bit harder, that’s all. I want to do the best I can for Garry and Samara.”
Doug Gorrel, who trains next to Kirkup at Thoroughbred Park, has looked after his neighbour’s horses this week and was hopeful Highly Geared could defy the odds.
“I think she’ll give it a good shake. The result’s irrelevant but if she could fly and win it’ll give a lot of people a lot of joy,” he said.
Gorrel has checked in on his mate regularly and will watch the race with Kirkup in Canberra Hospital, where the 54-year-old is recovering from abdominal surgery.
“He’s shattered to lose his life partner,” Gorrel said.
“He’s going as well as can be expected.”