North Queensland Cowboys grand finalist Aaron Payne has the luxury of pursuing a head coaching role in the NRL, while at the same time fulfilling a life-long dream of training winners and working closely with his beloved racehorses.
Payne played a total of 219 games for the Cowboys between 2002-2012, including the 2005 grand final loss to the Wests Tigers. Previously the head coach of the Cowboys under 20s during season 2016 and 2017, one of the most consistent hookers the game has seen is now the boss of a Cowboys ‘academy’ following the scrapping of the National Youth Competition, as well as overseeing kicking and catching with the NRL squad.
Remarkably, he found to the time to be a licensed trainer throughout the back end of his NRL career, getting his first ever win through a horse called Skywopa in 2009. Talking to JustHorseRacing, Aaron Payne relived his introduction to thoroughbred racing and his training career to date.
“For me it was just about, in my spare time, up skilling myself in something I was interested in,” he recalled.
“I got into the ownership side of things to start with, and then got my strappers license through a guy that was training here Matt Connor,”
“When I was still playing I did a lot of work experience, I went and did some work experience with John O’Shea and a couple of other big trainers, and I got a lot out of that.”
Working around a full time playing, training and coaching schedule from the beginning, Payne has adopted a unique style, contrary to traditional early starts with track work, walkers and swimming. On 120 aches outside Townsville, he has his own slow work track and does work usually of an afternoon following sessions carrying out his various coaching roles or administrative work.
“I ride all my own track work, so I can just work them in the afternoon. The beach is only 20 minutes away from where I live so they do some stuff there. Occasionally I got to the track if the tides don’t work out or we cop a bit of rain at home, but its not often.”
Aaron Payne is currently chasing career win number 24 in the grey silks with the red star, with the smart Kwanza in work at the moment, a 7-year-old gelding by Snitzel who currently has 6 wins and 6 minor places to his name from 42 starts. Overdue for a win, Kwanza has now been placed 3 runs in a row following Fridays 3rd placing behind Red Cavalry in a bold showing, carrying 62 kg.
He also has 5-year-old Drumbeats mare Chat Time who has just gone for a spell, as well as 2 others that are yet to race including one he bred himself, that he plans on starting work with shortly however concedes they are a while away from racing.
Payne admits he rarely has more then 1 or 2 horses in at a time due to work and travel commitments, nonetheless still has still earmarked feature Townsville races that he will likely target in the future.
“Obviously, ideally you’d love to win some of the feature races up here. I’ve run second twice in the Parry Nissan, which is the major 2-year-old race in North Queensland.” He said.
“It’s certainly a race I’d like to win but I don’t have a lot of babies so maybe a bit unrealistic at the moment, but certainly if I’ve got a 2 year old good enough down the track”
“The Townsville Cup and the Clevedon Bay are races that I’d love to win but I haven’t had a starter in either, I haven’t had one good enough, but hopefully down the track I’d love to train a horse that could win as a 2-year-old and go through the grades and win a major race, it would be fantastic. And then potentially head down south with a horse.”
As for Aaron Payne’s future in either career, the 35-year-old has the world at his feet. After so many years in the game of rugby league and a ‘foot in the door’ in coaching circles, he could well be the next ex-player to enter the NRL coaching ranks. At this stage though, he is not ruling out a large-scale thoroughbred training operation.
“To be honest, id love to take on an assistant coaching role for an NRL side, I’d love it to be the cowboys but obviously there are guys that are there at the moment that are doing a great job.”
“In saying that, I really do love my time away from the coaching side of things with the horses.” He stated.
“Nothing’s to say, if coaching doesn’t work out, that I’ll get more heavily into training horses and get a team of 10 or 12 going, or potentially even going and working for a big stable, and that’s something I wouldn’t mind doing either”.
Payne has a handy career record to date, coming in for the money almost 1 in 3 starts with 60 minor places from 271 starts. Based in Townsville, he has previously had horses start at Eagle Farm and Doomben, yet primarily successful at country North Queensland tracks such as Townsville, Home Hill, Cairns, Ewan and Atherton.
He has had a prolific partnership with jockeys Stephen Wilson and Graham Kliese, with both hoops coming in for 5 wins and 11 minor places for the trainer, both reaping dividends almost 50% of the time. Payne insists his galloper Kwanza is one to watch when given a chance on a wet track, with the 43-start veteran winning 4 races to date on soft and heavy tracks.
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