Jockey Brad Parnham has ridden as many metaphorical waves as he has winners in his 15-year career to date, providing his winning double at Belmont last Saturday with more sentimental value than you’d expect for the standard ratings races they were classified as.
Just six months ago, a rapidly-progressing career which saw Parnham finish equal-second to champion hoop William Pike at the end of WA’s 2016/17 metropolitan jockeys’ premiership, appeared destined for a premature ending following complications stemming from a nasty race fall in January 2018.
The immediate prognosis in the aftermath of the fall were fractured vertebrae, however, the eventual outcome was spinal fusion surgery and a frustrating 18-month wait on the sidelines, not to mention the growing concern of never being able to return to the job he loves.
Parnham, 31, is the son of Hall of Fame trainer Neville and is one of a trio of sibling jockeys, in-between brothers Steven and Chris.
Born into the racing industry and bred in Perth’s thoroughbred hub, Ascot, he says he was always going to be a jockey and left his schooling at private boys’ school, Trinity College, to commence his apprenticeship midway through year 10.
“I was 15 when I had my first race ride,” he said.
“I suppose nowadays you look at it and seems young, but back then it was pretty normal.
“A lot of the apprentices that came through just before me started when they were 15, too, so it just seemed normal to me at the time.”
After out-riding his claim in just over 18 months, Parnham had to wait another four months until his 18th birthday to officially complete his apprenticeship.
At age 19 he claimed the 2008 Group 2 Karrakatta Plate and Group 3 WA Sires’ Produce Stakes with Brava Fortune, a juvenile trained by his father, and his status in local riding ranks started to elevate further after he caused a boilover in the 2011 Group 2 Perth Cup aboard Guest Wing.
The door to new opportunities began to open following his win in the time-honoured feature race, including being granted a temporary stay to ride in Mauritius in 2013.
“I’d been asked to go over there a few times but didn’t really know much about it,” Parnham said.
“Sometimes when you get opportunities, you take them, and I knew Perth was always going to be here, so I decided to head over there.
“I wasn’t riding for a top stable or anything, but it was a good experience that was cut short when I hurt my knee after a trackwork fall.
“I was there for about three months and then I had to come home.”
Although his overseas journey was forced to end sooner than anticipated due to his injury, Parnham was still given the taste he needed and was keen to explore similar opportunities in the future.
His newfound interest led to him lodging an application to ride in Singapore two years later and, after overcoming an early setback, he spent three months plying his craft at Kranji racecourse.
“I had a bit of bad luck when I first got to Singapore,” he said.
“I had a race fall on my first ride there and broke my collarbone, so it wasn’t a good start.
“I think I started riding there about six weeks later, but I ended up doing okay and it was a good experience.
“It’s not an easy place to break into but I managed to ride a few winners, so I was pretty happy with what happened there.”
Parnham credits the experience he gained riding at Singapore as being instrumental to his development as a rider in recent years.
Asked if the noticeably-improved hoop honed any skills in particular during his international ventures, he believes his progression is a continual work in progress.
“My riding is something that I always work on,” Parnham said.
“I think that I’ve improved naturally throughout my whole career, but definitely after riding in Singapore because you’re with jockeys who have ridden all over the world.
“There were really good riders from Australia, South Africa and even Italy there, so you sort of take bits and pieces you like from those riders.
“You just pick up little things and try them and find out what works for you.
“As you get older you pick up little one-percenters along the way, so I wouldn’t say there was any big drastic change, just a lot of little things that add up to quite a lot down to the track.”
Parnham’s riding went to another level when he returned home and, after an equal-second finish in WA’s metropolitan jockey premiership two years ago, he had his eyes set on cementing his position as a permanent top-three jockey in Perth.
His momentum was brought to an abrupt halt, however, after he fell aboard the Stephen Miller-trained Scooner in a 2100m event at Ascot on January 20, 2018.
The gelding clipped heels and blundered at the 800m mark, plummeting Parnham into the turf and leaving him with debilitating injuries that, unbeknown to him, would threaten the possibility of him ever riding again.
“I don’t remember the actual fall,” Parnham said.
“I remember the lead-up to it but, once I clipped heels, I suffered a fair bit of concussion and my memory is pretty clouded after that.
“I was in pretty big denial afterwards, I didn’t think it was as bad as everyone was carrying on.
“Maybe it was the concussion because, even though I was in a neck brace and the x-rays said I had fractured vertebrae, I sort of just brushed it off and thought it wouldn’t be long until I was back again.”
Parnham concedes it wasn’t until a meeting with his neurosurgeon that he realised the extent of the damage he had incurred.
Despite following his initial recommended recovery plan, his neck and back had failed to show the improvement his doctors had been hoping for and, if he wanted to try to resurrect his jockey career, he had little option but to attempt a rather risky procedure.
Spinal fusion surgery.
“I had surgery to get my C4 and C5 fused and the idea was to stabilise those vertebrae,” Parnham said.
“That was supposed to fix the problem, but then I waited my six months or so and went back to the doctors and the fusion had caused some instability between my C3 and C4.
“My surgeon said that I wasn’t able to fuse them as well because a double-fusion was going to be too risky for me to go back and ride, because my neck would be too stiff.
“He suggested doing physio, so I did that and went back about three months later and he said it was still no good, so he started to say things along the lines of it possibly never getting better.
“The only way it could would be if I didn’t just do normal physio, but train hard and try and strengthen the muscles, tendons and everything around it.
“He said it was up to me and I could bite the bullet and quit my riding career if I wanted, or I could go to the gym every day and do the specific exercises to strengthen my back and neck.
“I was only given about a 20 per cent chance that it would fix the problem, but I was prepared to take the punt and put the hard yards in.”
For the next three-and-a-half months, Parnham underwent a stringent training program developed for him by his physiotherapist, as well as spending two days each week under the instruction of renowned personal trainer, Matt Fuller.
He met with his doctor at the start of August following his last-ditched attempt at a comeback and, in a stark turnaround, he was finally given the green light to return to the saddle.
“I was pleasantly surprised that it worked because I had been given such a low chance,” he said.
“I had worked hard for it, but every time I was going back I was getting bad news.
“For about 15 months it was just bad news after bad news, so I didn’t really go in there expecting to hear good news.
“There were times where I didn’t think I’d ride again and I certainly wasn’t in the best frame of mind.
“The surgeon said it definitely wouldn’t have healed the way it did without the training, so I owe a lot to my trainers for getting me back.”
Parnham wasn’t the only one delighted to see him be given the all-clear, with his twin daughters also welcoming the news.
Hayley and Kiara, 10, have grown up in the racing bubble, similar to Parnham during his own childhood, and he says he had to prepare them for the possibility of their father not riding again.
“The girls were disappointed when I wasn’t riding,” Parnham said.
“I was talking to them about the possibility of me not riding again and they were pretty disappointed about it.
“They’re happy with me being back out there race-riding now, because I suppose they’ve grown up all their lives knowing that’s what I do and they like coming along to the races.”
Parnham’s weight blew out to as much as 65 kilos during his injury-enforced lay-off and, after training intensely to get himself back into race-riding condition, he made his long-awaited return at Belmont on August 14.
It took him a couple of weeks to find his groove in the saddle again, however, he looked back to his best when lifting Guns of Navarone home in the Amelia Park Handicap at Belmont last Saturday, a horse owned by his parents and trained by his father, adding another special touch to the milestone.
He didn’t have to wait long to experience the winning feeling again, saluting aboard Dutch Spy in the D’Orsogna Handicap just two races later to bring up the second leg of a winning double.
“Obviously we’d been focusing on my neck in training, but after that we focused on my whole body to try and get myself lean,” he said.
“I started doing a few different things, going to spin classes and I was pretty strict with my diet, just eating a lot of vegetables and ordinary food for quite a while.
“It was pretty special to ride a winner for Mum and Dad first up and to get a double was a pretty good bonus.
“It felt like all my hard work leading up to that moment was worth it, so it was really pleasing.”
Although he has already made a successful comeback to race riding after the odds were stacked heavily against him, Parnham insists he still has a long way to go until he is content.
Asked what he’d like to achieve over the next 12 months, his motivation to get back to the form he had in the saddle prior to his fall is clear.
“My goal is to be able to ride 54 at the start of Ascot in about a month, but that might be a bit ambitious,” Parnham said.
“I’d like to finish in the top five riders this season, but obviously it will take a while to build up a base of rides again, so I don’t know if I can do it.
“But I’d like to have a good successful season to set me up to finish in the top five riders next season.
“If I could ride a couple of feature winners along the way, too, I’d be pretty happy with that.”