Racing can be a fickle game and there are few who have copped as many bumps and bruises along their journey as Lee Newman.
There are even less who have overcome gruelling setbacks, not once, twice, but several times, to return to their former glory.
Call him fiercely determined, incredibly persistent or even a bit crazy, Newman made yet another successful comeback to race riding when scoring two wins from his first six rides back from a 17-month lay-off, including an all-the-way win aboard the heavily backed The Velvet King ($3 into $1.60) at Belmont on Saturday.
The well-travelled Scotsman was the victim of a nasty race fall at Pinjarra on January 6, 2018 and faced a long stint on the sidelines courtesy of a fractured neck, however, the road to recovery is something he has become all too familiar with.
Born in the west coast of Scotland, Newman, 37, is the son of a former jockey and wanted to follow the same career path for as long as he can remember.
“When I was eight years old I got a job filling up the water buckets and doing the hays,” Newman said.
“When I was about 10 I started riding the racehorses.
“I never had ponies or anything like that, I just learnt on racehorses.
“I’d do all of the hay and waters and then run up to the racetrack and the lads would throw me up on a horse and let me ride it home.
“My Dad taught me how to trot on the lunge rein and then I was riding fastwork when I was 12 or 13.”
Newman’s father bought him a mechanical horse, known as an ‘Equicizer’, for his 13th birthday and his new toy only amplified his keenness to become a hoop.
Two years later he travelled to England to spend his summer holidays working for legendary British trainer Richard Hannon Snr and knew that he had found his calling.
“Richard told my dad that I could come back when I finished school, but I came home and went to school for a week and just complained every day,” he said.
“I told my dad that I wanted to go back to England, so he went and spoke to the headmaster.
“The headmaster said I could go, because I was useless at school, and because the teachers knew I always wanted to be a jockey.
“They appreciated the fact that I had already had a job and everything set up for me.”
Fast forward a couple of years and Newman, then in only his second year of racing riding, received his nation’s top honour.
The 17-year-old was crowned Britain’s Champion Apprentice and seemingly had the world at his feet, however, little did he know the series of setbacks he would encounter over the next two decades.
“I had a head-on car accident and broke my ankle,” Newman said.
“It was a single road with no road markers and we hit head-on going over a rise.
“It put me out for a few months and I found it hard after that, weight-wise.
“I never really struggled to get rides or winners or anything like that, it was just the weight and the pressure of getting up every day and sweating.”
Newman eventually quit race riding before moving to Barbados and operating a SP betting shop for the next seven years.
Still unsure what the future held for him, he believes a near-death experience was the turning point he needed.
“It was actually another car crash that changed my direction again,” he said.
“Somebody t-boned me and their car flipped.
“They broke bones, but I was actually fine.
“I was very lucky and I thought to myself, ‘what am I doing?’.
“I decided to go back to Scotland and I spoke to my dad when I got back and he thought it would be a good idea for me to go back riding again.”
Whilst a return to the saddle may have sounded good in theory, Newman was faced with a significant hurdle.
His weight had ballooned to an astonishing 89 kilograms and he would have to shed more than a third of his body weight to be any realistic chance of a comeback.
“I really didn’t think I could do it, but my dad is really into nutrition and dieting and said to me, ‘trust me and listen to me and I’ll get you back down’,” Newman said.
“I listened to him and did what he said and, within four months, I’d lost the majority of the weight.
“I lived with Mum and Dad and I didn’t eat a lot, I was just eating home-made soups that were designed to make me lose weight and drinking water and green tea.
“I was walking nearly 15 kilometres in the morning and at night, so nearly 30 kilometres a day, and it was a full-time effort with no days off.
“I ended up getting back down to ride at 54 kilos.”
Newman hit the ground running and enjoyed a promising first season back in the saddle before his momentum was halted after suffering a fall at trackwork.
Following a routine barrier jump-out, his mount proceeded to buck and led to him somersaulting over the horse’s head before landing on his buttocks, enduring a compression fracture through his spine.
“I pushed to get back after three months after that and didn’t give it enough time to heal, so I was in a lot of pain for a long time,” Newman said.
“I couldn’t get enough strength in my back and ended up quitting.
“It wasn’t until I stopped riding and gained a bit of weight that it got better and healed.”
Newman found himself at the crossroads of his career, yet again, whilst also having to deal with the separation from his partner around the same time.
He decided he needed a change of environment, away from the struggles he had been experiencing in the UK, and opted to seek a trackwork riding position abroad.
His first port of call was Dubai, however, the time of year meant that all employment positions had been filled so, on the strong recommendation of his sister and cousins who were living in Australia, he made enquiries in the land down under.
Newman eventually found himself at the stables of trainer Sam Pritchard-Gordon, coincidentally a former UK expat himself, in picturesque Mornington, Victoria.
“As soon as I arrived there, I said I would stay,” Newman said.
“I absolutely loved it there.
“I was there a year-and-a-half and was assistant trainer to Sam.
“We did a lot of breaking-in yearlings there, as well.”
When Newman was seeking a fresh challenge, he picked up the phone and called one of his best friends, Irishman Donal O’Connor, who was residing in Western Australia.
Newman and O’Connor worked together at Hannon Snr’s stable in England years prior and O’Connor had gone on to base himself at the hub of racing in Perth, Ascot.
“We shared accommodation together in England and I was quite close with him back then and basically grew up with him,” Newman said.
“Donal said he could get me a job over here, so it was him that initially got me here.”
O’Connor then put Newman in touch with Hall of Fame trainer, Fred Kersley.
“I rang Fred and he said if I was half as good as Donal said I was, he’d give me a job,” Newman said.
“I came here the next week.
“Fred has got a lot of people going over here and he doesn’t get the credit he should for that.
“Half of the people from overseas who work in Ascot have come through Fred.”
Despite weighing 74 kilograms at the time, continued encouragement from O’Connor to make yet another comeback to race riding planted a seed in Newman’s head.
His desire to ride again continued to grow over the coming months and, when he later obtained permanent residency in Australia, he knuckled down and stripped his weight off like he had done numerous times before.
However, he wasn’t even four months into his return when a sickening race fall aboard Hell of a Story at Ascot on April 1, 2017 led to another injury-enforced lay-off.
“I tore my spleen in half but they put a coil on it and saved it, so I’ve still got it,” he said.
“I broke all of my ribs on my left side and had some other internal bleeding, too.”
With his desire to ride still unwavered, Newman was back riding races again six months later and established successful associations with leading trainers such as Darren McAuliffe, Lindsey Smith and David Harrison.
He was firmly entrenched in the state’s metropolitan ranks and guided I’m Feeling Lucky to victory for Smith in the Group 3 La Trice Classic at Ascot on Perth Cup day on January 1, 2018, however, as was so often the case, his luck was set to change less than a week later.
Another race fall, this time aboard the McAuliffe-trained Dealing at Pinjarra on January 6, saw him fracture multiple vertebrae in his neck and back.
“After the accident, the doctors at Perth Royal said that I would be fine in three months and to come back to get x-rays after that,” Newman said.
“I did that and the doctor at Perth Royal said I was fine to return to work, so I went to see the doctor for the jockeys, Dr. Taylor, and he wanted me to see a spinal surgeon to get his opinion before I went back to riding.
“It turned out that my neck was out by two millimetres, but they didn’t pick it up at Perth Royal.
“He said that I had to have another three months off and if it doesn’t come good, I may have to have it fused.”
After a long and frustrating process over the coming months, Newman didn’t hesitate to go under the knife to have the fusion surgery in a bid to resurrect his jockey career.
“I asked the surgeon what the best and quickest way to do it was and he said to use bone from my hip because it would net better than artificial bone and would be stronger,” Newman said.
“I went with that and he’s effectively taken two vertebrae and made them into one.
“He took the disc out, wedged a bit of hip bone in between and put a plate on it.”
Newman was eventually cleared to ride trackwork in January this year, a full 12 months after his fall, but doctors were cautious to hold him back from races for as long as possible.
He resumed riding trackwork at McAuliffe’s Impressive Racing stable in Hopeland and says he has relished the opportunity.
“I’ve been riding trackwork at Darren’s for months and I’ve loved being part of a team,” he said.
“I was driving down there a couple of times a week and it was keeping me sane.
“D-mac gave me a bit of purpose.
“It’s been great watching the winners he’s been having, because I’ve been down there riding work with Mitch Pateman, Willy Pike and Lucy Warwick during that time.”
Despite his constant urgings to return to race riding since January, it took another five months for doctors to give Newman the green light.
He recalls the moment he received the good news.
“It felt fantastic,” he said.
“I sat in my car for 10 minutes after I found out, then the first person I rang was my Dad.”
McAuliffe has already shown enormous faith in Newman in the early stages of his comeback, booking him for all of his stables’ trials in recent weeks and giving him the opportunity to ride the ultra-talented The Velvet King at Belmont on Saturday.
The astute trainer will leg Newman up aboard another of his stable stars at Belmont this Saturday when he reunites with multiple Group and Listed winner, Gatting, in the $150,000 Group 3 Belmont Sprint.
“It’s nice to have the support of a good trainer,” Newman said.
“D-mac’s attention to detail is second to none.
“I love WA racing, it’s very competitive and close-knit and there’s a lot of good trainers and people here.”
Despite being a journeyman across the world for the best part of 20 years, Newman feels that, for the first time, he has finally found his home.
He hopes he can enjoy a trouble-free run in the twilight years of his rollercoaster career and, when the time comes to hang up the boots for good, he can’t see himself living anywhere else.
“I’ll definitely be staying in Perth for good,” he said.
“It’s easy to get the buzz here.
“When I get to the point that I’m not going to race ride anymore, I’ll probably get into breaking and stuff like that.
“I certainly won’t train horses, I’m not interested in that, but I really enjoy riding and breaking-in horses.”