Mature-age apprentice Jade McNaught’s fledging start to her jockey career received a further boost on Saturday after she booted home her first metropolitan Saturday winner, Fire and Rain, at Ascot.
McNaught, 30, is only in her eighth month of race riding but has hit the ground running in 2019, having ridden 10 winners and 16 minor placegetters in January so far.
The possibility of an all-the-way win aboard the Paul Jordan-trained Fire and Rain in Saturday’s Amelia Park Handicap (1000m) at WA racing headquarters couldn’t have been further from the thoughts for McNaught as little as 18 months ago.
Despite having been heavily involved in equestrian disciplines for the best part of two decades, the world of racing was still completely foreign to the Marmion born-and-bred product and her story shows that it is never too late to make a plunge in life.
“My family have absolutely no background in racing,” McNaught said.
“I think my Mum has only ever been to the races once, which was the other day at Bunbury!
“I had been to the races a couple of times with my friends, but only for Melbourne Cup day and events like that.”
After graduating high school in 2005, McNaught attended university briefly before deciding studying wasn’t for her.
She set off travelling various countries around the world and, after returning home to work in office management, the desire to work with horses soon proved too strong.
She moved across the country to renowned New South Wales horse territory, The Oaks, where she worked alongside astute equestrians, Jess Stalling and Rhys Stones, for two years.
“Jess and Rhys do a mixture of show jumping and show horse,” McNaught said.
“We also did breaking, so there was a bit of everything.
“They have a very big organisation over there and I was sort of the groom, I guess.
“I was also riding and we’d do everything together.”
Following her eastern states stint, McNaught returned to her hometown but was still unsure about her future plan.
Still wanting to be involved with horses, she took up a temporary position working at WA’s premier thoroughbred stud, Scenic Lodge, and, as they say; the rest is history.
“I did yearling prep with Jeremy Smith at Scenic Lodge Stud and he is actually who got me into racing,” she said.
“He had some pre-trainers there and I hopped on a couple to give them some work before they went off to their trainers.
“He got me hooked on it and then I started riding breakers and pre-trainers for Tiarnna Robertson after that.”
McNaught obtained her trackwork and fastwork licences whilst working for Robertson, a well-regarded horse breaker and educator who also has a small team of racehorses, but still had no thoughts of becoming a jockey.
It wasn’t until people continued to ask her the same question that she first thought about the career option.
“When I was riding around the track people kept asking me how much I weighed, which I thought was a strange question at the beginning,” McNaught laughed.
“I think when I first started riding at the track I was just under 50 kilos.
“I’m five-foot-four, so I’m a bit taller, but I’m only light.
“Even when I went from Jeremy to Tiarnna, I still had no plans to be a jockey.
“I’ve always been interested in breaking-in and training young horses, it’s what I’ve done as projects throughout my life.”
McNaught signed up to commence her jockey apprenticeship under the tutelage of Robertson, however, a lack of numbers in her stable led her to make a transfer to the stables of Group One-winning Ascot-based trainer, Trevor Andrews.
“We just didn’t have enough racehorses at Tiarnna’s,” McNaught said.
“I had ridden a bit of work for Trevor when I went into the track with Tiarnna, so he was one of the first people I called.
“I asked him if he would take me on and he was more than happy to.”
Fast forward 10 months and McNaught made her race debut at the final Albany meeting of the 2017/18 season on May 11 of last year.
She rode her first winner aboard Money Trainer, the first leg of a winning double that day, at Port Hedland just nine days later.
Less than two months later she rode five winners across two meetings in a weekend, including a winning treble when riding half the six-race card at Carnarvon.
Incredibly, McNaught has achieved an overall winning strike rate of more than 11 per cent in her career so far, having returned 49 winners from her 415 race rides to date.
“It’s crazy, it’s all happened a lot quicker than I could ever have thought,” McNaught said.
“I’m only two winners away from going down to a one-and-a-half-kilo claim in the country, so it’s all moving very fast.”
McNaught credits her boss, Trevor Andrews, for allowing her to ride freelance trackwork after her morning work has concluded at his stables.
“Trevor is really good,” she said.
“I normally get another four or five in for different trainers after I finish riding for him, and I just try to pump out as many as I can because I think you definitely pick up opportunities freelancing.
“The trainers also really appreciate you helping them out.”
Asked why she believes she has been able to rise through the riding weeks quicker than most, McNaught labels maturity and the assistance from her peers as major factors.
“Being able to communicate with the trainers is probably one of the reasons why I’m getting so many rides,” she said.
“I’ve had a lifetime experience with horses, so I think that would also have to have given me some sort of benefit moving into the racehorses.
“After each race the jockeys help me, too.
“Lucy, Jerry and the boy jocks, too, go through the races with me.
“Even if nothing’s happened, I still ask them what I could have done differently.
“New things are happening every time I go out there and they talk me through it, so it’s really good.”
McNaught admits the fast-paced lifestyle of being an apprentice jockey can be demanding and, as a result, she has relocated from the Swan Valley to Ascot to reduce travel time.
“At the moment I’ve been race-riding five or six days a week, and a lot of those are fly-out meetings,” she said.
“Riding trackwork, going home to have a shower, flying out to the races and then flying back home afterwards before doing it all again the next day.
“It can be a busy lifestyle.”
McNaught has pleasantly surprised herself by having already achieved the short-term goals she had set for herself, however, she says she still has a long way to go.
“I’m starting to learn how to ride a race a bit better,” she said.
“Just trying to get my horses into spots where they can win and give them every chance, and doing form to find out where I think I might be and where the best place will probably be for the horse.
“I think I’m starting to put all of that together a bit more, but I’m still trying to work on my technique a lot.
“It’s great getting so many rides at the moment because I can keep working on it ride by ride.”
Asked what hopes she holds for herself for the remainder of the year, McNaught’s answer illustrates her professionalism and dedication.
“I just want to work on my riding and just try to keep getting as many opportunities as I can,” she said.”
“I’m obviously not doing anything else at the moment, so everything I do is putting time into my job.
“I just need to keep hacking away!”