From show jumping in Zimbabwe to an apprentice jockey in Perth, that’s the path chosen by Fiona Bell who is bursting to get back in the saddle after a knee injury sustained at Geraldton has kept her on the sidelines since February. Racing and Wagering Western Australia’s (RWWA) Julio Santarelli caught up with Bell on the eve of next month’s Apprentice Awards.
JS: How does someone born in Zimbabwe become an apprentice jockey in Western Australia?
FB: I came over with my family during a gap year at school when dad got a job in Perth. I was into show jumping back home so had an interest in horses when mum saw an advertisement from Peter Giadresco looking for a track rider and stable hand. She was the one who pushed me to get out there and earn a job and figure out what the real world was all about. I fell in love with the job straight away but it wasn’t until I joined Warwick Bradshaw that I thought about becoming a rider and experiencing another side of the industry.
JS: You had no knowledge or interest in racing back home?
FB: My only interest in horses was show jumping but I had no real knowledge of racing at all.
JS: What was your family’s reaction?
FB: Mum was not overly pleased and preferred I did something less dangerous but she has backed me all the way. Dad’s boss at work owns horses so he knew a little bit about racing and was very happy.
JS: How has the transition been from Zimbabwe to Australia?
FB: It was difficult at first getting used to the hot weather but on the whole I really like it. The opportunities in this country are great and I’m very happy to have made the move. I now have permanent residency and there is no chance of going back home.
JS: What is the standard of racing like in Zimbabwe?
FB: It’s not as strong as in Australia. You don’t really have jockeys and they basically have to come from South Africa. It’s more of a hobby and you can’t make a living out of it.
JS: Where are you and your family based?
FB: My dad got a really good job in Brisbane and is in Queensland with my mum and sister. They all moved over there thinking I would follow but I got a job with Warwick and was about to start my apprenticeship.
JS: It must be hard not only adapting to a new country and job but to do it without your parents who are across the other side of the country?
FB: I miss them a whole lot and see them a couple of times a year but you just have to get on with it because Perth is my home now.
JS: Do you have a network of friends in Perth and Bunbury?
FB: A lot of the racing people who you work with are like a tight knit community and you form bonds with many of them. I’m really great friends with some of the Bunbury track riders and they are the ones I mainly socialise with. Kyra Yuill is also a very good role model and has given me a lot of guidance.
JS: What are the challenges you face as an apprentice rider?
FB: The hardest thing is my diet but you get a lot of support from Charlotte (Vickers) and John (Claite) from the apprentice school and they try and make every aspect of riding really enjoyable.
JS: What’s the next critical step you have to work and improve on as an apprentice rider?
FB: To just get stronger when riding horses out, getting horses to give me more and to work on my whip action.
JS: Can you take us through your first race ride?
FB: I can’t remember the name of the horse but it was for Neville Parker at Pinjarra. I sat back two lengths last and it wasn’t as exciting as I thought it would be, not as good as my second ride at Mount Magnet which I won. My first ride went by me far too quickly.
JS: Riding at outer country tracks is one way of seeing the remainder of the state?
FB: I didn’t think I would like the country races but it’s actually been great. There is less pressure, you learn a lot, the people you meet are easy going and it’s a good experience.
JS: You are currently are out with a knee injury?
FB: I knocked my knee going to the barriers at Geraldton last November and it didn’t seem to be significant, but it got progressively worse and although we tried a few different things it required surgery. I didn’t really have much choice but it’s coming along nicely and I want to come back as quickly as possible.
JS: What has been the rehabilitation like?
FB: Loads of gym work and loads of physio. I couldn’t walk or run for three months after the surgery so my fitness has dropped considerably.
JS: When do you expect to be back riding?
FB: I was hoping to make trials next week but I might be pushing it, maybe a fortnight later I will be good to go.