Apprentice jockey Kate Witten’s career in the saddle has been many things to date, but easy is not one of them.
The recently-turned 23-year-old has faced debilitating injuries, stints on the sidelines, multiple rejections from trainers and an internal battle with self-confidence since first joining the jockey ranks as a year 12 student still at high school.
Witten has had plenty of opportunities to turn her back and walk away from the racing industry since then, however, her determination and resilience is now being rewarded as she rides in career-best form.
She landed her first feature race win when taking out the $100,000 Sign Strategy 100 Club Mandurah Cup (1410m) aboard the Neville Parnham-trained Wrinkly at Pinjarra last Saturday, following on from successive Saturday victories aboard Simon Miler’s talented three-year-old, Market Ruler, at Ascot last month.
Witten, the daughter of Bunbury trainer Robert Witten and the great granddaughter of breeder-trainer Rowley Roberts, who bred WA racing hall-of-famer, Ngawyni, took a liking to horses at an early age.
“I wasn’t allowed to get a pony until I was nine because Dad said I had to be able to do it all myself,” Witten said.
“He said ‘I’m not going to do anything for you’, so I had to learn to do it all myself.
“We used to go eventing most weekends when I was a bit older.
“Dad would take the float and camper van out, but that all grew a bit too slow for me and I went towards racehorses.”
Witten began helping her father around the stable on her first day of high school and, despite having no ambitions to be a jockey, she later found herself toying with the idea.
“I got to about year nine and decided I wanted to be a jockey,” she said.
“I actually went to Collie races and we stood down by the start of the Collie cup and they flew past us on the dirt.
“I thought ‘yeah, that’s what I want to do!’”
Witten obtained her trackwork licence just prior to her 15th birthday and began her jockey apprenticeship 12 months later, much to the angst of her family.
“They actually weren’t too keen on me being a jockey,” Witten said.
“They tried to push me in a different direction to do something else non-racing.
“They gave me a year and tried to convince me to do something else for that year, but it never worked.”
After juggling her first year of race riding with the completion of her year 12 Vocational Education and Training studies, Witten was looking forward to pursuing her new career after finishing school.
However, just four months after graduating, she faced the first of the many significant obstacles she would have to overcome throughout her career.
“I was coming off the track on a Saturday morning and a horse flipped over and landed on top of me,” Witten said.
“I snapped my ACL in my knee and had partially torn by medial ligament.
“I couldn’t walk.
“I had three months in a brace and crutches after surgery.”
Following more than 11 months on the sidelines, Witten made a successful comeback when scoring a seven-and-a-half length win aboard her first race ride back, The Conjurer, at Esperance’s Boxing Day meeting.
Witten was hopeful her bad luck had come to an end, however, it wasn’t long before she found herself back in the surgeon’s chair.
“When my medial healed, my kneecap had moved over which was causing some discomfort,” she said.
“They originally thought it would only need a clean out and I’d be back riding after four weeks, but they had to cut a muscle in my knee to get it to move back over and I had to wait for that to heal before I could ride again.
“I was out for another six-and-a-half months, and I said if I did it again, I wasn’t coming back.”
After making a second comeback from a lengthy injury-enforced lay-off, Witten decided to explore greater opportunities and left her father’s boutique South-West stable.
She became an apprentice to the state’s leading trainer, Adam Durrant, who would soon leave his stable in the care of his father, Geoff Durrant, and foreman, Jason Miller, while he took an extended holiday.
“They didn’t think I quite had the ability to be a jockey,” Witten said.
“Then I ended up being apprenticed to Lou Luciani.”
Witten’s time with Luciani, a hall of fame nominee, was also short-lived and she soon found her career at the crossroads.
The then 21-year-old was in need of a change and took up an opportunity to ride trackwork for David Hayes, Ben Hayes and Tom Dabernig’s illustrious Lindsay Park operation in Victoria.
“I needed to go away, have a break and clear my head,” she said.
“Riding was the best way for me to get paid because I knew how to do that.
“I went to Lindsay Park for six weeks and I absolutely loved it.
“For the first four weeks I was adamant I wasn’t riding again, and Lindsay Park told me I could stay on, but I told them that I wanted to go back and finish my apprenticeship.”
Witten soon made the trek back to her home state, and her home town, when resuming her apprenticeship under the tutelage of her father.
However, in a bid to resurrect her career, she was spending too much time travelling for trackwork commitments to make it work.
“I was never there because I was always driving back and forth from Perth all the time,” Witten said.
“I was riding a lot of trackwork for Dan Morton and he offered me to be apprenticed to him, so I went there.
“After six months he said he couldn’t take me on anymore.”
In the wake of third consecutive knockback from a trainer, Witten became apprenticed to RWWA and was determined to make it work.
“I basically do my own thing now,” Witten said.
“I turn up to trackwork every morning and I tell Ron Fleming what horses I’ve ridden and who for.”
The change of scenery appears to have done the trick for Witten, with her last 25 rides returning five winners and seven placegetters.
“It certainly hasn’t been easy,” Witten said.
“Moving to Perth away from everyone changed my life and the last year-and-a-half has definitely been tough.
“But I’ve started working harder and trying to earn as much money as I can.”
Witten also credits her newfound support network as being driving forces behind her recent improvement.
“Simon Miller has been a big help with me,” she said.
“I don’t have a boss now and when I first told him that, he rang me up a couple days later and said if I ever need him to watch a replay or need any help at all, to give him a call and he’ll help me.
“He’s been a really big help, so I don’t have to do it all entirely on my own.
“My partner has been a big one, too. He’s always pushed me to do more and talk to people more because I don’t talk a lot and tend to stick to myself.
“I have a really good relationship with Mr. (Robert) Harvey, Simon, Neville and all those sorts of trainers now, so it’s much easier to talk to them now.
“I used to be too shy to talk to them.”
Witten believes she has also gained motivation from wanting to prove people wrong, including her father.
“Dad actually said to me that he didn’t want me riding his horses because I was too heavy, wasn’t riding good, was missing the kick all the time and was just going around following the field, basically,” Witten said.
“So, I said to him ‘stuff you, I’ll be leading apprentice by the end of the year’.
“That gave me a big push and is definitely a part of why I’m going good at the moment.”
Following the tough love from her father, Witten made a conscious effort to get better and was thrilled to win aboard his Henny Hughes gelding, Foo Trouble, at Ascot on December 12.
“It’s always great riding winners for Dad,” she said.
“He puts so much work into them and he does everything by himself now that I’m in Perth, so it’s good when he gets some winners.”
Witten’s career has also been given a boost with opportunities from prominent city trainers over the past three months.
She rode recent Listed Jungle Mist Classic (1200m) and Listed Summer Scorcher (1000m) winner, Misty Metal, to consecutive placings at the mare’s first two starts back from a spell in the spring and has been afforded rides aboard talented Metropolitan gallopers such as Mr Alby, Market Ruler and Wrinkly.
“You get on those good horses and it’s so easy,” Witten said.
“They virtually do everything for you.
“You just put them in the right spot and off they go.
“Getting on those good ones gives you such a kick.”
Witten, who has ridden Market Ruler to two wins and a narrow fourth-placing from three rides, is also building an imposing record aboard Wrinkly.
The pair have combined three times for two wins and a gallant runner-up finish, when beaten by only a half-head.
As for the future ahead, Witten now has clarity on what she would like to achieve.
“I come out of my time around July,” she said.
“Hopefully I can outride my claim by the time my apprenticeship is up, that would be the ultimate goal.
“I’ve been around for a long time now, but I’m really only a third-year apprentice coming into my fourth year.
“I’ve helped Brittany Taylor and the Off the Track team take Scenic Blast to the schools and I really enjoyed that, too.
“I’d also like to get involved in that type of thing a bit more.”