Former career jockey Jason Laking of Ashburton has hung up his saddle and thrown away the scales.
After nearly 20 years riding in New Zealand and overseas, he is now mentoring the industry’s next generation.
The 40-year-old has taken up a role with New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing as its South Island apprentice jockey riding master.
Weight played a factor in Laking’s change of direction.
Standing at about 180cm tall, a head taller than most of his peers, he would often find himself having to drop a few kilograms ahead of race days.
‘‘That’s why I gave up, because my weight was ridiculous,’’ Laking said.
He works alongside fellow New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing masters Noel Harris and Kim Clapperton.
Between the three of them they cover the country, mentoring new jockeys for the country’s thoroughbred racing governing body.
‘‘I’m there for guidance for the young jockeys starting off in their first four years as an apprentice. Sort of like a rugby coach, I just coach them along as they go,’’ Laking explained.
‘‘You go and ride with them, you go over all their race-day replays with them, trials and just be there in case anything’s going wrong. or just for advice really.’’
He works with eight apprentices; one who is two years into their apprenticeship and the rest in their first six months. There were another eight probationers waiting in the wings, he said.
‘‘People come from racing families, there’s quite a lot come from overseas now from Mauritius, there’s quite a few Mauritian boys over here now riding.
‘‘Then there’s people who have been at pony club and they’ve decided they’ve got a bit of a bug for racing, and some people have just walked off the street and wanted a job and got a job at a stables and progressed.’’
Ages vary from 16 years and up, but there is no age requirement, just weight, he said.
Jockeys have to weigh 54kg or under to be an apprentice.
‘‘Obviously you want to start as early as you can, but as long as your weight is good you can start any time.’’
Jockey apprentices may be more prevalent in the North Island with bigger stables, more horses and more trainers, but numbers are growing in the South Island.
Jason Laking said he was still getting used to his new role as the New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing apprentice jockey riding master for the South Island.
He was not only working with apprentices, but also their trainers and employers.
‘‘I knew all of them anyway, because I’d worked with most of them when I was a jockey,’’ Laking said.
Laking began his apprenticeship in Wingatui at the age of 15. He had been encouraged by his dad, Bruce of Invercargill, who is himself a trainer and former jockey.
‘‘I was (at Wingatui) until I was about 22, there were jobs everywhere back then.’’
Laking then moved to Christchurch where the majority of the horses were trained.
As a freelance jockey he had a lot of success and rode some very good horses.
‘‘It was my weight which got me. At my worst I’d be 64 kilos, and I was having to ride 58 (kilograms) so I was having to lose four to six kilos two days before the races.’’
He ran in sweat suits/wet suits, soaked in spa pools and sat in saunas.
‘‘I looked like a meth addict running down the street if people saw me, a skinny white boy sweating with a wet suit on in a 25-degree day.’’
He did 10 years before taking a six-year break.
He worked for Neumanns Tyres in Ashburton.
His weight came down naturally.
But he missed the horses, and in his early 30s returned to racing.
By then he and partner Louise O’Reilly, who comes from a trotting family, had welcomed three daughters including twins. They are now aged 10, and the twins eight.
‘‘I got back into the riding,’’ Laking said.
Some career highlights included winning two group one races – the pinnacle for jockeys in the industry.
One was an apprentice on a horse called The Jewel, riding for Hec Anderton, and the other last year at the New Zealand Oaks at Trentham.
‘‘By then my weight was getting real buggered,’’ he said.
‘‘I did another year, rode a few winners, I think I rode about 460 winners all up over my career.’’
His new role came about by chance. It was also at the perfect time – when he was starting to realise constantly putting his body through the wringer was taking a toll.
‘‘I was killing myself trying to get the weight off,’’ he said.
He remembers sitting in the family spa pool one morning at 4am needing to lose 2.5kg for that day’s racing.
‘‘I got inside the spa and started dry retching and thought ‘Something’s going on here’.
‘‘That day I went to the races and rode a couple of winners, thinking everything was all right. And then I was spewing. I thought ‘I’m killing myself here’.’’
The writing was on the wall. Not eating was bad for his body. And he was realising it was making him unpleasant to be around; which was not ideal for family life.
Mere months later and settling into his new role, Laking hasn’t looked back and wishes he’d done it sooner.
‘‘I get more thrills out of an apprentice riding a winner than I do myself. I don’t have to worry about myself anymore, I have to worry about them.’’
He said the racing industry was new and exciting to them, but there are challenges, including social media pressures and riding a horse in a pack at 60km/hr or faster.
‘‘The challenge is to get them out there riding round safe, because it’s dangerous, that’s number one.
‘‘It’s not just them out there, it’s all the other jockeys as well.’’
‘‘They are all good, they all want to learn,’’ he said.