By Brad Gray
Blaike McDougall comes out of his apprenticeship in October this year and although he could apply for an extension, he knows he’ll soon have a tough decision to make.
“There are decisions I’m going to have to weigh up when it gets closer – stay in Sydney or pack my bags and set myself up as a senior somewhere else,” McDougall said.
For the time being though McDougall, who is indentured to John Thompson, is determined to keep his head down and make the most of any opportunities that come his way.
“I have the same goal every year – riding as many winners as I can. I’d love to be fighting out the finish of the (apprentice) premiership at the end of the season but I think I’m running out of time. I can’t seem to keep the ball rolling with metro winners. Anything could happen though so I’ll just try to stay focused,” the 23-year-old hoop said.
McDougall, whose father was a jockey “many moons ago”, is now a natural in the saddle, but it didn’t come easily for the late bloomer who only decided to pursue a career in racing as a ticket out of town.
“I had the opportunity to ride my whole life growing up in the country but never thought about it until I was about 17. The librarian at my school asked me what I wanted to do for work experience. I didn’t want a job and he suggested sending me down to Ronny Quinton’s,” recalled McDougall. “I went down for two weeks but didn’t really like it. I went home for another six months or so but there wasn’t much going on there for me. Racing wasn’t just a job but it was also a get out.”
McDougall’s career as a jockey was nearly over before it began though, after he abandoned racing in 2014. It’s a cliché, but McDougall simply didn’t know what he had until it was gone. He’s the first to admit that and he now looks back on the experience in positive light.
“You learn from your mistakes. I was fortunate enough to make a few mistakes early in my life and early in my career. I have got them out of the way. Hopefully I have made all of my main mistakes by now,” reflected McDougall.
“I was young and wasn’t getting a go at the time. Racing is a big circle and I felt I wasn’t really in it. I had a few different things going on in my personal life at the time too and it was just easier to just walk away. I probably just should have taken a holiday, as everybody around me said, but I didn’t listen. I went off and 12 months down the track I wish I took that holiday.
“When I came back I’d only ridden about ten winners but it only took me about six months to ride out my country claim. I had a lot of good support from trainers.”
That support from trainers continues with McDougall’s winners coming for a wide range of different stables including Paul Perry and Angela Davies while Team Hawkes and Les Bridge are quick to secure his services in town.
You only have to look at the horses McDougall has built an association with to learn of his affinity with the animal. From Signposted to Firsthand and even Dreamforce, none are straightforward gallopers.
“I ride most of the quirky ones at home so when it comes to race day I get along with them. One thing in particular that John (Thompson) has taught me is to keep cool headed. It’s helped me get along with horse like that. I quite enjoy riding the funny horses over the quiet ones,” he said.
“Signposted (now retired) was a pretty special horse to me. He helped me out by giving me a few winners in town in a row. I also won four in a row on Waitandwatch for Angela Davies.”
You can’t help but chuckle at McDougall’s recollection of his first ever race ride aboard grey mare Lemon Sweet at Hawkesbury, for David Payne.
“It was horrible,” McDougall bristles. “I was four-wide the trip and got in trouble for trying to hit it. I was trying to do way too much and the stewards pulled me in. It was just hands and heels for the next few rides from there.”
However, McDougall reflects on his time with Payne fondly. He rode his first winner for Payne and also had the opportunity to put a then three-year-old, who would go on to win four Group Ones, through his paces each morning.
“I used to ride Criterion before he become what he was. I rode him for a very long time. The foreman there Stuart Rankin and I used to ride him. He was something different. I haven’t ridden a horse to this day like him,” McDougall said, before revealing he also strapped Criterion in the 2013 Golden Rose won by Zoustar.
It’s stability that McDougall now craves and being a new dad to baby Penelope, alongside his partner Danielle, has certainly changed his outlook on life.
“We’ve been very blessed with our young one. You look at things a little bit differently. I can’t pinpoint what it has changed in me but I dare say it has made me more mature and when I get home from the races I run up the stairs,” beamed McDougall.
“It levels things out. Now I have a little family my main goal is to build relationships with owners and trainers. When I come out of my apprenticeship if I’m not riding well enough to stay in Sydney I won’t be staying. I’ll locate myself where it’ll be a bit easier and more comfortable. I’d love to stay but it’s just so competitive and if you don’t have a big stable supporting you, you’ll just be riding trackwork and I don’t want to be doing that.”
The next chapter of the McDougall story will play out over the rest of the season but don’t expect to see the latest instalment etched on his already heavily-inked body.
“I haven’t added to my tattoos since I’ve come back to racing. They show times in my life I’ve gone through. I’m past that. I don’t really think about tattoos. I’m a professional athlete now. I probably wish I didn’t have a couple of them now, especially the one on my hand but they are there now and I can’t undo that. The artwork tells a story,” he said.
“You never judge a book by it’s cover…”
*This article was originally published in the February edition of the Racing NSW magazine.