By Ray Hickson
It took about six months of construction work, and not years of friends telling him he should try riding, to convince Reece Jones he wanted to be a jockey.
A late starter, by apprentice standards, Jones was almost 20 when he joined the Scone stable of trainer Rodney Northam in 2016 and started a two year journey that saw him kick off his career in the saddle with a winner.
That’s something not a lot of apprentices can say they achieved.
When you consider that Jones grew up around racing – his mother Dianne is a former strapper and his stepdad is former jockey Neil Campton – it seems odd that despite being the right build to be a jockey he didn’t have a lot to do with horses and chose manual work upon finishing high school.
“It was just easy, we had family friends who were starting their own business and were after a labourer,’’ Jones said.
“I didn’t have a job at the time so I put my hand up and started doing that to earn some money.
“It came to a point, I was doing construction and I wasn’t enjoying it and couldn’t see myself doing it. I wasn’t sure if I was going to go to uni or not so I took time off and found myself doing that job.
“I was operating a jackhammer that probably weighed about the same as I did. It just wasn’t for me.
“So many people had told me throughout the years I should give it a go, I’m short enough and light enough and would make a perfect candidate.
“I thought ‘you know what they might be right’, I’ll give it a go and see what I make of it.”
So Jones, who grew up in Port Macquarie before moving to Sydney with his family at 14, fit the mould to be a jockey but had to find a place to start.
He spent a week working at Malcolm Johnston’s Hawkesbury stable to get a feel for the sport then moved to Tuncurry to work with Terry Evans for three months.
It took a chance meeting at a pub where Campton met a friend of Northam’s for the move to Scone to become a reality and from there it was back to square one.
Jones basically learned his craft at Northam’s and within a couple of years he was ready to see what he was made of when he debuted at 22 riding Social to victory at Tamworth in August 2018.
“Two years might be a long time for some people to learn and a short time for others but I picked it up pretty well,’’ he said.
“I just thought it was fun. It was different, it was exciting and I loved it.
“Rod has been a very influential factor in developing my riding. He's put a lot of time into helping me learn to ride from scratch and analysing my race replays with me.
“It was a massive thrill (to win at my first ride). I know how proud my family were that I progressed to that level and was making something of it.
“I had a trial on (Social) and she won that pretty convincingly so I was confident she would go and do something.”
But the dream start to his riding career was shattered just over six months later when a trackwork fall saw him sidelined for almost a year.
His saddle slipped during a gallop and he did significant damage to a knee in the fall, tearing an ACL, MCL and other ligaments and it really hurt him – not so much the physical pain but the loss of momentum.
“Just when I was hitting my straps for that to happen it was very disappointing,’’ he said.
“If you ride long enough you’re bound to have something go wrong and get injured somehow. Those few months I was riding I just fell in love with it.
“It has taken me a while to get back into the groove. The first couple of months I wasn’t riding as well as I knew I could. But I got the confidence up and kept that momentum going.”
Jones says the support of his partner Hannah, and the backing of Northam, was instrumental in keeping him going while injured and he has now ridden around 80 winners.
And with that extended injury enforced break he still has a couple of years left as an apprentice – something he’s keen to make the most of.
Like any country based jockey Jones, 24, puts in plenty of kilometres in the car to take rides so it’s no surprise that he counts the of Greg Ryan, Robert Thompson and Grant Buckley as mentors.
You can add Tommy Berry – a friend to everyone – to that list as another fellow rider he goes to for advice, and Jones said he has his sights set on a move towards the city when Northam believes the time is right.
Of course that means he’ll need to catch the eye of a metropolitan stable and he knows there’s still plenty of work to be done – his first goal being to claim the NSW Country apprentices title this season.
“I’d love to get my opportunity in town, riding against some of the best jockeys in the world,’’ he said.
“I need to be more consistent and start getting my name out there more, to get noticed and hopefully one thing leads to another.
“I know I have a lot of improvement to make in my riding but you can only try to keep doing better. You have to be able to mix it with them and that’s no easy feat.
"If I keep working hard and keep trying to improve all aspects of my riding, I know I'll achieve my goals"
*This article originally appeared in the January 2021 edition of the Racing NSW magazine