By Brad Gray
Jake Hull is a man on a mission.
The 24-year-old jockey gave the game away but having relocated back to his hometown of Gosford, he’s now hell bent on making a go of it.
“I’m keener than I have ever been,” said Hull, “And I just want to show these trainers how keen I am because they gave me a lot of opportunities when I was down here last. I want this and will show them how hard I am willing to work for it.”
Born and raised in Gosford, that success perhaps came too easily for a talented young Hull, who started race riding at the age of 15. On his 18th birthday he rode in his first Group One race, piloting outsider Nayana into 15th in the 2011 Queensland Oaks, won by Scarlett Lady, for his first master Grant Allard.
Soon after that Hull, who is unusually tall for a jockey and has always battled with his weight, became “sour” by his own frank admission. The pressure of riding, the hours, the travel.
“It was so much for a kid to deal with. Ability has never really been the issue, I’ve just been my own worst enemy,” Hull now reflects.
At the age of 19, he walked into the stewards’ room as Gosford and handed in his licence. After his last ride on the day, he was done. Finished.
“I wasn’t in the right headspace and threw away my career. I needed a break. Within a week of my last ride I moved up to my brother’s in Queensland and was just poking around there. It was more like a holiday, which I stayed on for a little too long,” Hull said.
“Because I’d just gone straight into work I’d never given myself the chance to live a normal life, I did that and walked away from the game. I had to walk away and grow up a bit to be honest. It made me realise how much I loved it, and still wanted to do it, no matter how hard it was.”
That stint in Queensland, which included riding trackwork for Toby Edmunds and Steven O’Dea, as well as working at Brisbane Racing Club doing track maintenance, not only reignited the fire in Hull’s belly but also saw him cross paths with his now fiancé Amelia Denby who was apprenticed to O’Dea.
“I wouldn’t have met Amelia so that’s probably the only plus out of it. She didn’t want a bar of me for a while but I kept working hard to wear her down,” Hull laughed.
Originally from New Zealand, Denby made headlines in February after winning on her very first ride in New South Wales, craftily weaving a passage at Gosford on the Fred Cowell-trained mare Sojournist.
“I was very fortunate. Jake spoke with Mr and Mrs Cowell before we relocated and they were pretty keen to have me join their team so I was lucky enough that when I did come they had a nice runner ready for me to get me off to a good start, so I am very grateful for that,” Denby said.
Both Hull and Denby have only ever known racing. Hull, who is cousins with Josh Parr, says that racing is all he ever wanted to do since he could walk before rattling off his family members who have been jockeys – his father, uncles, brother, cousins.
For Denby, she lived next door to Tauranga Racecourse in the North Island of New Zealand and after wandering across one afternoon to ask for a job, she was soon mucking out boxes before school.
“It escalated from there,” Denby recalls, “Once you get into the stables as a girl, you never get out. I was supposed to go to university to study nursing, that was always the plan but after about a week in the stables I was never a chance of leaving.”
Some experience riding ponies as a youngster was the catalyst for her to start learning trackwork before one thing lead to the next and she was an apprentice jockey. Having ridden “about 80 winners” in her home country, Denby hatched plans for a working holiday in Australia. She spent two years at Flemington before wanting to return to race riding, which is where she was picked up by the Eagle Farm-based O’Dea.
“I completed the final 12 months of my apprenticeship in Brisbane spending six months of that time riding provincially. I then upgraded to a metropolitan licence. I rode seven metropolitan winners in the last six weeks of my apprenticeship,” said Denby.
In fact, in the 2016-2017 season Denby was the only Queensland jockey to return a profit for punters from all rides, by riding many of her winners at long odds.
“I finished my time as an apprentice and tried to kick along as a senior jockey. I always knew though when I came out of my time it would be hard, and because I was based at a metropolitan track, I wanted to relocate somewhere in a provincial area,” she continued.
“It’s been good so far. I am getting regular rides and have been able to get around to most of the tracks already. The rides on my books are getting more every week.”
That winning feeling is now back for Hull, whose first two wins after his second coming were on Flying Machine, a mare trained by his brother Ben who hung up his riding boots to pursue a training career based at the Gold Coast.
“Nothing compares to race riding and that time away really made me hungry. I want to give it one last crack and make sure I give it 110%,” said Hull, whose riding weight is 56kg.
“It’s got a lot to do with the adrenalin. When you put the hard work and get the success, the taste of victory, there is something about it and you wouldn’t give it away for the world. It’s hard to explain what it is. It’s like it gets in your skin, your blood, you just live it and breathe it.
“If I do get too heavy at least I can sleep at night knowing I gave it everything I had this time.
“I’d like to get back to where I was, riding consistently every day and be one of the leading riders around the provincials and bush. If I could find a nice horse that’d be handy but for me it’s just about getting back to where I was and proving a point to myself that I can do it.”
Hull and Denby are in a really good place at the minute, balancing the rigorous demands of being a jockey which for Hull involves a very strict diet and up to three hours of exercise a day.
“Because of Jake’s weight and it being a 24/7 job, racing is every day for us. If I am not racing or he is not racing that day we’re still doing trackwork in the morning or exercising during the day but I am very conscious of having a healthy social life outside of racing,” Denby said.
Seeing ‘Amelia Hull’ in the race book still might be a while off yet, but a flood of winners would certainly kick things along.
“We haven’t set a date yet. We are just playing it by ear at the moment seeing where the next part of our lives is going to take us, having made the move,” Denby said.
“We have had (weddings) priced up so we know what we are in for. We are looking forward to the future. I feel like we have the rest of our lives to get married so we are choosing to put our careers first for the meantime.”
*This article originally appeared in the April edition of the Racing NSW magazine