By Bill Poulos
Take a female English jockey that hadn’t ridden an outright thoroughbred winner despite 16 years of trying. Add to the mix a trainer that was just a couple of months ago entrusted with a big team of horses and who was also finding that breakthrough winner elusive.
Throw in a rising six-year-old gelding bought by its new owner for just $600 so the aforementioned Pommy rider could kick-start her picnics’ career, and then team them up at a rustic bush track that only sees a mob of horses once every 12 months.
It’s a story that would have had Banjo Paterson reaching for his quill and inkpot had he still been around.
The latest chapter of bush racing was wrapped up at historic Talmoi when 38-year-old English rider Katie Spalding – who honed her craft at leading stables in England and Dubai – rode the race of her life to win the 1000m maiden plate on Kentuckian for Tamworth trainer Melissa Dennett.
It was a career-defining win for both ladies – a first for Dennett as a trainer and an outright first for Spalding, whose intriguing entry to the winners’ circle is akin to a Paterson epic.
Spalding had previously ridden a winner – and a Group 1 winner at that – when competing in the Global Arabian Horse Flat Racing Festival at Melbourne’s Caulfield racecourse two years ago. And two weeks prior to winning at Talmoi she had shared the spoils with fellow rider Ricky Blewitt when dead-heating for first at Mallawa.
Spalding was on Doug Fernando’s Beau in Chains at Mallawa when the gelding dived late to share first prize with Luke Morgan’s emerging sprinter Folkstone. Spalding had waited an eternity for that special moment – well, half a special moment. Cue Banjo.
“It took me 16 years to actually get a thoroughbred winner – I wasn’t giving up – and I didn’t get the whole winner, either,” Spalding chuckled. “But I wouldn’t want to share it with anyone other than Luke Morgan, whose stables are right next door to Melissa’s. Luke is a lovely fellow – if I had to share my first win with someone, I’m glad it was Luke.”
Spalding, however, only had to wait a fortnight to claim her first outright win when Kentuckian held on bravely at Garah.
“Winning at Talmoi was brilliant,” Spalding said. “It was really, really good, and it was Melissa’s first winner as well which made it even more special.”
Dennett had seen plenty of big-race success when stable foreman for Leon Davies – whose large team she now trains – but says winning a nondescript maiden at Talmoi with Spalding in the saddle was a very special moment.
“It was good that my first winner was with Katie because she has been a really good friend to me over the last year or so,” Dennett said. “It’s been a little bit frustrating (getting that first winner) because I’ve had a few runners here and there that have been favourites and ones that I thought would win."
In fairness to Spalding, too, the last 16 years hasn’t been entirely spent on horseback chasing that career-first winner. During that time there were extended periods away from the racetrack due to injuries and longer periods when she was purely just a trackwork rider. And, along the way, she became a mum.
Spalding and her husband Michael now call Tamworth home: “We decided on Tamworth because it’s a very ‘horsey’ town and there were work opportunities for both of us,” Spalding said. “I’m here now riding work for Melissa as well as Michelle Fleming and couldn’t be happier.”
Spalding chases further picnic success at Wean on Saturday: “I had never been to a picnic race meeting before I actually began riding at them – they are just excellent,” she said. Dennett will also saddle up runners at Wean, including her old friend Kentuckian.
“Brody Cummins bought Kentuckian off Sue Grills for $600 specifically for Katie to ride at the picnics,” Dennett said. “Brody was looking for a suitable horse and came across Kentuckian – and the horse has won straight away for us.
“Sue said that the horse’s problem was that it needed time. His legs go a bit everywhere and he was probably only about 70 percent fit at Talmoi, but he’s actually improved since then in fitness as well as in himself,” Dennett said.