By Julieanne Horsman
“Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”
It is a saying jockey Aaron Bullock lives by. He has endured more than his fair share of setbacks in 26 years but has overcome them all, putting each one down to experience.
Aaron’s story is quite remarkable. He was not born into racing. In fact he had never even ridden a horse when he walked into Todd Howlett’s Lower Belford stables in 2006 looking for a job. He was in year 10 at school, working part-time at McDonald’s and hated both. He loved animals though so Todd gave him a chance and before long he was teaching himself how to ride, first on a pony then on horses.
“Learning to ride a racehorse is one of the hardest things I have ever done,” Aaron said. “It didn’t come instantly. I had to practice and practice.”
12 months down the track Aaron had his first race ride, finishing third on Pimpala Peak at Tamworth. A couple of months later, he had his first win aboard Tee Gee at Muswellbrook and after that the winners kept coming.
As a second year apprentice Aaron beat more experienced colleagues to win the Hunter & North West Racing Apprentice Jockeys’ Premiership but it was too much, too young, too fast and a run-in with the law saw him stood down by Racing NSW for 12 months.
“I thought I could be 18 AND a jockey,” he said.
The charges were eventually dropped and Aaron returned to racing with a treble at Quirindi on Boxing Day 2009. He enjoyed plenty of success during this campaign but was quietly struggling with the pressures of being a jockey, particularly keeping his weight under control.
“Those close to me saw I was heading in the wrong direction again,” Aaron said. “Hunter & North West Racing Chief Steward, Shane Cullen said to me when God gives you a gift and you throw it away that’s the biggest waste but of course I had to learn that the hard way.”
Aaron quit as jockey and took up a traineeship working on the roads near his home in Singleton. It was only meant to be for a month but he worked hard and was offered a full-time position which he continued in for three years.
“This experience is the key to my success today,” Aaron said. “I had to be there 12 hours a day, 6 days a week and I couldn’t be a minute late. It taught me discipline and a lot about how I manage myself today.”
When the Hunter Expressway was completed in August 2013 Aaron was out of a job but he felt physically and mentally ready to return to racing. He rejoined Todd Howlett’s stable and outrode his claim within six months but just a things were looking up again, fate dealt a cruel blow. Aaron broke his leg playing touch football.
“That was another life lesson – simple things can happen that have a huge impact on your life and you just have to accept them,” Aaron said. “I don’t play any other sports or ride motorbikes anymore.”
After six months on the sideline Aaron was ready to return to racing again and a quick phone call to leading provincial trainer, Kris Lees would prove fruitful. He rode trackwork for Kris and fellow trainer Paul Perry six days a week but his leg wasn’t 100% and he was lacking motivation. He needed something to strive for, something to be excited about, and he found it in a gelding named Pera Pera.
“Mack Griffith (trainer) called up and asked if I could ride Pera Pera in a trial at Scone. After one ride I knew I was on something special and that gave me all the inspiration I needed,” Aaron said.
Aaron rode Pera Pera to victory at Muswellbrook on Melbourne Cup Day in 2015. He piloted six more winners in the weeks that followed but on 4 December 2015 his world would literally come crashing down yet again. Aaron’s collarbone was shattered when he was involved in the infamous five-horse fall in the Mudgee Cup.
He underwent surgery to have a plate and 10 screws inserted into his battered body.Despite being told he would need 12 weeks to recover, Aaron was committed to his rehabilitation and bounced back in just seven weeks.
“I ate well, I took calcium tablets, I did my exercises, I just wanted to be strong enough to come back,” Aaron said.
Eight weeks after the accident at Mudgee, Aaron obtained special permission to ride and he and Pera Pera notched up another win at Dubbo. Three weeks after that they won the Wellington heat of the $400,000 Country Championships and a week after that Aaron was aboard Something Borrowed when he qualified for the rich series by winning the Dubbo heat. Kris Lees rewarded his efforts by giving him his first Group 1 ride on Admiral Jello in the Queensland Derby at Eagle Farm.
“We came 9th of 18 but it was such a thrill,” Aaron said.
Aaron is quick to acknowledge the support and encouragement he has received during his tumultuous career, particularly from Todd Howlett, Kris Lees, Paul Perry and Mack Griffith.
“I’m so grateful for the help and understanding they have given me along the way,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here without them. My twin brother has also been there for me and he often drives with me to race meetings all over the place.”
Today Aaron is focused on being the best jockey he can be and he is certainly excelling. In the last two months of 2016 he rode trebles at Quirindi, Gunnedah and Cessnock as well as doubles on two days at Taree.
“You’ve just got to roll with the punches,” he said. “Racing is a hard industry but the good times outweigh the bad and if you work hard the opportunities will come.”