Attitude ... a confident Jakkalberry plays up for Alex Cairns at Werribee yesterday. Photo: Pat Scala
ALEX CAIRNS is halfway through the longest six weeks of his life, and missing his wife, Lizzie, and daughter Ella terribly. He still calls Ella ''my baby'' (she's 12); in 16 years together, he and his wife have never been apart for longer than the 10 days of his last Melbourne mission, 12 years ago.
He's fortunate to have an important distraction, a travelling companion so used to life on the road that his CV could have been penned by Lonely Planet, and who is keeping Cairns focused on the crucial business at hand. For now, Jakkalberry is his family, his reason for getting out of bed before dawn every day.
''He's a character. You open the box door and he'll dive at you with his mouth open,'' Cairns said. ''You think he's being a git but he's just mucking around.''
Cairns said the entire likes showing off, jumping and bucking around in front of Americain, Dunaden, Mount Athos and the other star tenants at Werribee's upmarket equine youth hostel.
Today, it's down to business, a blessed relief for Cairns, who as head lad for English-based Italian trainer Marco Botti, is counting the days until his boss arrives on Derby eve to take the reins and steer Jakkalberry into the Melbourne Cup.
''[The Caulfield Cup] is a big prize as well, but you just want him to run really well. I just don't want anything to go wrong - if he doesn't run well, I'll feel like it's my fault, you know?''
As Cairns Skypes his loved ones twice daily, he takes heart that his horse is thriving like a seasoned nomad, and hasn't missed a beat.
The seven-year-old is an exemplar of the cups' international evolution: Irish-bred, Italian-reared, owned since early this year by Darren Dance's Australian Thoroughbred Bloodstock group, trained by the son of an Italian racing legend, and ridden by an Irishman, Colm O'Donoghue, from one of the biggest stables in the game.
''Dubai, Hong Kong, England, Japan, France,'' Cairns says of the stops on Jakkalberry's 24-race, 10-win career. ''And America of course,'' where he won the American St Leger at Arlington in August.
A third in Dubai's Sheema Classic in March inspired tears in the mounting yard. Cairns knows how much a dream result here would mean to Dance and the owners.
The son of a comedian, Cairns was born on a Scottish island and grew up in England's north-east. He left school to ride horses, and left home for Newmarket at 16. When his contemporaries were stumbling arm-in-arm through Newcastle's famed Bigg Market singing football songs, he would be mucking out stables.
He was a jockey for a while, worked in Germany, and at length settled as head lad for Peter Chapple-Hyam. Along the way, he worked for James Fanshawe, and breezed through Melbourne to lead Arctic Owl up on 2000 Melbourne Cup day. His enduring memories are of the madness of the occasion, how different it is to staying races at home and, above all, how hard it is to win.
''I've never seen so much trouble … You've just got to have a bit of luck, luck in running,'' he said, recalling Martin Pipe's horse stopping on the Flemington home turn, leaving jockey David Harrison steering Arctic Owl one way then the other as Far Cry dropped back through the field, and still finishing fifth. ''He wouldn't have beat the winner [Brew], but he'd have been a good second.''
Cairns, 40, left Chapple-Hyam in 2010, and has hooked up with Botti, 35, a trainer on the rise and the son of champion Italian trainer Alduino.
''He likes things done properly, can't relax until he knows he's checked every box, every horse, no matter how many times I've been around … I think the Australian public will take to him.''
Cairns has seen Jakkalberry change since that St Leger triumph. ''Horses get confidence, and he knew he'd gone out there and won … He knows he's good - he's got a bit of attitude, which is a good thing. It comes out in him when it's tough. He's going to have to be tough.''