Cop the tip, McDonald is here to win
Warm-up: James McDonald and Victoria Derby favourite It's A Dundeel get a feel for Moonee Valley yesterday. Photo: Pat Scala
JAMES McDonald has already made a series of bright starts. Saturday's first ride in a spring classic marks another beginning; ticking the next box - winning a Melbourne group 1 - seems a mere formality.
''It's gunna be … I can't wait for it to happen, it's gunna be great,'' the 20-year-old says. He is assured rather than arrogant, confident not cocky. Yet even a swing towards the latter would only be in step with the belief that New Zealand's latest racing export will soon be making a very big noise.
''He's got a steely determination for a quiet sort of a kid, he's very, very aggressive and strong, and he's very, very competitive - like most great sportsmen,'' says trainer John O'Shea, the driver behind McDonald's move to Sydney this year. In his droll way, O'Shea adds: ''If you're watching racing in New Zealand, it's hard not to see him.''
Riding 207 winners in a season - more than any jockey in Kiwi history - while still an apprentice will tend to get you noticed. Yet it's not just the results but the steely way he gets them that has impressed owners and trainers - and put his fellows on notice - since the farm kid from Cambridge, near Hamilton, crossed the ditch with the glint of a winner in his eye.
''We're not here to play tiddlywinks,'' McDonald says when asked about reports that he has bowed to no one in the Sydney jockeys' room, from top dog Nash Rawiller down. ''As many trainers see you're reasonably confident and think you can do the job, well they're going to put you on.''
O'Shea remembers his first visit to Australia. ''We took him to Randwick, he was straight out of New Zealand, never been to Sydney. He rode three winners, we put him on a plane and sent him home again.'' He gives him first call on his horses, loves his attitude, and reckons he's probably had the wood on Rawiller in their recent meetings. ''He suits me, he's nice and aggressive, he's there to win [races], no matter whether it's a maiden at Galaganbone or a group 1 at Randwick.''
Gai Waterhouse's Melbourne Cup hopes are likely to rest with McDonald and import Fiorente, but more immediately he'll ride Glass Harmonium for Mike Moroney in the Cox Plate, a race the jockey says he wants to win more than any other. Others are more fancied, but group 1 glory may only have to wait a week, when he keeps the Kiwi connection going aboard Murray Baker's unbeaten colt It's A Dundeel at teensy odds in the derby.
''It's the first time I've actually been to a Melbourne spring and had rides every day,'' McDonald says, reminding himself that one of those - a Caulfield Cup mount - has already been missed due to suspension. He is intent on making up for lost time, and lost opportunities when he was younger, greener and given a lesson 12 months ago.
''I said to him when he came down here last year, 'Son, they'll eat you up', and to be fair they probably did,'' says O'Shea, recalling McDonald butchering the ride on Sangster in the Norman Robinson Stakes, being dumped for the derby, and watching Hugh Bowman pilot the gelding to victory. O'Shea says all jockeys must endure such growing pains, and the best emerge from them fast and fully formed.
''I'm completely different,'' McDonald says of his outlook now compared to the homesick teen of 2011. What hasn't changed is an attitude connections love to hear - that big-race riding is big business, and if your idea of enjoyment is in step with that of normal 20-year-olds, racing's not for you.
''When I first started it was almost fun - you ride your first winner, win your first apprentice premiership, go on to your first jockeys' premiership, it all just falls into place really well and you just enjoy it.''
On the good horses, against the good jockeys, amid the spring hype, everything goes up several notches. He's not laughing, but is relishing the challenge.
Inevitable comparisons have been drawn with great New Zealand horsemen such as Shane Dye and Jim Cassidy, and McDonald will walk the Moonee Valley track this week with another expat Kiwi who knows its quirky rises and bends like his own reflection. When you're about to ride in your first Cox Plate, there are few better guides to turn to than Brent Thomson.
''I don't really know what I expected that day,'' Thomson said yesterday, recalling being a 17-year-old on ''a bit of a busman's holiday'' who hadn't even ridden at a city meeting in Australia before Cox Plate day 1975. He duly saluted in the slosh on Fury's Order, and won the race again at his next three attempts too, the last in 1979 on the flying Dulcify.
''He's got great talent, I'm not too sure that he needs too much steering, to be honest,'' Thomson says of McDonald, hailing his balance, hands, and feather-light presence in the saddle.
''That's why they run well for him. Your man's got a great CV already, I don't think he needs to be told too much.''
Wherever he points McDonald as they walk the course, Thomson knows he's ultimately headed in one direction - up. ''Some of the greatest names in New Zealand racing in the last few decades have always made their way to Sydney or Melbourne. He's another one who will make his mark for a long time here.''