Racing: Hong Kong victory sets McDonald on way to top

By Michael Guerin

James McDonald's career appears headed skyward as he celebrates winning the BMW Champions Mile at Sha Tin on Sunday.Picture /Hong Kong Jockey Club
James McDonald's career appears headed skyward as he celebrates winning the BMW Champions Mile at Sha Tin on Sunday.Picture /Hong Kong Jockey Club

It isn't the 13 group one wins or having the world at his stirrups that James McDonald is most proud of. It is the fact that after being kicked in the guts, he got up and willed himself to become a better jockey.

The 20-year-old Kiwi wonder jock took the latest, and potentially most important, step on his seemingly pre-determined path to greatness in Hong Kong on Sunday.

He rode the perfect race to help Xtension defend his title in the HK$12 million ($1.950 million) Champions Mile, a victory that propels McDonald past being Australasian racing's new "It Boy" to being a player on the world stage.

It comes just weeks after he dominated Doncaster Day at Randwick, riding his first Sydney group one winner and the day after riding his first winner for Gai Waterhouse, itself akin to winning the jockeys' lottery.

This week, he heads to Brisbane and in a fortnight to Singapore to ride Xtension, who could even carry him all the way to Royal Ascot.

In short, James McDonald has made it.

But as he sat in his hotel room in Hong Kong last night he told the Herald that his worst moments of this magical season are what made him one of the hottest young riders in the world.

"Last spring I got a couple of decent kicks in the guts," said McDonald.

"I copped plenty of flak, and it was probably warranted, for my ride on Foxwedge in Sydney and then I lost the ride on Sangster just before he won the VRC Derby.

"And they bloody hurt. But if they hadn't happened I wouldn't be the jockey I am now.

"Those experiences taught me that it is not just about turning up and expecting to ride winners.

"I have to do my study, keep learning, keep getting better. After all, I hope this is only the start."

It is a start that signals an end. The end of McDonald's fulltime New Zealand riding career.

Already his manager, Garry Cossey, has stopped taking bookings for rides this season.

McDonald will divide his time between Brisbane and Sydney predominantly and then, while having a winter holiday, will work out exactly what he wants to do.

He feels a genuine loyalty toward his biggest New Zealand supporters and has a crush on juvenile filly Pure Elegance, who he wants to ride wherever she goes next season.

But love and loyalty don't pay the bills, not the way the equine firepower of John O'Shea, Chris Waller and maybe even Waterhouse will in the future.

So expect McDonald to be riding here on mainly the biggest days next season but he already has Sydney on his mind.

The pressure to move to Hong Kong will intensify too, especially if injured legend Darren Beadman doesn't make it back to ride for training icon John Moore, who wins the most money of any trainer in Hong Kong, trains Xtension and loves McDonald.

That is an attractive package.

While the ultra-polite country kid won't say it, though, Hong Kong is the future for McDonald, not the now.

"I feel very privileged to ride up here, in races like I did yesterday.

"But, I think, maybe I am five years away from being ready for it full time. Not just the racing, but living here.

"Then again, the speed things are going at the moment, that could change."

For McDonald now is about learning and comfort levels.

"I feel comfortable now walking into the jockeys' room in Sydney and I am starting to feel that way in Hong Kong.

"I learned more this weekend than I would have in six months' winter riding back home."

Like a lesson from hardened Aussie rival Brett Prebble, now himself a big gun in Hong Kong.

Approaching the home turn on Sunday, Prebble on Lucky Nine drifted out slightly, presenting McDonald with a half gap.

"I couldn't work out why so I asked Brett later," McDonald explains.

"He told me he knew I was on one of the horses to beat so he was trying to commit me to a gap which he was then going to close and shut me out of the race.

"So I have watched that video a few times today and now I can see what he was thinking. I need to keep learning things like that."

But already McDonald has learned the most important lessons any young jockey has to comprehend.

He keeps his weight under control and doesn't burn bridges, as he showed by getting sacked from his Derby darling Silent Achiever in March, yet still riding a stakes winner for her trainer Roger James over the Sydney Carnival.

And he is a young man not drinking or inhaling his talent down the drain, a trap for some young superstars of the saddle.

How far McDonald will go, how special he will become, will be fascinating to watch.

But after the last month, New Zealand racing fans may be watching most of that journey from afar.

BIG MAC WITH THE LOT

- James McDonald's career continues to skyrocket as he rides Xtension to win the Champions Mile in Hong Kong.

- The 20-year-old Kiwi is now one of the most sought after young jockeys in the world.

- He may be lost to New Zealand except on our biggest days next season.

- McDonald could develop into being one of New Zealand's greatest ever jockeys.

- NZ Herald

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