New Zealand's leading jumps jockey Buddy Lammas has accidentally found himself at the top of the premiership. It wasn't too long ago that he was eating pies at every smoko in a roading gang. The sudden success has surprised even himself. Paul Williams reports.
The once clean-cut poster boy of New Zealand racing had gone rogue. Sporting a bushy beard, he was eating pies and drinking large cans of sugar-laden energy drinks at every smoko break. At nearly 80kg, he was the heaviest he had been in his life.
This time last year former top jockey Buddy Lammas was leading hand on a gang working on a new state highway south of Ōtaki. For nearly three years he woke at 4am, rode half a dozen horses, then put on his overalls and headed off to work as the sun rose.
At night he would head straight to the stables to tend to his team of horses. There's no doubting Lammas was a hard worker. With two young children to support, he knew he would somehow have to fit in a full time job around horse training to make it all work.
Lammas would rather have made his money riding winners, but he had grown tired of crash-dieting, and a string of injuries had taken their toll.
Like most jockeys, he was constantly watched his waistline. He had a spa pool and a sauna at home where he would spend hours soaking the night before the races, sweating out precious grams.
There was also the side-effects of horrific injuries. Lammas had broken his back in a ghastly race fall at Waipukurau 10 years ago, an injury that threatened to end his career.
He was also battling with a dislocated shoulder that would painfully pop out at whim. When it popped during the finish of a race one day, it was frustrating to feel he wasn't at the top of his game.
"I couldn't ride how I wanted to ride. It wasn't fair on the owners and trainers," he said.
So he made the tough decision to stop riding and turn his hand to horse training. But it could be difficult for a young trainer to become established and attract the horse flesh needed to match it with the big commercial stables.
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When the roading contract finished he took a job as stable foreman for Ōtaki horse trainer Rachel Frost. He slimmed down and started riding again, but winter set in, and trainers were opting to use apprentice jockeys for weight relief. The rides dried up.
It was only then Lammas decided to give jumps riding a good crack. And after three shoulder operations to insert titanium rods and a new titanium socket, he had regained confidence in his ability.
He had ridden the odd jumping race in the past, but only to dip his toe in the water and - cheekily - because one ride over jumps meant that rider could compete in highweight events for the rest of that season.
"Initially I was riding the odd one, just cruising along. I'd had a few minor placings. The goal was just to survive and I was only doing it for the extra money," he said.
"This time last year I was as green as anything, and then the start of this season rolled around and it just went - boom."
The "boom" came with a chance ride on a horse called Thatshowitgoes - his first winner back from retirement. More big wins followed, a Great Northern Steeplechase, a Grand National, a Wellington Steeplechase, a Manawatu Steeplechase - all time-honoured events.
As of last week Lammas had ridden in just 45 races this season, yet had won 11 of those, with five second and six third placings, earning prizemoney of $280,175. His strike rate showed a win in roughly every four rides.
"I've been lucky enough to get on some good horses for some good trainers," he said.
Lammas credits some legends of New Zealand jumps riding for helping him with tips of the trade. He said Tommy Hazlett, Jonathan Riddell, Aaron Kuru and Jo Rathbone were brilliant with their advice.
"I've had some good people tell me what I was doing wrong and telling me how to improve. I'm still learning - absolutely," he said.
"I was probably riding a bit long, but they've all said to me believe in your horse, trust that it will jump that jump, and to treat it like a normal race. They're all good jockeys, so you listen to them."
Lammas was still training from his Ōtaki base. He currently had eight horses in work, but during the summer had 17 horses in his care. It was seasonal, and numbers would pick up again when the warmer weather returned.
He maintained that training horses was his long-term goal, and he wanted to make a name for himself in the role, with an eye to the future.
Lammas credited his partner Amy Mitchell with helping him to maintain a comfortable riding weight. She had researched different diets and put together one high on seafood and salad that worked.
"At the moment I'm a bit fat still, but I can manage it, and I suppose it's not racing unless you're wasting," he said.
"And there's no pies...maybe once in a while as a Sunday treat."
Lammas can't remember the first time the first time he was thrown on the back of a horse. It pre-dates his memory. But he was born to be a jockey. His father Robbie and mother Rosie were jockeys, as was brother Cameron, and sister Melissa rode as an amateur.
The Lammas children all had ponies and would fly around their farm and over jumps at a young age. Buddy would set his ponies for the Boxing Day races at Awapuni, where they used to stage a pony race. There weren't many years he didn't win it.
Robbie and Rosie Lammas were familiar faces on racecourses for decades as Clerks of the Course duties. Now in his late 60s, Robbie Lammas is still performing what was an integral part of any race meeting.
A clerk of the course helps organise horses in the birdcage and delivers horses to the starting gates. They catch loose horses with daredevil-like courage, and always lead the winning horse back to salute the judge.
Melissa sometimes helped out, as had Buddy on occasion.
The current racing season ends at the end of next month, and should Lammas still be at the top of the premiership, it would be another chapter in what was already a successful riding career.
Lammas will always be remembered for winning New Zealand's richest race at the time - the 2009 $1.2million Kelt Capital Stakes - on Vosne Romanee, while he also won the Group One Thorndon Mile at Trentham aboard Wall Street.
He's still adding photos to the album - it's just that these days there's fences in them.