It was a weekend Bailey Wheeler will never forget!
The 16-year-old Grafton native, now apprenticed to leading Newcastle trainer Kris Lees, fulfilled every jockey’s dream when he rode his first winner at Goulburn last Saturday.
Then he came back to earth – well not quite – when his well-fancied mount in the last race at Armidale yesterday reared at the start and bolted, leaving him stranded in the barrier stalls, taking no competitive part though declared a runner.
Amongst the many congratulations the youngster received for his breakthrough victory at Goulburn on favorite Airstrike was a telephone call from champion jockey Zac Purton in Hong Kong.
“Zac is my godfather,” Wheeler explained. “He lived with us for a time when he was apprenticed to Trevor Hardy at Coffs Harbour.
“Zac reviews all my rides, and is in constant touch offering advice.
“He has been a great help along with Kris, Cameren Swan, Mal Ollerton and Josh Parr.
“Kris is of course a successful trainer, Cameren and Mal are both former jockeys and now foremen with Kris, and Josh drives up from time to time from the Central Coast to also offer advice.
“I appreciate all their help.”
Wheeler, who couldn’t be in a better stable with the brilliant young rider Dylan Gibbons and experienced former WA apprentice Madi Derrick also on board in the Lees’ team, says he has never wanted to do anything else but become a jockey.
“My father Dan was a jockey for a couple of seasons and rode winners for John Hawkes when he trained for the Ingham brothers and had a satellite stable in Brisbane.
“Weight cut short his career, but he rode Shoot Out (multiple Group 1 winner) in trackwork and looked after him when he was trained at the Gold Coast before later joining Chris Waller’s stable in Sydney.
“I was around horses from an early age, and spent some time riding a pony when I was 14 with trainer Matt Dunn at his Murwillumbah stable.”
Wheeler started working with Lees in Newcastle in February last year when he turned 15 with the aim of becoming apprenticed to him.
He rode in 26 barrier trials – the first of them at Muswellbrook on July 7 – before RacingNSW stewards gave him the “green light” to saddle up for his debut.
That was on a muddy day at Tamworth on October 11 when his mount Veedouble ($10) beat one home in a field of 11 on a heavy track.
Wheeler managed four minor placings (two at Port Macquarie on October 24, another at Muswellbrook a week later and then at Taree on Melbourne Cup day last Tuesday) before, at his 30th ride, cracking it for his first win on Airstrike ($2.10) in the second race at the TAB meeting at Goulburn last Saturday.
The Rubick filly also broke through, streeting her rivals by six lengths in the Maiden Plate (1000m).
“It was a great feeling to get that first win,” Wheeler said. “I was always confident in the run, and Airstrike really put them to bed in the straight.”
Wheeler had mounts in another four of the six races at Goulburn for two placings before heading back to Newcastle, and then off again to Armidale yesterday for three more rides, which included a placing on $15 chance Only Need Time.
Being only 16 years of age and thus without a driver’s licence, Wheeler is fortunate to have a willing chauffeur.
“My Nan lives in Newcastle and drives me to all the meetings I ride at,” he said. “I’m very lucky to have her doing that for me and really appreciate it.”
Wheeler’s weekend didn’t end as well as it began when $5 second favorite Purple Cup parted company with him at the start of the closer at Armidale, but the youngster took it in his stride.
“The horse reared high as we were getting ready to jump,” he said. “I went out the back of the stall as he took off, but I wasn’t hurt and it’s all part of racing.”
Former Racing NSW steward Danny Greer, now also a Lees’ employee, chases rides for Wheeler, who has further engagements this week at TAB meets at Port Macquarie on Thursday and Bathurst on Saturday.
Having one win to his name, Wheeler, who rides comfortably at 49kg, can ride another three before his 4kg claim is reduced.
And his Nan will continue to rack up plenty of kilometres as he seeks to achieve that – and more!
“I’ll be riding in the country for quite a while yet,” Wheeler said. “My only goal at present is to continue to improve and learn as much as I can.”