That beaming smile was back, along with a few tears!
And it was heart-warming to see both after Cejay Graham had capped a brilliant comeback to race riding by winning on former Victorian Imprinted at Coffs Harbour last Thursday.
The talented 23-year-old mid-North Coast apprentice had endured a painful and often frustrating 12 months as a result of a shocking accident on the way to the start of a race at Lismore on January 17 last year, having made her return only four days earlier at the Woop Woop Cup meeting at Wauchope on Boxing Day.
Graham had just left the mounting yard at Lismore on Cotton Caper, and was cantering the mare to the barrier for the Class 1 Handicap (1110m) when all hell broke loose.
“Cotton Caper dropped her head and bucked and did so for 400m,” Graham told NSW Country & Picnic Racing.
“The further we went the worse she bucked and I ended up flat on my back and in excruciating pain.”
The incident occurred a day after Graham had three rides at the Saturday metropolitan meeting at Rosehill Gardens, and finished third on Madam Legend, on whom she had won four races (three at Newcastle and the other on the Kensington track) the previous year.
Graham spent two nights in hospital before her partner, fellow jockey Kirk Matheson, was able to drive her home to Port Macquarie.
She had not long returned there after spending a fruitful 18 months with Randwick trainers Peter and Paul Snowden, for whom she rode 18 winners and drew the attention of other prominent Sydney trainers, including Chris Waller (two wins and four placings from 10 mounts).
“I fractured the T3, 4 and 5 vertebrae in my neck, and because the breaks were so stable, there was nothing surgeons could do for me, other than order complete rest for quite a period,” Graham explained.
“I spent the next four months either bed or couch-ridden. Aside from the pain, it was so frustrating not being able to do anything.”
Graham then began hydrotherapy and labelled it as the turning point in her rehabilitation.
“Getting into the pool helped ease the pain, and I followed up having physio and doing Pilates.
“My best friend has a gym at Wauchope, and was a great help with stretching exercises.
“I worked really hard to get my fitness back, but there is nothing you can do to simulate riding a horse.
“I got back on my pony in October, and started riding work again in November and December, and that was a month or so ahead of schedule.”
Graham at no stage entertained thoughts of not making a successful comeback, though she says her near 12 months out of the saddle seemed like an eternity.
“After winning the Class 1 (1315m) at Coffs last Thursday, I was interviewed by Priscilla Looker on Sky when the reality suddenly hit me that I was back.
“I tried to hold myself together and keep smiling, but there were a few tears. It was so good to again be doing what I love.”
Graham’s victory on Imprinted for Coffs Harbour trainer Graham Payne was fitting in more ways than one.
Payne supplied her first winner (Marlz Moment) in a 1900m Class 1 Plate on a heavy track at Armidale on May 30, 2017, only nine days after beginning her career as a 4kg claimer, riding Unique Miss at Port Macquarie.
Graham followed up by scoring again on the now nine-year-old retired mare Marlz Moment over 2125m at Cessnock six days later.
Imprinted’s win (the 156th of her career) provided the young jockey with a milestone 100 on country tracks. She has also ridden 45 provincial winners and 11 in town.
The Lismore accident wasn’t the only one which resulted in Graham spending an enforced lengthy stint away from the track.
She fractured her left wrist and needed two rounds of surgery when her mount bled and collapsed on the home turn in a race at Grafton in November, 2017.
In spite of not being able to ride for six months, she still won the NSW apprentices’ title that season.
Because Graham has missed so much of her apprenticeship, she is determined to make up for lost time.
“Whilst I can’t claim on country tracks, I still have a 3kg allowance in town and 1.5kg at the provincials,” she said.
“I’m naturally light, but during my time off last year, I made sure I continued to eat healthy and my weight didn’t get beyond 53.5kg.
“Once I started riding work, I got it back to around 49/50kg, and that’s a big advantage in setting myself up to get more opportunities in Sydney and at the provincials.
“That’s my goal, and I don’t mind travelling when those opportunities arise again.”
Touch wood, we’ll see much more of this young lady smiling broadly after increased winners this year – and beyond!