Jai Williams was always destined for the saddle, with his father Guy Williams, a former jockey and his mother Jessica Black, a prominent stable hand for the likes of Patinack Farm and John Wallace.
Born and bred on the Gold Coast, Williams only ever knew horse racing, doing his part with his mentor, John Wallace, before taking on an apprenticeship with Stephen Lee in Ballina.
“I’ve been working in the stables since I was 12 or 13, doing jobs just before school and things like that,” Williams said.
“I started my apprentice with Stephen Lee when I was 15 and I’ve only recently started race riding.”
The fresh-faced 17-year-old made his debut at Ballina on October 3, guiding the Lee trained See It Thru to a third placing in the 1300m Open Handicap.
At only his second meeting and sixth race ride, Williams was soon enough celebrating his first winner, which arrived at Murwillumbah on Monday when aboard the Wallace trained, Cossie, in the 1100m Benchmark 58 Handicap.
Williams found himself in a battle too, getting home in the nick of time to win by 0.01 of a length, when edging fellow 4kg claiming apprentice Courtney Bellamy, who finished second on the Brett Bellamy trained, All About Charlie.
“I couldn’t believe it. I went past the line, and I honestly thought I got beat by a whisker,’ he said.
Williams was led out by his father, who strapped Cossie, and the youngster admitted that his emotions got the better of him during what was a special moment for the entire family.
“All of a sudden, Luke Rolls and Matthew McGuren screamed out ‘congrats’, and as soon as I heard that, I started crying and I let it out,” Williams said.
“I was so overwhelmed and got emotional. My dad led the horse and I had always dreamed of this, and when I saw him after the race, I broke down and cried.”
Riding his first winner for Wallace meant the world to the young hoop, with the veteran trainer considered family by Williams.
“Johnny means everything to me. My first steps weren’t even in parent’s arm, they were in his arms,” Williams laughed.
“He is part of the family. I have always been around his stable since I could remember and to ride my first winner for him was better than anything I could have imagined.”
Despite his upbringing, Williams explained that he never envisioned being a jockey, and while he loved the industry, he hadn’t ridden a horse before he was 14.
“It wasn’t something I planned on doing, I thought I would get too big,” Williams said.
“I wanted to be a trainer or marine mechanic; I didn’t ride my first horse until I was 14, but the first time I got on one, I loved it instantly and knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Now under the guidance of Lee, Williams said it was all about working hard and trying to get the little things right.
“’I’ve got my head down, arse up and I’m working hard,” Williams said.
“Working for Stephen has been great, he is lovely, but he is tough, and he has taught me that if I work hard, things will pay off.
“He has helped with horsemanship, groundwork and he teaches me so much about racing and he shows me what I need to do and what I’ve done wrong and he is critical, but I like that about him.”
The young jockey has a strong network of support, meaning he will get every opportunity to reach his potential.
“I’ve had so much help. Steve’s partner Amanda Stewart is a massive help. She is always working, and always teaching me equine vet stuff and she comes from a jumping background,” Williams said.
“She has taught me so much horse stuff; more than I ever knew.
“Jake Bayliss is another massive help. He gave me all my gear and he has been there to help out.”
Going forward, Williams said he couldn’t imagine doing anything else for a career.
“I’m hoping I’m successful. I want a long career and would want to do this for the rest of my career,” Williams said.
“I am loving it and I would not want another job. I would do it for free if I had to.
“I love the adrenaline, the winning feeling, going fast and everything about racing.”
Williams will get his chance to ride again at Lismore on Sunday and Grafton on Tuesday with 9 rides across the two meetings.