Cessnock’s famed Jungle Juice Cup, now held at Newcastle’s Beaumont (inside) track, won’t be the same without Robert Thompson AM when the 2021 edition is run on Monday.
Thompson, Australia’s winningest jockey and Hall of Famer, has won the race a remarkable 11 times – but isn’t riding at the meeting.
In fact, the highly respected Cessnock legend hasn’t ridden for three and a half months and whilst he didn’t mention the “R” word, there is a real possibility his wonderful career in the saddle is coming to a close.
“I’m 63 and I’ve got one boot off,” he said last night in perhaps the strongest indication yet that hanging up both boots may be just around the corner.
“I was really disappointed not to be able to ride at the North Queensland Cup carnivals during the winter because of the COVID restrictions.
“I had hoped to go there as I have in past years, and then make a decision about my future.
“I haven’t ridden in a race since early July, and have no plans to resume anytime soon.”
Thompson deservedly was afforded Australian Racing Hall of Fame status in 2015, and a couple of weeks later another fitting award was bestowed upon the history-making “boy” from Cessnock.
He was awarded an AM – a member in the General Division of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday honours for “significant service to the thoroughbred industry as an ambassador, champion rider and mentor to apprentice jockeys”.
The Hunter’s inaugural Australian Racing Hall Of Famer was born at Cessnock Hospital on May 13, 1958 and christened Robert Norman Thompson.
Apprenticed to his now deceased grandfather Norm Collins Snr, Thompson has taken himself on an extraordinary “ride” which has firmly etched his name into Australian racing history.
He rode 499 winners as an apprentice, broke the late Jack Thompson’s (not related) long-standing Australian riding record of 3322 winners when successful on Promised at Port Macquarie on July 28, 2008, and then hit the 4000 mark when he got Lay Down The Law home at Broadmeadow on May 2, 2014.
Thompson’s latest winner, Contributingfactor at Port Macquarie on April 3 this year, was his 4447th in an outstanding career which has spanned nearly 50 years.
By his own admission, he hated school and received special dispensation from his headmaster to ride the first of his 4000-plus winners.
His first two rides – both unplaced – were at a Saturday meeting at Newcastle in April, 1973. He hadn’t quite turned 15 years of age then.
A week later, he had five more mounts at Scone and then greeted the judge at his eighth ride at Wyong on Thursday, May 8 (five days before his birthday), landing his first winner on his grandfather’s horse It’s Regal after being allowed to leave school early for a more important “essay”.
“RT” didn’t take long to make his mark in town, either. He clinched a metropolitan breakthrough – again on grandfather Norm’s horse Semper Prima – at his first Randwick ride on May 30, 1973; little more than a fortnight after his 15th birthday.
Though a young Thompson had an aversion to school life, he kept all his riding records in scrapbooks (and filled plenty of them obviously); winners written in red ink; losers in black.
When Thompson turned 21, his late father Arthur took up training – and it was the beginning of a brilliant partnership.
“Dad was not only a great mate, but an excellent trainer,” he recalled. “One of my great memories is riding all five winners for him one day at Cessnock, including the Cup on Gay Scene.”
Thompson rode seven Group 1 winners, but jokingly reckons the “real” tally is 18!
He was referring to his 11 Jungle Juice Cups at his beloved Cessnock racecourse (though the 2013 renewal was transferred to Scone), now closed as a racing venue.
Thompson won three consecutive Cups (2013, 14 and 15) on Jungle Juice legend Youthful King (who also scored in 2011 for Alison Dyson) for his great mate, Cessnock trainer Jeremy Sylvester.
But he will never forget his first success in the annual feature race on Top Hat Joe in 1982 for his father.
“I’m pretty sure the Cup was run then on a Saturday, and Top Hat Joe played up on the truck as Dad was preparing to take his horses to the track for the meeting,” he recalled.
“So we put a saddle on him and I rode him to the track.
“We lived on the other side of town then, and it would have been a couple of miles.
“Other trainers were wondering what was going on when I rode Top Hat Joe into the course and took him to his stall.”
Thompson won’t be a competitor when the Jungle Juice field jumps away at 5.40pm on Monday, but says he might be on course to watch the race.
Given his status in the industry let alone his amazing Jungle Juice record, it would be fitting if Newcastle Jockey Club invited him to present the trophies afterwards!