A photo that still hangs on Jason Collett’s bedroom wall at his family home in Pukekohe gives an insight into how a lanky Kiwi schoolkid became one of Sydney’s top jockeys.
It pictures the 16-year-old winning an amateur race in Auckland on August 25, 2007, on a horse named Bobby Dazzler.
Collett’s father Richard, who trained Bobby Dazzler, recalls how he was struggling to decide who to put on the horse at Ellerslie when his son, who had never ridden in a race, volunteered.
Jason was still at school but had been riding work for his dad since the age of 12 when, wearing glasses even in the rain, he had shown a natural aptitude.
Under the rules of racing, riders had to have trials experience before being allowed to race so Collett gave his son two rides at the Tuesday trials at Avondale.
His licence came through three days later and on the Saturday he legged Jason up on the horse, telling him he was on the best horse so to be patient and to save ground.
“A couple of horses went that hard by the time they got to the rise they were 12 lengths ahead of Jason and he was dawdling along,’’ Richard says.
“I thought, ‘geez, he’s blown this, he’s a minute off them’ but he cut the corner and got up to win by half a head. When he came back in I said, ‘you got a bit far off them’. But he replied, ‘you told me I was on the best horse’.
“He came in as cool as a cucumber and that summed up his nature. Even when he was riding ponies as a kid, he had a laid-back nature. He never got rattled or bustled them.”
Collett says his two daughters were completely different in their riding, Tasha more calculated and Alysha far more aggressive.
“Jason has a bit of my nature — ‘if it happens, it happens’.’’
That’s why Collett is sure that, despite his son staring at by far his biggest payday on Saturday, he’ll maintain his unflappable nature.
Jason Collett with Gytrash, who is one of the leading chances in The Everest. Picture: Getty Images)Source:Getty Images
With The Everest’s mammoth winning purse of $6.2 million, the winning jockey’s 5 per cent cut will amount to $310,000, not counting any sling. And even if Jason’s heavily fancied mount Gytrash runs only fourth, he’ll still take home $50,000.
He also has a great shot at winning The Kosciuszko after ruling favourite It’s Me was given the all-clear on Friday by a vet after having mucus in her throat.
His share of It’s Me’s winning stake of $685,000 would be $34,250. That’s $344,250 up for grabs for Collett in just under 90 minutes.
That kind of reward was never in the young amateur’s mind when, after finishing his sixth-form year (Year 11) at school, he decided to do an apprenticeship. At that stage, he didn’t even know if he’d make it in the saddle.
“I remember saying to him he’d be lucky to get through it as he was just starting to shoot up,” Richard says.
“There was always a doubt about how long he’d last riding. But to his credit, he was very disciplined and always kept his weight under control.”
It’s hardly surprising Jason has that trait. As sister Alysha says, they’re purebred — by a jockey out of a jockey.
Dad won 74 races during 10 years of riding in highweight and jumps races and mum Judy (nee Hawes) rode more than 100 winners before an ankle injury ended her career.
The Collett name is one of the most instantly recognisable in New Zealand racing, with its roots in Southland, where Richard’s father Don trained.
Jason’s cousin Samantha is a premiership-winning rider and her parents both rode — Jim is a successful trainer and Trudy (Thornton) still rides at 57 years of age.
Collett winning the Group 1 Spring Champion Stakes on Montefilia at Randwick last weekSource:Getty Images
It didn’t take long for Jason to hit the headlines, too, and in 2011-12 he was champion apprentice with 83 wins.
He credits the prize that came with that as laying the foundation for his success — a two-week stint in Sydney with rising trainer Chris Waller.
Collett made such an impression that, a year later, Waller asked him to return for three months. But while he racked up 24 city winners, he was homesick.
“He was lonely over there and would ring up every night,” Richard says.
“He was probably too young. You see it happen to a lot of kids — they go from being apprentices with a support network to a big stable, living in a flat where they have to fend for themselves.”
Collett was happier on his return to New Zealand but disaster struck when he had a bad fall at Tauranga, suffering a brain bleed, concussion and a broken collarbone.
It was only after that, and months of rehabilitation, that Collett resolved to give the competitive Sydney scene another crack.
Jason Collett prepares for a big day at Randwick on Saturday. Picture: Sam RuttynSource:News Corp Australia
“I told him when he first went, if you hang in long enough, you’ll get somewhere. It takes everyone time to get to the top level.
“Chris Waller knew how tough it was and told Jason he’d be close to 30 before he became a solid, mature rider.
“Jason is 29 now and has put himself in an environment where he’s had to keep pushing himself to do better.
“If he’s had a fault in Sydney for the last seven years, it’s been that he is so laid-back. He doesn’t come across as aggressive and it’s an aggressive place. But he’s very patient, which is a big thing, and another thing I like about Jason is he’s a good listener.
“He also does his homework before he rides. The level of professionalism in Australia is totally different. He has a guy who gives him advice on racing patterns and speed maps. All the top jockeys have support networks of people to help.”
Richard Collett says his son learned a lot from a fellow Waller employee, Ryan Roberts, a former top South African apprentice whom he lived with.
“He taught Jason about diet and how to manage himself as a rider,’’ Richard says.
“They’re still good mates.”
Jason Collett on board It’s Me, favourite for The Kosciuszko.Source:Getty Images
Collett, who has good support from his partner, Clare Cunningham, a rising star in the training ranks, does regular yoga and a lot of physio work to keep his body in top shape. “He’s very strong and very fit, probably as fit as he’s ever been,” Richard says.
At 1.72m, Collett is one of the tallest in the Sydney jockeys’ room.
“But he’s a very balanced rider, very tidy for a guy as tall as he is.”
Collett also claims a very tidy record with a total of 1054 wins, 288 in New Zealand and 766 in Australia, including 108 for Waller.
But while he has finished in the top 10 on the Sydney premiership in four of the past five years, with his mounts having won more than $45m, he still flies a little under the radar. When he booted Montefilia home last weekend in the Spring Champion Stakes, one of three winners on the day, it was only his second Group 1 win.
Like countless others before him, he has teamed with a number of topliners over the years only to lose the big-race rides to the more established jockeys, the most notable super mare Winx, whom he piloted to win her first two starts in 2014.
“Judy and I are proud of what Jason has achieved and hopefully he can land a big one this weekend,” Richard says.
The one certainty is, win, lose or draw, they’ll get a phone call from their son on his way home from the races.
Originally published asHow a horse named Bobby Dazzler gave Collett his big start
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