Matt Pumpa notched up more than 600 winners during a prolific career in the saddle, but he can take at least some of the credit for several hundred more through his role as one of Racing Victoria’s apprentice jockey coaches.
Established in 1995, the Apprentice Jockey Training Program (AJTP) has grown exponentially and is now recognised as Australia’s – and indeed one of the world’s – most successful finishing schools for aspiring young riders.
The likes of champion jockeys Craig Williams, Brenton Avdulla and Blake Shinn have all honed their considerable craft in the AJTP, and more recent graduates include Regan Bayliss, Beau Mertens, Ben Allen and Ben Thompson.
Pumpa himself came through the program almost two decades ago, when the AJTP was in its infancy. Fast forward to the present day, and the landscape has changed almost beyond measure.
From the moment a new crop of apprentice jockeys walks through the doors at RV, they are treated as elite athletes and are almost immediately introduced to training and conditioning programs designed to maximise and harness their innate talent.
Pumpa could not have imagined the vast strides the program has made since he joined as a coach some five years ago, supplementing Mel Weatherley (Athlete and Careers Development Manager) and Ron Hall (Jockey Wellbeing and Safety Officer) in the team dedicated to turning amateur riders into seasoned professionals.
Former champion hoop Darren Gauci added further gravitas and experience when he replaced the previous incumbent Matt Hyland as a jockey coach last year, meaning the apprentices – who are also able to call on the services of the Victorian Institute of Sport and Exercise Research Australia – want for nothing in the pursuit of their dreams.
“They already had a great set-up when I joined the AJTP, but it’s gone to the next level with the coaching staff and support network that’s now available to the apprentices,” said Pumpa.
“We have a rotation system in place so when the apprentices come in they will see the physio, who will assess them on the mechanical horse together with me and Darren [Gauci]. Based on that, the jockeys will get targeted treatment and massages to realign them and try to prevent any injuries re-occurring.
“They can then see our sports psychologist, who also works with footy players, and our nutritionist for dietary advice. They also spend time with our team of stewards, vets, the integrity department and form analysts, so they have a good depth of knowledge across the whole industry.
“For their physical fitness, they will spend an hour or so with the strength and conditioning coaches from Exercise Research Australia, who work with each apprentice on their specific needs. Then on the riding side, either myself or Darren will be at the races most days and we’re always only a phone call away, meaning they get constant support both on and off the track.
“Even though I really enjoyed my time in the program and learned a lot, it’s probably fair to say things were a bit different back then!”
Another notable change in recent years has been the increasing number of female riders joining the AJTP.
Of the six apprentices who were inducted this year, no fewer than five were female including Tayla Childs, the daughter of champion jockey Greg Childs and brother of Jordan, a previous graduate of the program.
Moreover, the two main prizes at last year’s graduation ceremony also went the way of the girls, with Jessica Eaton and Melissa Julius respectively taking home the Victorian Jockeys Association’s Outstanding Apprentice Jockey in Training and the Andrew Gilbert Principles of Sport Science awards.
According to Pumpa, Eaton is the embodiment of what is possible through good old fashioned hard work – regardless of gender.
“When the apprentices first arrive they are much like young horses, in that some of them have natural ability from the outset and hit the ground running, whereas others take a little longer to develop their skills,” he said.
“Ben Allen is an example of someone who picked things up very quickly and was always destined to get to the top, whereas Jess would probably admit that she wasn’t as natural in the saddle straight away.
"But Jess is an incredibly hard worker, she’s always looking to learn and improve by asking for advice and going over her rides with you. So even though she’s been a slightly later developer compared to someone like Ben, I’ve got no doubt she’ll go on to have a successful career because of her great work ethic. Being a jockey can be tough, and even if you’re the most talented rider in the world, you won’t get the rewards if you’re not prepared to put in the effort.”
That work ethic also applies to the AJTP staff, who travel extensively with the fledgling hoops and are effectively on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Over the past two years Pumpa has travelled overseas to several other racing jurisdictions, including South Africa and Hong Kong, where he studied their methods to see if any elements of the program could work over here.
The induction at both academies has led to an overhaul of the Victorian system, with a more rigorous selection process being introduced for new recruits this year.
“I really like the way South African jockeys ride, so I spent some time at their apprentice academies in Johannesburg and Durban to see how they do things over there,” explained Pumpa.
“I also met up with Felix Coetzee, the South African jockey who used to ride Silent Witness and is now in charge of the academy in Hong Kong, so it was really interesting to compare the different methods.
“We have now developed a new system for this year’s intake. We used to just look at the potential new recruits once or twice at trackwork, and then made a final decision based on that.
“But we agreed that probably wasn’t reliable or accurate enough, so now we assess them over a 12-month period. We get them in twice over the course of the year, and we’ll monitor their riding, their fitness and strength and a number of other factors to see how much progress they have made since the last check-up.
That way, at the end of the year we can make a more informed decision about which ones we take on, and which ones we let go.”
If getting your foot in the door of the program is tough enough, making it out the other side is just as challenging. For this reason, Pumpa believes one of the most satisfying aspects of his role is when the apprentices come to the end of their four-year stint in the program, when they can all reflect on the progress they have made.
“I feel like a proud father at the graduation ceremony,” he admitted.
“It’s very rewarding to see them grow and mature over the four years, not just as jockeys but more importantly as people as well. That’s probably the best part of the job for me, knowing you’ve made a positive difference.”