Hungry Eaton aims to make up for lost time in the saddle

If prizes were handed out for showing resilience in the face of adversity, jockey Jess Eaton would have a bulging trophy cabinet in the house she shares with her fellow apprentice Mel Julius.

Her burgeoning career has been hampered with injury setbacks, but Eaton’s persistence and never-say-die attitude have won her admirers and plaudits both inside and outside the jockeys’ room.

A winning double at Kilmore on Monday proved that the 25-year-old is riding in the sort of form which saw her claim her first and second metropolitan winners in the space of a week back in April.

A fortnight later, Eaton suffered a fractured tibia – the third bad break she’d experienced since 2015 – during a freak pre-race accident at Sale.

Lesser characters may have thrown in the towel, particularly given the cruel timing of her latest enforced absence, but to her credit Eaton knuckled down to her post-surgery rehabilitation and is now reaping the rewards.

Displaying a maturity not always common in twenty-somethings, Eaton remains philosophical about the ups and downs she has experienced in the saddle.  

“I’ve obviously had my fair share of bad luck, but you just have to deal with it and move on,” said Eaton, who was named the Victorian Jockey Association’s Outstanding Apprentice Jockey in Training at last December’s graduation ceremony.

“The first injury was probably the most frustrating time of my life, because I was just starting to ride a few winners and I was due to come back to Mick Price’s stable and had a few city rides lined up, so the timing was terrible. I couldn’t ride for ten months so of course it was hard and there were some low points, but it never crossed my mind to quit.”

During the tough times, the support of the staff in Racing Victoria’s Apprentice Jockey Training Program (AJTP) has been more crucial than ever. 

In addition to apprentice jockey coaches Matt Pumpa and Darren Gauci, Athlete and Careers Development Manager Mel Weatherley and Jockey Wellbeing and Safety Officer Ron Hall, the apprentices are serviced by a highly-qualified team of sports psychologists and physios.

According to Eaton, the quality of care the apprentices receive in the AJTP is second to none, and she would not have enjoyed the same level of success without their support and expertise.     

“Being a jockey can be hard at times, but having people like [psychologist] Lisa Stevens to turn to is so important,” she said.

“Lisa really helps with our skills on and off the track and has great experience of working with elite professional sportsmen at the [AFL team] Western Bulldogs, so to be able to talk through things with someone like Lisa is a huge asset for all the apprentices in the program.    

“[Physio] Helen Walker has also come on board, she’s so helpful and I have a really good relationship with her. She’s learning a lot more about the racing industry, like how jockeys position our bodies when we’re race riding. She’s been able to evolve with us and look at different methods on how to improve our postures and reduce soreness, so we’ve been learning from each other and it’s great to listen to someone from outside the industry, because she has a fresh perspective on things.

“And then with the jockey coaches, even though Matty and Darren are mainly there to improve our riding, you can always talk to them about personal stuff as well. You have to grow up pretty quickly as an apprentice jockey and you have to look after yourself to an extent, but it’s always nice to know you have that support network around you when you need it.”

The apprentices probably spend more time with the jockey coaches than they do their families, and it was Pumpa who was trackside for the highlight of Eaton’s career, when she travelled to Perth to represent Victoria in the final leg of the National Apprentice Jockey Series.

Her runner-up finish in the finale ensured Victoria took home the overall title, and in the last race of the day, Eaton rode her maiden city winner to cap a memorable trip to WA.

“I’d have to say that was probably the best experience I’ve had so far as a jockey,” Eaton revealed.

“Having Matt there to focus solely on me and my rides was huge, and I learned so much from it. He has been a big influence and supporter of my career, so to have him there when I rode my first city winner made it extra special. I probably harass him too much on the phone, constantly asking him which areas I need to improve on and analysing my performances, so to have him at the track for such an important moment in my career was great.”

No doubt there will be many more milestones in the not-too-distant future for one of the hardest working and most dedicated apprentice jockeys in the Victorian ranks.