Trophy hunt: Caulfield Cup 2016 jockey Blake Spriggs back in the saddle

THE sun had just peeped above the Pacific Ocean as Blake Spriggs hopped in the car outside the jockey’s Clovelly unit.

He headed down Alison Road, past Royal Randwick, across the harbour, north up the F3, bypassing his home town, and snaked along the New England Highway to country music mecca Tamworth.

Five hours for one ride – fifth in the cup.

Rides were hard to come by at that point. The heady days as a boom apprentice for Australia’s first lady of racing, Gai Waterhouse, and riding five winners on the one card at Rosehill, were a fading memory.

On Saturday, Spriggs will ride Sir John Hawkwood in the $3million Caulfield Cup.

Baring a mishap, the John Thompson-trained gelding will go on to the Melbourne Cup. The race that stops a nation. A chance at history.

The Caulfield Cup, first run in 1879, has eluded Hunter jockeys. Wayne Harris of Muswellbrook was the last to win a Melbourne Cup on Jeune in 1994.

Sir John Hawkwood, a former European stayer, provided Spriggs with a career highlight, claiming the time-honoured Metropolitan Handicap at Randwick on October 1. It was the 24-year-old’s breakthrough group 1. A win that put his name back in lights and produced a Colgate smile so familiar to Hunter racegoers.

Had Spriggs not taken a call from Scone trainer Greg Bennett in 2013 and accepted the single ride in Tamworth, he wouldn’t be in Melbourne on Saturday  – he’d most likely be at Broadmeadow, clambering for a position in the jockeys’ room to watch one of the world’s richest handicaps on television.

But, such is racing, that 420-kilometre trek led to an association with Paul Fudge and Waratah Thoroughbreds and, ultimately, the ever-reliable Sir John Hawkwood.

It was his Sliding Doors moment.

“Greg didn’t realise that it was my only ride in Tamworth until afterwards,” Spriggs says. “He offered me a couple of rides with a big owner, and said that I should take them. Sure enough the first one, won. Greg gave me Paul’s number and said it was in my best interest to give him a call. From there it flowed on. I owe a lot to Greg Bennett. You need someone to have faith in you and Greg did.”

Sir John Hawkwood is a $17 chance in the Caulfield Cup and a $34 hope on the first Tuesday in November.

“I remember thinking before the Metrop, to be a group-1 winning jockey is something you dream about. Now I have the Metrop trophy sitting at home, I can’t help but wonder if this horse can repeat that performance I could have the Caulfield Cup and the Melbourne Cup beside it. Every year I have watched the Melbourne Cup wishing I had a ride.”

Spriggs was born for the saddle. His father Dale was a champion bush jockey and winner of 2987 races. Now retired, he runs a business in Forster. However, Dale’s relationship with Blake has fractured. Blake’s mother, Chick, who is returning to Newcastle to live from the Gold Coast, grew up on a cattle farm in Moree. Her father, the late Kevin Hartin, was a trainer and highly respected horseman.

Forget sand pits and Tonka trucks. Spriggs’ playground was a racecourse. His heroes, men in bright silks riding thoroughbreds. Celebrating his fourth birthday at the Bega races, sitting atop the clerk of the course’s gray mare, the proud youngster announced he wanted to “ride horses like daddy”.

Holidays were spent working stock at his grandfather’s farm or at the nearby Gravesend Pony Club near Moree – learning, preparing for a career in the saddle. 

“I have encountered some very good horsemen but my grandfather was the best. He was on another level and taught me how to work out a horse’s personality, what they want, what they don’t want. That is crucial when a jockey only has 10 minutes on a horse before you ride them in a race. A lot of the time I have never sat on them before.”

At age 14, nine months, all skin and bones, Spriggs left St Pius High School, Adamstown, where he was a state champion 800-metre and 1500-metre runner and keen soccer player, to start an apprenticeship with Broadmeadow trainer Steve Hodge.

“I was going to the track before school and was back at the stables afterwards. School was second choice, riding was number one. I got to the end of year nine and had enough of it.”

Hodge, who runs a team of about 20, says Spriggs “always wanted to ride, was always going to be a jockey”. 

“Horses travel for him. He is patient, not a hot-headed kid, very calm. With his father being a jockey, he has a good understanding on the tactical side of racing. You don’t just jump on and go flat out.”

A natural, Spriggs rode a winner, Sixty Watt, in his first race at Muswellbrook on March 14, 2008.

“It was a huge thrill. The owner was Lee Rowan of Lee Rowan’s Gardenworld. I was riding the horse in trackwork and putting a lot of hours into her with trainer Phil Anderson, who has sadly since passed away. I won a trial on her and I basically begged them for the race ride.”

Bang. He was off and racing . . . and winning.

Within 18 months Spriggs had recorded his first city winner, was named the Newcastle Jockey Club’s Rising Star, joined the all-conquering Waterhouse stable, rode five winners at a Rosehill meeting and purchased a unit in Clovelly. Then, as is often the case in racing, things took a turn.

“Looking back, certainly riding the five winners at Rosehill probably happened a little bit earlier than I would have liked. It created expectations with big owners and big trainers that I was riding at the same level as the likes of Hugh Bowman and Nash Rawiller. It was easy to forget that I had only been riding a couple of years and was trying to mix it with the best. They weren’t very forgiving when I had a bad ride. It can be harsh. Mentally I wasn’t ready for it.” 

After nine months at Tulloch Lodge, Spriggs returned home for “family reasons” and transferred his apprenticeship to Jason Deamer.

“It was a decision between work and family, and at the time family came first. I was very successful with Gai. I won a group race for her and was riding in group 1 races as an apprentice, which she had never done before. She changed that rule for me.”

With Spriggs vacating the saddle for Waterhouse, Tommy Berry hopped in and is now a superstar, with 21 Group 1’s, two Golden Slippers and an Australian Derby, earning connections more than $62 million in prizemoney.

“Seeing him get those results ... I’m not saying that I would have lived up to the same heights, but you can’t help but question it.”

Spriggs’ phone stopped ringing as did the rides. He still received support from Deamer, Bennett, Hodge, Kris Lees and other Hunter trainers, but the going was considerably tougher. 

“When everyone jumps off you, you are forgotten about. It can be a lonely game. I stepped away and sold cars for a friend I met through riding his horses, Terry Mullens. I am into my cars and was selling everything from Ferraris to Fords. I have a passion for cars and really enjoyed it, but it did spark that love of riding again.That is what drove me to get back and put in the long hours.”

Soon afterwards came the call from Bennett –  the lifeline.

“Once I found the hunger, I knew I had to work harder than ever before. As a jockey you hit your straps in your 30s - look at people like Hugh Bowman, Nash Rawiller, Damien Oliver and Craig Williams. Experience is very much key.”

Spriggs’ partner of a year, Rachel King, is an apprentice with Waterhouse. From England, she has ridden around the world and is often a competitor on race day.

“There have been a few times where we have finished first and second. She got the first one at Taree and I got her back at the next Taree meeting. She was coming at me over the last little bit and I had to pull out the guns to get mine over the line. I remember hearing as we hit the post ‘damn you, I guess I will be cooking dinner this week’. When I won the Metrop she was happier than after any winner she had ridden.”

Although “the phone is never off” the couple switch focus away from the track.

“Once we sit down for dinner the conversation is around life in general, not about racing. We are both very competitive and play different sports on our days off. That we have similar lifestyles makes it very easy.”

Spriggs walks around at a comfortable 53 kilograms. Basically, he eats what he wants but in smaller portions.

“I have never had issues with my weight, but I do manage it all the time. I never let it go. Some jockeys do when they are suspended or go on holidays. I am always on top of it. I live by the rule, you have to put out what you put in. On days where I eat a bit more, then I have to go for a run to get rid of it. Think of it as filling up a car. If you are putting in that much petrol, it is only going to sit there if you don’t use it.”

A normal day’s consumption consists of toast and coffee for breakfast, a handful of lollies and water to keep sugar levels up during the day and a small plate, 200 gram steak and light salad, at dinner.

“I used to have it spot on 5000 kilojoules.”

A budding property developer, Spriggs recently sold his Clovelly unit, turning a $690,000 investment into $1.19 million, and is renting in Coogee, awaiting another opportunity.

“One of my good friends from St Pius, Niall Ashleigh, was working for global property advisors, Savills,” Spriggs said. “He is a good operator and is looking for something that needs a bit of work but has growth in it.”

Sprigg’s association - friendship - with Waratah Thoroughbreds is in its fourth year. Primary owner Paul Fudge is a multimillionaire businessman who made his fortune in textiles and coal seam gas exploration. He has 162 horses including broodmares on a picturesque Southern Highlands property.

“He is a very private man. I put in the hard yards, driving down to the farm and riding trackwork. There is no better place for a horse than the operation down there, including Godolphin and Coolmore. No expense is spared.”

Good jockeys need good owners with equally good horses. It’s a winning formula.

“You need people to be putting you on the better horses in the better races. Waratah have horses spread around with leading trainers in different states – Robert Smerdon, Darren Weir, John Thompson. If you are riding winners for him, you are riding winners for good stables. People notice that, not only the trainers but connections of other horses. We had a lot of success around the country tracks. Paul had his Sydney jockeys that he liked using, but if I kept working hard, he told me that he would bring me to the city. In return, I promised that I would ride his first stakes winner in Australia, his first group-winner and hopefully his first group 1 winner. To be able to do that is something I am extremely proud of and won’t forget.”

Which brings us back to trusty eight-year-old Sir John Hawkwood .

Spriggs has spent the past week in Melbourne with the horse, bar a four-hour return trip to Sydney to go over the race plan with Fudge. He rode work at Cauflied on Tuesday, took the horse to the beach Wednesday and has walked the course three times. No detail has been overlooked.

So what it would mean to win the Caulfield Cup – the Melbourne Cup?

“James Virgili, who played for the Jets and along with Niall is one of my best mates from school, called me on the morning of the Metrop to wish me luck. He was trying to grasp how special it would be to win that race. I said in a sense winning the Melbourne Cup would be like winning the World Cup final, and winning the Metrop would be like winning the semi-final. When I put it that way he said ‘oh man, that would be huge wouldn’t it’.”