Australian jockey Blake Spriggs will be hoping to cap a remarkable rise to prominence with a win in the biggest race of his life on April 9 in the Sydney Cup.
Blake will be riding one of the favourites, Sir John Hawkwood, an Irish import trained by David Vandyke, in his first group one race, with prize money of $1.6 million at stake.
He’s had a remarkable life so far and is recognised around the traps as a rising star.
Of course it is hard to tell, looking at a foal, if you’ve got a future Melbourne Cup winner on your hands. There are thousands of factors that have to be taken into account, events that will come to pass, or not… After a couple of years a lucky trainer will sense that there’s magic in the colt running free in the paddock.
It’s the same with kids. Some might make uni and have a glittering career as a surgeon or lawyer. Others, a special, hardy breed, might make a great jockey. But it’s a long road, and a hard one… and it takes time to see whether the boy – or girl – will make the grade.
Bloodlines can make a difference though – it helps if being a jockey runs in the family. “I sat him on a racehorse in the tie-up stalls,” mum Leanda “Chic” Spriggs recalls. “He never changed his mind from that day on.” He was just three at the time.
But it wasn’t an easy road for the youngster.The family was wealthy, and horses remained a dream, tantalising but remote, while Blake grew up playing and excelling at sports including running and soccer. A natural athlete, he was a State-level runner at 10 and a budding soccer champion who was invited to try out for an Australian youth talent team to tour Germany.
He wasn’t just talented, he was really good, attracting the attention of athletics scouts at a school carnival where he smashed the 800m and 1500m races taking 14 seconds off the long-standing record. “His personal bests were dropping by 34 seconds after a month of training and continued to drop until he was running fantastic times at State level, running second to the fastest boy in Australia who trained 12 sessions a week,” Chic says proudly.
But Blake was stubborn, as well as talented. Two training sessions a week were as much as he would tolerate because his heart was still set on being a jockey. Running wasn’t part of his dream. But the sport helped make school bearable for Blake.
“I enjoyed the social and sport side of school but not the education side. I liked going to see my friends and playing sport but sitting in the classroom wasn’t something I enjoyed,” he told The Newsroom.
Tempting as the German soccer trip was, Blake had other ideas: he wanted to go up to Moree to his granddad’s place near Gravesend for the school holidays so he could attend a nearby pony camp run by trainer Peter Sinclair. His mum was cool with that: “I wanted him to be around country kids and with the Sinclairs… close friends of my family,” she said. “Blake spent four summer camps there.”
They were crucial years for the youngster – building his passion for horses and racing, and teaching him the skills he needed. By the time he was 16, he was ready to leave school to train as an apprentice jockey.
In a way, that’s when his real education began: “As an apprentice I learnt to appreciate the horse and how to work with them to achieve the best result.” Within a year he was racing and recorded his first win. “I started riding in races in March 2009 at the age of 16 at Muswellbrook racecourse aboard a horse called Sixty Watt which won,” Blake said.
His greatest achievement as an apprentice jockey was riding five winners from eight rides one Saturday at Rosehill Gardens.
“They were Crossbow (Gai Waterhouse), African Prince (Chris Waller), Miss Independent (Waller), Atomic Force (Darren Smith), Mr Unforgettable (Kevin Moses). It was very good for my career at the time as it made a lot of people take notice,” he said.
At that time Chic was his manager. “I booked all of his rides for the meeting and had to choose between several horses in each race, the ones that I thought would be the best possible winners. I would say we would be the first mother/son to have achieved that in the world,” she proudly commented.
Just last week at Rosehill Blake won a Group 3 race on board Sir John Hawkwood preparing for April 9’s Sydney Cup at Randwick racecourse on April 9. But there was no immediate celebration for the man of the moment: he jumped in his car and headed to Newcastle for an afternoon race – which he also won.
As an apprentice his work ethic and drive to become a professional were unparalleled. “The hours as an apprentice are long. Working for Gai Waterhouse I started at 3am and rode track work until 8:30am and generally went to the races from 10am until 6 or 7pm and then did it all again the next day.”
In 2013 he completed his apprenticeship. “It was a good feeling… but I knew the hardest part had just begun.”
Following what Blake has already achieved, his family has always stuck by him, especially his mum Leanda after she divorced her husband Dale Spriggs when Blake was only young. Although
Blake didn’t have a father figure throughout his time as a teenager – his mum and father Dale Spriggs divorced when he was very young – but he credits his mum, older brother Dustin and sister Dimitee with keeping him on the straight and narrow. That family is hugely important to him; they’re always there “if you’ve had a tough day or not”.
Dustin and Dimitee are not directly involved in racing – “but my brother does do my form with me and we work out which horses will be hard to beat and which ones are not and what horses will go forward and which ones will go back.”
As a qualified jockey Blake can now travel around Australia to race at any track (an option not open to apprentices) and has enjoyed the taste of success: “I’ve got two achievements as a senior jockey that I’m proud of and they are riding a listed winner for Gai Waterhouse in Adelaide aboard Ondina and riding four winners where it all began, at Newcastle.”
He is a proud professional and works hard at maintaining his reputation, because, he reckons, owners and trainers pay a lot to get a horse ready to race and deserve a jockey who will deliver the goods.
Blake also treats his horses with respect.
Chic said he learnt that from his grandfather as a child. “My father owned horses and had over 100 winners but he said his greatest thrill was to watch Blake ride,” she said. It was his granddad who taught Blake the little things, such as being soft on a horse’s mouth when pulling up after a race. “Not many jockeys do this and it is a horsemanship skill that is very important,” Chic said.
The relationship between jockey and horse is vital, Blake said.
“The horse knows if you are being gentle to it or annoying it. It’s very important to have a bond with a horse because they put a lot of trust in us and if they don’t they won’t give you everything they’ve got – which can be the difference between winning and losing,” he explained.
Of course there is a dark side to racing and Blake has copped his share of it.
On one occasion he broke his ankle after a horse fell on top of him; another time a horse had a heart attack and crashed into the rail. Blake ended up in hospital, but was not seriously injured.
“Of course I worry about the falls, it is a very dangerous occupation,” Chic said. “It is the only sport in the world where an ambulance has to follow them or the race cannot start. It’s hard to watch your own flesh and blood being brutally knocked around.”
“It was not until I actually got to speak to him on the phone when the ambulance collected him that I felt relieved… I hope I never get to see that happen to my son again.”
Despite the anguish, Chic says she is “behind him all the way to continue living his dream.”
With just a week to go to the Sydney Cup Blake will be focusing as never before, working with trainer Vandyke to find a way to upset the best stayers in the country. It’s a demanding and cut-throat industry which makes it imperative for jockeys to relax and to clear their minds regularly with supporters and family.
“When I’m not racing I like to catch up with friends. Riding is a very mentally and physically tiring sport with long hours so its important to rest the mind and body. So catching up with friends to play golf or just have lunch is very important to me,” Blake said. And he’s been lucky to find a soulmate in Englishwoman Rachel King, an apprentice jockey. They travel to and from the track together and sometimes they compete in the same race.
“When the gates fly open, its game on!” Rachel says. “But when the race is over, Its all hugs and kisses.” – Jesse Mullens