Thursday, April 4, 2013

Kiwi jockey back in town with an eye to the future

Michael Walker.

Michael Walker. Photo: Vince Caligiuri

Star Kiwi jockey Michael Walker is back in town and looking to rebuild his career after a four-month injury break that led to him missing the Melbourne festival of racing and the chance to capitalise on connections he had built with some of the state's leading trainers.

But the 28-year-old admits the temptation to stay home in New Zealand, where he completed his rehabilitation after hip surgery following the end of the spring carnival, was strong - for family more than sporting reasons.

''Lifestyle was a big drawcard for me over there, being close to friends and family,'' he said. ''It's only a flight over the ditch, I know, but it's about getting the time away to go and see them. At least in New Zealand, on days off when I wasn't riding, I knew I could go and see them. That was a drawcard to stay there but it's not lucrative enough. It's unfortunate, as there are a lot of good horses, trainers and jockeys over there.

''I did my rehab at home over Christmas and New Year, but I have been riding for the past few weeks in New Zealand to get back into the swing of things. I had a bit of success as well … I was very happy to rekindle those relationships with owners and trainers.

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''Coming back here was partly economic, but it was also about striving to be better and ride against the best in the world, which I class as being here in Melbourne.''

Walker achieved more in his first year in the racing industry as a 15-year-old than most riders do in decades. He rode an astonishing 131 winners in his first year to win both the jockey and apprentice titles in New Zealand and looked to have a golden future.

But he eventually succumbed to his own demons. There were problems with drink and drugs, and also a horrific episode when he fell down a ravine while pig shooting and sustained head injuries from which he was not expected to recover.

But now, older and wiser - his son Kase is seven and daughter Layla four - and with his partner Simone, he is determined to use the talents he was born with and make the most of opportunities that come his way.

''It's going to take me a good month to get back and strike up relationships and partnerships again,'' he said. ''I have only been back a short time and have spent a lot of the time unpacking into a new house and losing weight to ride. Hopefully, I can continue and recapture some of the associations I had. I had my ups and downs. I'd rather not talk about the past, because my philosophy is that if you keep looking behind you towards the past, then sooner or later you are going to get a sore neck. I look straight ahead to the future.''


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