Friday, September 13, 2013

Oliver returns a winner

Back with a bang: Damien Oliver aboard Lion Of Belfort at his first ride back from disqualification.

Back with a bang: Damien Oliver aboard Lion Of Belfort at his first ride back from disqualification. Photo: Getty Images

Racing people are forgiving. Jockeys (and trainers) can commit serious offences, drag the sport into disrepute and attract lurid headlines, but after serving their time they are generally rehabilitated quickly. In the final reckoning, those in the industry, and punters who have backed them, tend to remember the good rather than the bad.

Damien Oliver, for much of his extraordinary career, has simply been referred to as ''champion rider Damien Oliver''.

But for most of the past year, the 41-year-old has been referenced more regularly as ''disgraced jockey Damien Oliver'' - a consequence of his crime of betting $10,000 on the favourite in a race at Moonee Valley in which he was riding a rival galloper, for which he received an eight-month disqualification and two-month suspension.

Many outside (and inside) racing's inner circle believed Oliver got off lightly: a well-known Irish rider, Eddie Ahern, was earlier this year banned for 10 years (effectively ending his career) when he was found guilty of deliberately stopping a horse in a race in England.


Oliver was not charged with anything like that. But integrity issues go to the heart of racing's credibility, and a betting jockey, while perhaps not culpable of an offence as blatant as Ahern's, nonetheless strikes a serious blow at that credibility.

Oliver has now done his time and is emerging into the spring relaxed, fit and ready to rebuild a career that, hitherto, had him ranked among the greats of Australian racing.

Posterity will judge how he is seen in the wake of his disqualification and whether it affects his status.

In a sport where betting holds the key, most betting men would probably say it won't: in truth, many of the champion riders, from the great George Moore through to Jim Cassidy and Kevin Moses in Sydney's infamous ''jockey tapes'' scandal of the 1990s, have fallen foul of the authorities on integrity issues.

Most bounced back to prominence, although they (Cassidy aside) operated in a time before Twitter and social media, which has greatly democratised public opinion and criticism. It was interesting that when David Hayes' stable tweeted that Oliver was riding work at Euroa there was a severe backlash in the Twittersphere from those unhappy about the association.

But great performers in every field have a seemingly indestructible inner steel and resolve that allows them to get over adversity and come back to face any new challenges.

Oliver's period in purdah came to an end on Friday, and he chose to exercise his right to start riding on the first day he was entitled to, even if it was at a humble Geelong synthetic track fixture, rather than wait 24 hours for the more glamorous feature meeting at Moonee Valley.

It was, as most in the industry agreed, the smart way of doing it. Sure, there were far more media than usual at a nondescript Friday meeting, but nothing like the throng that will be at the Valley on Saturday. And there were few in attendance to either support or heckle.

It also gave him the chance to return on a winner at his first ride back, courtesy of long-time friend and supporter Mick Price, the Caulfield trainer who sent out the $1.35 shot Lion Of Belfort to score by four lengths with Oliver aboard in the opening maiden race.

It was, as one wag near the mounting yard commented, ''a stone cold certainty - but it's too short for him to have any of his own on''.

Such jibes and banter will be par for the course as Oliver returns to the big time, so he can't - and surely won't - be that sensitive to them.

Asked why he had come back on such a low-key day rather than when the spotlight is on at the Valley, he simply said: ''It's the first day I could come back and ride, it's what I do. I'm not into show business, mate.''

While he has won just about every big race there is to win in this country - many on multiple occasions - Oliver had a broad smile on his face when he returned after winning on his first ride back.

''I have done a lot of work, but it's good to get back on race day, and nothing substitutes race fitness. Mick Price has been a great support and a good friend for a long time. I have been working hard and looking after the things I can look after, getting my fitness right and re-establishing my connections. I have got to be thankful for the way people have supported me since I came back,'' he said.

That was it where success was concerned as none of his four other mounts could get up.

Still, Oliver has plenty to look forward to, with last year's Thousand Guineas winner Commanding Jewel, Happy Trails, upon whom he won the group 1 Emirates last season, and top short-course horse Bel Sprinter among the gallopers he will link up with this spring.

His first big race ride is on Happy Trails in the group 2 Dato Tan Chin Nam Stakes at the Valley on Saturday.
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