Saturday, November 2, 2013

Steady hand

Craig Newitt at home with wife Karli and their boys.

Craig Newitt at home with wife Karli and their boys. Photo: Pat Scala

Craig Newitt has had seven Melbourne Cup rides for a best finish of fifth on Harris Tweed four years ago. The others were all well placed at the home turn but couldn't run out the two miles, yet it's the times he hasn't been there at all that have taught him the race's great allure.

He was just 21 in 2006 when he found himself paired with Victoria Derby winner Efficient, the late-surging Cup favourite. Needing to get down to 49 kilograms, Newitt spent much of Monday night and Tuesday morning in the sauna, only to emerge and discover the Lloyd Williams' gelding was a sore and sorry scratching.

"I had nine [Cup day] rides, and I was that disappointed and upset; I rode the first one which ended up winning, was crook after that and went home," Newitt says. "I was just exhausted. Probably a bit depressed too, which didn't help."

Newitt brings Foreteller (the horse at left, below) home at Flemington in September.

Newitt brings Foreteller (the horse at left, below) home at Flemington in September. Photo: Getty Images

He was slumped on the couch when Delta Blues pipped Pop Rock in a historic Japanese quinella. When Efficient won the following year, Michael Rodd was on board and Newitt was "poking around out the back" on Eskimo Queen.

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The last time he was a Cup spectator, he had still been at Flemington putting his case to various connections an hour after the last on Derby day. "I was on three horses at one stage and ended up with nothing – they decided to go with other riders."

Maluckyday was one of them, ultimately ridden to second by Luke Nolen.

Since finishing 10th at his first attempt in 2002, on the Bart Cummings mare Miss Meliss ( who was still a maiden barely a month before the Cup), Newitt has felt the build-up getting bigger every year, like a balloon taking on more air. This year he saw its shape forming after the Caulfield Cup, and in recent days has sensed that the pressure is nearing the point of explosion.

"It doesn't matter [who you are], trainer, owner, jockey, if you're in the game you're in it to win the Melbourne Cup. It's always been a goal. [But] just to be a part of it . . ."

On Tuesday, Newitt will ride Foreteller, a horse he rates his best Cup prospect yet, and a better chance of achieving Sydney trainer Chris Waller's Victorian breakthrough in the most spectacular way than odds of 25-1 would indicate. "Everyone's talking about Fiorente; our bloke finished half a length behind him [in the Cox Plate] and in another four strides he'd have run straight past him," Newitt says.

Weight is a positive – Newitt won't have to waste to make 55?kilograms and Foreteller has carried high-50s successfully at weight-for-age level. Again, staying is the question mark. "If he runs a genuine 3200 – and out of all the horses I've ridden I think he's the best chance to do it – he's a genuine chance."

On those frustrating occasions when he hasn't had a ride (and not been crook on the couch), Newitt has watched the race from the jockeys' room. He doesn't like crowds – "I'm small, you get pushed around" – rarely goes to the football because of them, and says if he wasn't riding he wouldn't go to the races either.

He is happy with the simple parameters of his life – riding five or six days a week, coming straight home to wife Karli and their trifecta of boys under five (Noah, Chase and Casey), closing the door and switching off. Asked what his outlet is, Newitt spreads his arms to the young family around him.

And his closest friends? "Karli. Mum's around the corner, my sister's around the other corner, and my three boys. That's me."

Two sorry chapters in his racing story jump off the page, and both stay with him in different ways. In 2004, still a Tasmanian kid trying to make his way on the mainland, he was suspended for 18 months for lying to stewards about his relationship with a bookmaker, but cleared of any wrongdoing in the poor run of a $3 favourite at Sandown. The name Leone Chiara still dogs him; it took a long time to win back the industry's trust.

Nearly five years ago, his beloved father and mentor Guy was killed in a car accident. Forty minutes after hearing the news, against the urgings of stewards, he rode Light Fantastic to an emotional second in the Futurity Stakes, and a week later won the Australian Guineas.

First, the suspension. He denies it instilled a resolve to keep his head down and stay out of trouble, but apart from an ongoing battle to curb vigorous use of the whip, Newitt is a relative cleanskin. Jockeys' association boss Des O'Keeffe says few rival his professionalism, never missing a ride despite taking on 1000 a year, his demeanour never changing.

"He's highly respected and highly admired for the 28-year-old young man he's matured into," O'Keeffe says. "If I cloned people like him and Steve Arnold, I'd be making myself redundant. I need the odd one to be a bit out there so I've still got a job."

Newitt puts it down to basic maturity, a lack of which got him in strife in the first place. "You get mixed up with the wrong crowd, like a lot of young kids do," he says of the Leone Chiara saga. "They weren't bad people, they were just the wrong people to be hanging about while you're trying to get your career to go forward."

His wife helps, too. "Everyone gets wished good luck when they go to the races, all I get is, 'Don't get suspended'," Newitt says, adding that decisions are made in a split second, and when stuck in a pocket you learn to accept that "there's no good knocking anyone down, [because] they're on again tomorrow and you don't get paid if you're suspended".

He reckons the fraternity as a whole has a keener appreciation of the danger of cowboys in saddles. "I think everyone's a little more conscious just about going home."

As a kid he used to wag school to go to the races at Deloraine with his dad, and he counts being the only jockey ever to win the Hobart, Devonport and Launceston cups in the same season as an achievement to rival riding Miss Andretti to victory at Royal Ascot.

Karli, who lost her father at a young age, was pregnant with Noah when Guy Newitt was killed. "Craig's dad was painting a nursery for him, he was very excited about having a little grandson come along." Newitt says it still sucks, always will, but "at the end of the day they've got us, a lot of kids don't even have that".

Noah and Chase sometimes go to trackwork with their father, one wearing his helmet ("head wobbling all over the place") and the other carrying what they call "the woopin" [whip]. Newitt makes no apology for having been brought up to be aggressive with the whip, in a racing climate where horses weren't of the quality he rides now.

Restrictions on how many times and where in a race jockeys can use a forehand motion, and a ban on "excessive" backhand use, have challenged him, but he thinks he's adapted well. Chief steward Terry Bailey says Newitt has "come a long way in the past couple of years".

As has Waller, a trainer Newitt reckons is about to take Melbourne by storm. Hawkspur is his fancied Cup runner, but his hopes for Foreteller are such that the jockey admits he's feeling anxious, and can't wait to get on him and give the famous race another crack.

Asked what the moment is like in a Melbourne Cup when you realise there's not enough horse left under you, Newitt laughs. "You start counting how many's in front of you, 'cos they pay down to 10th!"

The dream is finding nothing there to count, and putting the woopin' away.


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