They say champion country jockey Greg Ryan is tough, real tough. Ryan showed how tough he was when he claimed a 10th Gilgandra Cup after a buckjumper earlier on the Cup program almost put him into the nearby scrub.
When the gates opened in race three at Gilgandra last Sunday January 7, Ryan was seen amongst the ruck bobbing like a cork in the ocean or a bronco rider at the local rodeo, his knees smashing up against his chin.
Stephen Gleeson’s horse Never Tardy was giving Ryan one of the worst rides of Ryan’s long career, finally tossing and sinking the 52-year-old rider into Gilgandra’s track.
It took Ryan back to the day he rode another buckjumper - Fiftyseven Chevy, which probably holds the record in NSW racing for being suspended three times in its career for buckjumping. A loose spanner somehow got into Fiftyseven Chevy’s motor when the barriers were released, and Ryan, a former mechanic, could never get the galloper back to running smoothly.
“I think I told the trainer to get rid of it,” Ryan remembers. His ride on Never Tardy brought all those bad memories back.
“On Never Tardy at Gilgandra I’ve never felt so out of control. He threw me and he threw me hard too. It’s the hardest I’ve ever been thrown.”
Considering how may horses he’s ridden, maybe closing in on 20,000 rides since he took up silks 24 years ago, that’s saying something. Ryan in his prime rode 1000 horses a year, now he’s “cut back” to “just” 600 to 700 ! He once held the Australasian record for riding winners in a season.
He’s well travelled and well versed. Almost everyone says he’s tough and almost everyone says he’s a gentleman of the turf. He’s ridden on every country race track you can think of from Louth to Muswellbrook.
But riding 10 cup winners at Gilgandra is one of the highlights of his career. Very few jockeys can ever claim 10 cups – it’s more of a feat trainers do, like the famous Bart Cummings. Only rival NSW jockey Robert Thompson has achieved a similar feat with 11 Dr Jurd’s Jungle Juice Cups at Cessnock.
Ryan says he can put his first five or six Gilgandra cups to being track smart and knowing where the bad spots were. Often his opposition riders were struggling in part of the track that was like quicksand, while Ryan was cruising around the field on their outside with a smile.
He won his first Gilgandra Cup on Top Sodbuster back in 1995. “A lot of the early few rides I had in the cup, say four or five of six cups I relied on a bad patch in the track. My mate Wheatey (Wayne Wheate), a champion rider, told me about it. I used to just sit back and let them go up front. Gilgandra then was a bit sandy and at about the 500m mark there was a bad sandy patch. I used to just watch, wait and then when they were trying to get through the sand, just cruise out wide around them. They used to have a few extra meetings back then so the track was a bit more cut up at Cup time.”
But in the modern era Ryan has used all his skills to win the Cup, with the track much better.
And he had to use all his recuperative skills to recover in time to ride Artistic Beauty for the Crocketts in the Cup race. He was actually in the back of the ambulance and quite concussed after the Never Tardy buckjumping incident. He was gutted and bruised and was carrying his shoulder. Luckily the officers gave him the all clear to ride in the Cup. Nothing would have stopped him.
“I don’t know if it was courage or greed,” says Ryan about his recovery to ride in the Cup. Nevertheless he won his 10th Cup with the kind of ease of a jockey fit and fresh, rather than bruised and battered, winning by two lengths for Mudgee trainer Cameron Crockett.
“Gilgandra has a few tricks to it and it actually suits my style,” Ryan says.
Ryan came late into riding, the former Wellington mechanic now riding into his 50s after starting at age 28. Trainer Keith Swan was the first trainer to help boost his career, and he’s never looked back, riding winners at Randwick and all over NSW.
“I used to do about 1000 rides a year but I’ve cut that back to 600-700.” The Wellington raised jockey now based at Dubbo, says his Dubbo home track is one of the best in the state. He’s also looking forward to riding at the Wellington Boot carnival this year, where the downhill run often catches out some jockeys.
Gilgandra Jockey Club secretary Anne Hall said she had never known any jockey as tough as Ryan. “He’s just a tough man, it must be his constitution. He seems to get over anything, but he’s also a lovely man with it. He’s well liked in the industry and he’s a true gentleman. He rides well at Gil too.”
The huge boost to country prize money has given the industry a huge lift including the massive jump in prize money for the Boot and Wellington Cup. But he says there are two major issues that bug him about country racing.
“Money is flowing into the industry at the moment, left, right and centre. But there are a couple of things that concern me. Programming could be dramatically improved in country areas. Say around the closer provincial areas at Goulburn, Scone or Muswellbrook the programming is okay, but in outer districts like Dubbo and Tamworth, with the programming for gallopers they only have the chance to win three or four races and then they have reached their limit as far as programming goes.
“Trainers don’t want to run high-weighted horses, it just gasses them.”
“There also needs to be some job opportunities for trackwork riders, we lose too many because they can’t get work in the country and leave.”
But he says tracks in NSW have never been better – and a lot safer, unless you happen to be on a buckjumper!
Ryan’s Gilgandra Cup winners: Top Sodbuster (1995), Satin Reserve (1996), Double The Ton (1998), Northern Glow (2000), Nepelle (2001), Antonia’s Music (2002), Shagny Lover (2004), General Sniper (2011), Freton (2013), and Artistic Beauty (2018).