Jenny - Clean

FIRST it was the Whanganui Whizkid, later to become better known as “The Babe” Brent Thomson. Then it was “Billy Idol” alias Shane Dye. Young apprentice jockeys who left their New Zealand homes to take Australia, first, and then the wider racing world by storm.

And now it’s James McDonald - the kid from Kaipaki. He may not be quite as outgoing as his predecessors but few would disagree that he’s the most precocious young talent to emerge from the home of the All Blacks since the time of Thomson and Dye and Lance O’Sullivan (brother of Hong Kong-based trainer Paul).

McDonald has been embraced by the New Zealand racing public with his sheer volume of winners in the past three seasons. The youngster already seems to have been around much longer than his 19 years would suggest and his impact in New Zealand has been greater than any other jockey since O’Sullivan.

O’Sullivan was an inaugural inductee in the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame with wins in races such as the Japan Cup and Cox Plate but overall his greatest achievements came at home.

Thomson, Dye, Jim Cassidy, Grant Cooksley, Greg Childs, Brian York and Larry Cassidy head an amazing list of high profile New Zealand jockeys, but they mainly reached the top of their profession when they left their home shores.

McDonald may now be on the verge of following a similar path following his success in Australia this year and many overtures from overseas. But he’s in no hurry.

In a recent interview, McDonald said he might not be ready just yet to move to Hong Kong should the opportunity arise in the near future. “I’m a country boy. Imagine me going to live in a city with millions of people,” he said.

But all that might change should he make a mark in the Cathay Pacific International Jockeys’ Championship in Hong Kong next month.

The mark he’s made at home is already indelible. McDonald won the New Zealand jockey’s premiership in 2008-09 as a 17-year-old. He was then runner-up the next year with 151 wins behind Opie Bosson despite taking more than two months off to head to Europe. Last season (2010-11) he was champion again with a staggering 207 wins including 14 at Group and Listed level.

The youngster, who turns 20 in January next year, has shown maturity beyond his years with his fine displays on several hit-and-run visits to Australia over the past 12 months. He’s notched five Group 1 wins with the most recent, and his first overseas, being the Queensland Oaks in Australia in June.

A keen rugby fan and showjumper whose father Brett rode successfully over the jumps, McDonald seems destined to continue his career overseas eventually and his participation in the CXIJC might just be forerunner to a longer stint in Hong Kong at some stage.

“It’s going to be great. I was going to ride there (Hong Kong) once before but it didn’t work out. This will be a buzz riding with all the big names,” said McDonald who names the Hong Kong based Brett Prebble as his favorite jockey.

His father, a former leading jumps jockey, has forged a successful training career, but has also delighted in watching his son James establish himself as one of New Zealand’s all-time great apprentices.

“'It’s just fabulous. He’s fantastic and he’s doing what he wants to do. He’s loving it. He rides with passion,” said the proud father.

Brett McDonald was a successful apprentice in his own right and rode major race winners on the flat before turning to the jumps and competing in Australia, Italy and the United States. But he would be the first to admit that his son has surpassed his deeds in the saddle.


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