Versatile Vanessa has racing?s magic touch
By TONY WHITE
WHEN it comes to race winners, the Sport Of Kings traditionally lauds the racehorse, trainer and jockey with owners basking in the glory.
But behind the scenes more often than not there's an unsung hero, a virtual unknown hidden well away from the public limelight.
Trackwork riders play an integral part of the multi-million dollar racing industry.
Their skill and horsemanship is vital to any trainer plotting success.
Grafton's Vanessa Medhurst, 32, an amazing one woman dynamo, has many roles in the racing industry ? trainer, owner, breeder, horse breaker and accomplished track rider.
Trainer Sucha Singh credits Medhurst with being instrumental in the return to form of five-year-old gelding Halt, an impressive winner at the Grafton TAB meeting on May 21.
"Vanessa is the only person that can ride him," Singh said. "He used to spin around, duck off and throw jockeys. He was generally a pain in the butt. He had all the tricks.
"Until Vanessa started riding him I could only work him on the sand track. It used to take ages to get him right."
"Ah, he's really a big pussycat," Medhurst said of Halt. "I used to ride a horse called Rodium for Sucha and no-one could hold him apart from me. He was a bugger.
"I rode Halt as a baby but Sucha said one day he couldn't afford to use me and went back to jockeys riding his work.
"I used to see them riding Halt on the sand. He was on it for two years. It was a crying shame.
"One day I said to Sucha 'come on, give me a go, I'll get him going on the grass again'.
"I'll get on anything. I'm not frightened. All they can do is throw you and you just get back on and go again.
"The jockeys wouldn't hit him. They were too frightened. I don't believe in cruelty but I'll rouse on horses. They feel when you're frightened, animals sense that, and if you let them get away with it, just like kids, they'll do it every day.
"I just won't let them stand over me.
"I can get them all travelling. It's all to do with your at- titude, your hands, knees and balance."
Medhurst's return aboard Halt was not without incident.
"Yeah, he put on a bit of a performance allright," Medhurst said.
"He went to go backwards but I put one (whip) around his backside and away he went but then he tried to run off to the outside fence and I put one on his behind again.
"We haven't looked back since. He's going brilliant."
With a dearth of capable track riders available in Grafton, Medhurst's services are keenly sought by most Grafton trainers.
Her work regime is enough to make most mere mortals cringe.
Medhurst rises at 3am daily, cleans out her boxes and attends to stable duties before heading to the track by 4.20am.
When the track opens at 5am she works all her own horses first then rides around 25 horses for other trainers. The trackwork routine occurs at least four mornings every week.
Then it's back home to attend to her agistment horses.
"I normally finish around 12 to 12.30 then try and read the papers and get back into it again," Medhurst said. "I break in horses too for a lot of trainers.
"You have to walk and feed the horses in the afternoon. I'm normally finished by about 6.30pm. It's a long, hard haul but I love it."
The jockey brigade are infrequent workers, Medhurst believes. And she's no fan of pampered postillions.
"It's nice to get appreciation for what I do, a bit of acknowledgement," she said. "Jockeys get it all the time and they're only on the horse for two minutes.
"They get all the bonuses and slings and they don't do the hard yakka. Apart from Stephen Traecey, who works John Shelton's horses, most of them hardly turn up.
"I've been here (Grafton) 12 years and I've seen so many come and go.
"As a trainer and someone who rides horses I'm very hard on jockeys. I know how my horses should be ridden. I sling them (jockeys) good, then when you want them to ride your horse again they have taken another ride.
"Too many of them don't do the right thing and come back with too many excuses. Some of them are just too greedy.
"I'm not being sexist but racing is still a man's industry. As a female it's a lot harder."
Medhurst initially had desires to become a jockey but was warned from pursuing a professional career in the saddle by her initial mentor, trainer Warwick Hailes.
After riding trackwork for 12 months in Japan, Medhurst returned to work with Hailes and learn her trade as a trainer.
"I always wanted to be a jockey, I'm a natural lightweight, but back then, 18 years ago, girls just weren't in it (racing)," she said. "Warwick said I'd never make it as a female jockey so I learned to train racehorses."
When she first arrived in Grafton in 1994, Medhurst came with an old mare, Dynnbar, a cast-off from previous owners.
"The owners gave her to me. I saved it from the 'doggers' and put her in picnic races," Medhurst said.
"She ran second in the Lawrence Cup one year and when the owners finally transferred the papers over to me she won a race at Lismore but she was a seven-year-old and was eventually retired."
Medhurst bred from the brood mare.
"She's had six foals, three have raced ? Autumn Bar, Real Bar and Barsareal ? and all have won races," she said proudly.
"I'm hoping Barsareal and another horse, Canadian Silver, can win a race over the July carnival.
"And I've got a number of rising two-year-olds. They are my golden hopes for the future."