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A Riverina grounding is still serving jockey Danny Beasley well in his unexpected second spell as a jockey.
It is getting on for 30 years since a ‘racing nut’ of a teenager from Wagga Wagga walked out of the unremarkable jockeys’ room at Wodonga’s Boxing Day meeting and entered the pre-race mounting yard, his riding boots on, racing silks buttoned and stick in hand.
He was booked to ride a three-year-old named Mick’s Poet for his boss Peter Maher. It was a bread and butter contest, a maiden plate at a ‘country’ track on the Victorian side of the Murray River, but it was the boy’s first ride: it was the day Danny Beasley had prepared for as far back as he could recall.
“You never forget a kid like him,” says Maher. “He was a privilege to have around the place, well-mannered and a credit to how he finished up. You could pick it straight away – that is, apart from his riding ability early on,” the trainer adds the last line with a chuckle.
“He didn’t know how to ride much when he first got here, funnily enough – because his father was a good rider – but he hadn’t ridden a lot. The first month he was falling off more than he was staying on but that made him more determined to stay on and make it.”
Beasley had left school 12 months earlier with his Year 10 certificate, but even that baseline academic pass was just a distraction he had to get through before he could focus on what he saw as his young life’s purpose.
“Dad was a jockey and it was all I ever knew and all I ever wanted to be,” Beasley says. “My earliest memories are about racing and wanting to be a jockey so there was nothing else, never.”
Ten barrier trials and plenty of practice riding trackwork on Maher’s string of 15-to-20 horses was enough back then to get him his ticket to race riding.
“His dad, Bob, rode a lot of winners around here, he rode for a great trainer up here, a legend in this area, called Bert Honeychurch at Berrigan, but he broke a leg and never rode again, it was a bad break,” says Maher.
“Bob wanted to get him up here with me and he was a godsend: probably the greatest thing that ever happened to me, really.”
Beasley’s debut at Wodonga – an unremarkable midfield finish – was the start of a career that has taken him from eager apprentice in the Riverina district, to Sydney and the stable of Grahame Begg, to Group One jockey for Gai Waterhouse; he has won a Golden Slipper on Polar Success and, of course, there is his famous association with Grand Armee. He has now had 15 years in Singapore, where he holds the status of respected veteran, he has just earned a first Derby victory.
That latest big race win came a little more than a year into his second coming, at age 47, after a premature retirement five years earlier, and it was achieved with Lim’s Kosciuszko, a horse named in part for Australia’s highest peak, Mount Kosciuszko, which stands just an 130km crow’s flight from where it all began in Wodonga.
The Riverina to Randwick
“I’d seen he’d been riding around the Riverina,” says Grahame Begg, the man who gave Beasley his first taste of city racing.
The Riverina is the agricultural region of New South Wales, dipping into Northern Victoria, west of the Great Dividing Range, fed by the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers.
“He’d been riding a lot of winners around that district,” Begg continues. “He’d been riding New South Wales and in Victoria – Wodonga, Wangaratta and all that – and I thought he could be a big asset at that time, to our stable.”
Begg decided to utilise Beasley’s three-kilogram claim and called him up to the city to ride for him at Rosehill. The result was a first metropolitan double for the young rider.
“He took it in his stride, first time at Rosehill, winning a double,” says Begg. “He just gets on with the job, he always has a good idea of what he’s got to do and then he goes out and gets the job done.”
He just gets on with the job, he always has a good idea of what he’s got to do and then he goes out and gets the job done.”
The trainer wanted to sign Beasley as his apprentice but an arrangement had already been made for him to go on loan to Lee Freedman’s stable in Victoria. That partnership did not flourish, however, and Begg snapped him up.
Beasley’s move to Randwick proved to be a good one. He rode his share of winners but also gained valuable experience when he went to Hong Kong in 1996 for Begg to ride Monopolize in trackwork before the horse’s second Hong Kong Invitational Bowl triumph under Darren Beadman. His time at Randwick also exposed him to the shrewd eye of Gai Waterhouse.
A Grand partnership
Beasley has 14 Group One wins on his record – including his Golden Slipper success for trainer Graeme Rogerson – but the one that is stuck in the consciousness of a generation of Australian racing fans is his 2004 Queen Elizabeth Stakes victory with the Waterhouse-trained Grand Armee.
That was the race Lonhro was supposed to win. Randwick had been transformed into virtually a Lonhro-only zone: specially printed badges of Sydney’s weight-for-age champion were handed out at the gate; trainer John Hawkes was signing Lonhro posters; Lonhro flags were being waved; people even dyed their hair pink to match his silks and some of the more daring fans showed off their Lonhro tattoos.
The black stallion was the $1.20 favourite for what was to be his last run. But no one had figured on Beasley, Waterhouse and their talented front-runner.
“Lonhro had beaten us in the George Ryder, which was a real sit-up and sprint and he just had too much turn of foot for us,” Beasley recalls. “Gai and I discussed it over that week leading up to the race; we knew Grand Armee was probably a bit better at Randwick and we knew he was very fit; we thought going in to the 2000 metres, if we could get an easy first half of the race, we’d really get going down the side at sort of the 1000-800 and try to draw Lonhro’s sprint out. We didn’t want him coming up on our backs into the straight because he was going to outsprint us every time.”
The plan worked. Grand Armee took an easy lead from the gate and proceeded at an easy tempo. With 700 metres to go the gelding was striding five lengths clear, ears pricked. Beasley took a wide route off the turn to find the better ground and kicked. Lonhro pursued in vain.
“Gai just loves her horses up on the speed,” he says. “As long as you got them out the gates quick and got them up there, a lot of the time that Tulloch Lodge bone and muscle kicked in and they just got going.”
Beasley credits Waterhouse with changing ‘the direction and shape’ of his career. He rode 171 winners for the stable at a 17 percent strike rate.
“The opportunities she gave me, I’ll be forever indebted,” he says.
Beasley moved to Singapore in October 2007 when Australia was hit by Equine Influenza. A phone conversation with Singapore’s Chief Steward Peter Chadwick, a contact from those early days in the Riverina, eventuated a six-month licence.
“It was different back then, it was thriving and exciting. I loved it so much, I didn’t go back,” he says.
For eight years uninterrupted he enjoyed Kranji’s fruits, the pick being a brilliant association with War Affair. The duo bagged five wins in 2014 including the Singapore Guineas, the Kranji Mile and the Raffles Cup.
“War Affair was an exceptional horse for Singapore in that three-year-old to four-year-old year. If they’d taken him to Hong Kong for the international races, I’m pretty confident to say he would have been competitive,” he said.
His time in Singapore has brought some twists, too. In late 2014 the Singapore Turf Club (STC) opted not to re-licence him, only to invite him back less than a year later; in 2017 he dropped a bombshell by retiring in the midst of a good campaign, not long after riding Lim’s Cruiser to a Lion City Cup victory; and three-and-a-half years later, in 2021, he made an equally surprising return to the saddle at Kranji.
The day the STC told him he would not be licensed the following season hit him hard.
“Still, to this day, I don’t know why,” he says. “It was pretty devastating and that was probably why, when I went home, I didn’t ride again until May the next year because it took a bit to get my head around, there was a different range of emotions, first anger, then disappointment and then you’re a bit depressed,” he says.
It took a bit to get my head around, there was a different range of emotions, first anger, then disappointment and then you’re a bit depressed.
“But I think the best thing I did was, I went, ‘oh, well, I had a good run’. I didn’t kick up a fuss, I went home.”
Like the kid at Maher’s Wodonga stables more than a decade earlier, he dusted himself off and got back on the horse.
His retirement less than three years later came about because he wanted to leave on his own terms, not fade out, struggling for rides. He took a role as stable supervisor and work rider to Kranji trainer Daniel Meagher, advancing to assistant trainer.
But, when expat riders left during the Covid-19 pandemic, the stable was not satisfied with the quality of rides its horses were receiving.
“I thought I could do better and should ask for my licence back,” he says. “So, I did.”
Beasley’s intelligent, tactically-astute approach to Grand Armee’s defeat of Lonhro was echoed in Lim’s Kosciuszko’s Singapore Derby win. He says he ‘tested the waters’ with the gelding in his prep run over a mile, the Stewards’ Cup, when Lim’s Kosciuszko led and ran out of steam late to finish third. In the Derby over 1800 metres, he sat second and rated his mount perfectly to get first run on his main rivals.
“I learned that I did need to get him to rate himself better over those trips, so we put a cross-over noseband on him. That was probably the biggest thing that we took into the Derby that gave us a lot of confidence, because he settled a lot better in it and he breathed really well in it; the crossover really helped him get rhythm in his breathing,” he says.
His old boss Maher was among those around the Riverina who tuned in.
“We all watched the Singapore Derby at home, it was bloody great,” the trainer says.
We all watched the Singapore Derby at home, it was bloody great.”
“He was an encyclopaedia when he came here as a kid. He knew all about the form and he studied it tremendously well, and I think that’s what made him such a good rider, to be honest. He hasn’t changed.
“You know, he came back and rode a Wodonga Cup winner for me, a horse called Atlantic Comet,” Maher continues. “He also rode the last winner on Cox Plate day (in 2002) for me, a horse called Green Pick. He was about 60-1. It was brilliant.
“Wodonga, Albury, Wagga, all those places. It was good grounding for a bloke; he’s the same age as Brett Prebble, they came up as apprentices around here and went similar paths, really. He was always very switched on and I’m sure, down the track he would make a great trainer if he wants to do that. He’s had a great grounding.”
Maher might well be on to something. Beasley says he ‘pulled-up’ stumps too soon in 2017 and has ‘regret’ about retiring so early. But he also knows that with 50 creeping closer, time is ticking again on his riding career.
“I do harbour an ambition to have a go at the training or, you know, I love the breeding side of things,” he says.
“Racing is in my blood and I can’t get that out of me. I live and breathe it.”
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