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The English rider has risen from the amateur ranks at home to become an established figure in the top ten of the ultra-tough Sydney premiership.
Rachel King was already spent when Killultagh Thunder reached the second-last fence; fatigue strained her weakening muscles. She was no help at all when the ten-year-old gelding lifted his feet clumsily from the winter-soft ground. The official outcome after she tasted the County Cork turf was ‘unseated’.
It was King’s first race ride, on a horse trained by the former top jump jockey Adrian Maguire. She and her father Chris – a point-to-point trainer – had ridden alongside Maguire with the Old Berks Hunt before a broken neck ended his professional riding career.
“Adrian had to find a saddle from someone to borrow and it was so heavy I couldn’t carry it; it felt like it was about five or six stone (31 to 38 kilograms), or something ridiculous,” the diminutive King recalls of that November day in Ireland.
There was no female changing room, so the back of a lorry had to do; and there were no running rails either, not at Boulta point-to-point, they raced around straw bales. But it was an exhilarating high-point for the 16-year-old, nonetheless.
“The adrenaline was definitely pumping,” she adds.
That was the world King knew and loved. The thrill of galloping and jumping fences – National Hunt racing, point-to-points, hunting, pony club – the bracing freshness of riding out on a winter morning in England’s Home Counties.
That foray at Boulta was a first beginning in a race-riding quest that has stumbled and stalled, had twists and false dawns, and then risen from an unexpected bright new beginning a long way from an Irish field, and the tiny Oxfordshire village of Waterperry where she spent her youth.
The adrenaline was pumping just the same 12 years later when King angled wide off the Randwick home turn and the Sydney crowd, thousands in number, raised the volume as she advanced aboard her mount, Maid Of Heaven in the Spring Champion Stakes.
She was compact, balanced, her 50-kilogram frame hard-fit and pushing with full might towards the winning post; the filly was responding, stretching out despite the exertion and there was no obstacle to jump this time, nothing else but a first Group 1 victory to be had as Maid Of Heaven dipped her head on the line to nick the verdict.
— 7HorseRacing 🐎 (@7horseracing) October 6, 2018
At the age of 28 King was in her second full campaign after a three-season apprenticeship in Australia and had ended the previous term ninth in the Sydney metropolitan premiership.
“Sydney is one of the toughest jockeys’ rooms around the world,” says Mark Newnham, Maid Of Heaven’s trainer and a long-time King supporter. “Rachel is very consistent in that environment and she’s considered as a very good jockey.”
For the past three seasons, King, now 32, has placed top ten in the Sydney standings and in 2020-21 she was third with 64 wins and prize money of AU$8.2 million: that placed her ahead of world-class riders Nash Rawiller, Hugh Bowman and Kerrin McEvoy and behind only Tommy Berry and the outstanding champion James McDonald.
“When you look at the class you’re riding with, it’s unbelievable and it just keeps getting better, it’s very tough but it’s a privilege,” she says unassumingly.
An uncommon route
Those who know King speak of her toughness, horsemanship and work ethic, as well as a personable character, but most of all her determination to achieve. Yet her route to Group 1 regular and Sydney staple was anything but direct.
She gained school holiday experience at Mick Channon’s stable, rode as an amateur for Alan King, had a short-lived apprenticeship with Mark Usher, went to Clive Cox as stable secretary and amateur rider, and was also a stud secretary for a time at Hillwood Stud. After landing in Australia, initially for two months, to see what horizons might open up there, she gained experience with James and Bart Cummings and then on to Gai Waterhouse where her determination eventually paid off.
“The reason I switched around a bit was because I probably changed my mind a few times about what I really wanted,” she says in an accent that retains only hints of its English origin.
“I knew deep down I always wanted to ride and that was it, but it was just…it was a bit slow to get going. Riding as an amateur wasn’t really fulfilling that riding passion, and that’s why I ended up doing a few other things. But every time I did something else, I came back to race riding.”
At Barbury Castle, the stables of Alan King, they still refer to her as ‘Little Rachel’.
“My wife is Rachel as well and some people thought she was my daughter; someone even asked me once if she was my granddaughter; I’m not sure how old they thought I was?” recalls King, who made his name with top jumps horses but is now best known for the Group 1 stayer Trueshan, ridden so famously by Hollie Doyle.
King the trainer remembers King the rider being ‘determined’ to become a jump jockey when she arrived at his dual-code establishment. The trainer was cautious about encouraging her down that route but warmed to the idea.
“He really put a lot of trust in me because he hadn’t put a girl on before; it wasn’t really his thing back then,” she says. “Things have changed so much now, with Hollie Doyle riding for him and having great success, and I even rode over jumps for him, which I never thought would happen.
“I did the work and had to prove at home that I was capable but he gave me the chance to prove myself. He didn’t just not let me have a go, he was happy for me to have a go and try and see what I could do.”
However, a decade and more before Rachael Blackmore proved beyond doubt that female riders can match the men in jumps races, King felt that his eager amateur should go down the flat route.
“She was tiny and very light so it was probably the right thing to do,” he says.
That view was echoed by Usher who took her on as an apprentice at his Lambourn stables.
“The physical make-up made her an obvious choice to be an apprentice but her background and her mental make-up was more geared towards jumping, so it took a while, in my view, for the wheel to turn and the penny to drop, because that’s her tradition,” he says.
“But she was very accomplished from day one, and I honestly think that had she started earlier as an apprentice she’d have done much better in the UK. But then she might not have gone to Australia, it’s all ifs and mights.”
The apprenticeship did not work out: King had one winner in six months and believes in hindsight that starting during the winter months of 2009-10 was a mistake on her part. Frustrated, she moved on and arrived at the Cox stable to work in the office but also rode a couple of lots on the gallops each day and resumed her amateur career.
“She was already an extremely talented horsewoman, she was able to translate a lot of the National Hunt skill she had, so she was a little bit of a secret weapon for us as an amateur,” Cox says.
The Group 1-winning trainer provided a new outlook for King. Unlike at Usher’s middle of the road yard, the Cox stable had high-class thoroughbreds and riding them on the gallops ignited a spark in the hitherto reluctant flat jockey.
“That was the first time I sat on really nice flat horses and that was what made me more determined than ever that this was what I wanted to do,” she reflects. “I was enjoying it and getting that buzz of riding good horses definitely pushed me in this direction.”
Australia and beyond
When King delivered Maid Of Heaven on the line in October 2018 it was not just a first Group 1 win for her, it was also a first for Newnham. The two connected at the famous Tulloch Lodge Stables when Newnham was assistant trainer to Waterhouse and King was trying to convince her new boss to give her a go as an apprentice.
But Waterhouse had heard that King had been a stable secretary and that was what her organisation needed.
“I told her I didn’t come halfway around the world to do the same job I was doing at home,” says King.
Waterhouse was a hard nut to crack. She had King travel to the US with a horse, and gave her the responsibility of looking after her team in Queensland but there was no movement on the apprentice licence.
“That experience was probably great,” King admits. “I learnt more about Australian racing, I learnt the rules, I met people, I rode a lot of trackwork for about 12 months and I got used to it all a bit more before I had the pressure of race riding.”
It was Newnham who stepped in to ensure King’s apprentice dream was realised before time ran out.
“She was pretty determined so I actually took her into Racing New South Wales and signed her apprentice papers on behalf of Gai,” he says.
“Having Rachel travel away with some of those horses was good for the stable, you could rely on her and trust what she was going to do while she was away. She looked after some very good horses during her two or three-month period in Queensland and we had very good results, so what we were getting her to do was working very well for Gai’s stable. I suppose getting her apprenticeship started was going to curtail that.”
Once the licence was granted, though, the Waterhouse stable supported her and still does. Of her 525 career wins, 55 have been on Tulloch Lodge horses, including her second Group 1 winner, Knights Order, the horse she rode to win the Sydney Cup in April 2022.
After riding her first Australian winner, Run Cannon Run, at Tamworth in March 2015, she ended that term with 17 on the board; the next season she increased to 31 and then 88 as she progressed from country racing, through provincial, to the pinnacle of city racing.
While Doyle has raised the bar for female riders in Europe, that bar was already at a higher point in Australia when King arrived there, thanks to jockeys like Michelle Payne, Linda Meech, Kathy O’Hara and Clare Lindop, to the point that Newnham is not alone in viewing a jockey as a jockey, whether male or female.
“Rachel has the ability to get horses running freely for you, you can’t teach that. She’s got good hands, good balance and the rest is that indeterminable factor you see top jockeys with; it’s just something some jockeys have and you can’t put a finger on it,” he says.
The top ten in the Sydney jockeys’ room holds a wealth of international experience: Bowman, McEvoy, McDonald, Berry, Rawiller and Clark between them have ridden in Europe, the Middle East, and notably Hong Kong and Japan. King has not yet had that opportunity but is looking that way.
“I did have an offer to go to Japan on a three-month licence and I was keen to go then Covid happened. I would love to try to get to Japan, I feel the racing there is incredible, like it is in Hong Kong as well, and I’d love to experience that,” she says.
“Riding abroad is only going to further your skills and improve your career when you come back to Australia.”
As much as she loves her roots and her memories of point-to-point racing with fellow amateurs in fields from Boulta to Kingston Blount, bagging major races and continuing what she has established is her focus.
“I won’t be stopping any time soon,” she says firmly. “It took me a little bit longer to find this path and I’m going to get as much out of it as I can.”
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