Pace on the right track

GREAT START: Apprentice jockey Courtney Pace at her Strathfieldsaye home. Picture: BRENDAN McCARTHY
GREAT START: Apprentice jockey Courtney Pace at her Strathfieldsaye home. Picture: BRENDAN McCARTHY

TWELVE months ago, Courtney Pace was immersed in textbooks studying for her VCE, but all the time dreaming of the day she would become a professional jockey.Now the Bendigo teenager is living out that dream, apprenticed to Kilmore-based trainer Lee Hope and making her way in the sport of kings.Pace’s career got off to a fairytale start this month, when she rode a winner for Hope in her very first professional race.She steered six-year-old gelding Finlayson to victory in the ASSDA 0-72 Handicap over 1400 m at Cranbourne on May 9, as her proud family cheered her on.This was followed by a win over 1600 m at Wangaratta on May 19, aboard Shinjuku.Pace is the daughter of respected Bendigo trainer and former jockey Arthur Pace - and there is no doubting she is very much dad’s girl.The 19-year-old says her father is her number one role model and the biggest influence on her choice of career.‘‘I used to copy Dad in everything he did - we used to go riding together all the time,’’ she says.‘‘I always had the aspiration of being a jockey and there was never anything else I wanted to do.’’Pace’s first race ride as an amateur was for her father; she rode her first winner on the picnic circuit for him (on a horse called Western Tears at Healesville in just her fifth start); and is happy to take on board all the tips he has to offer.And, it seems, he is never short of advice.‘‘He doesn’t stop,’’ she laughs.‘‘And yes, I do take notice - what he has got to say really counts and everything he says has always made sense.’’That included encouraging Pace to delay seeking an apprenticeship until she had completed her VCE.‘‘Dad always wanted me to finish Year 12 because he felt that was very important, which I am glad he made me do,’’ she says.Pace began riding as an amateur at age 16, while in Year 10 at Catholic College Bendigo, cutting her teeth at picnic meetings.From her 181 rides over three picnic seasons, Pace amassed 29 wins and more than 50 placings, before starting her apprenticeship in February this year.‘‘It was just a great place to go and learn how to race ride,’’ she says of the picnic circuit.‘‘Dad wanted me to learn how to race ride so that by the time I became an apprentice, I would have an understanding of what goes on.‘‘I learnt more or less where horses should be positioned in the run and worked on my style as well.‘‘A lot of tactics are involved in race riding, much different to track work where you just go around by yourself in a circle or at trials, and is such a good place to experience that competitive side of the sport.’’While she rates her Cranbourne win as her biggest career thrill so far, she had some big days out on the picnic circuit, including a meeting at Dederang in which she rode four winners.At 164 cm, Pace is quite tall for a jockey and says there were some who, early on, doubted she would make it in the profession.‘‘But I was very persistent and really wanted to do it, so I just kept going.’’She credits the late Colin Browell, a former Bendigo jockey who died of leukaemia in 2005, as another racing identity who spurred her on to chase her dream.‘‘He is a very big inspiration to me and he helped me out a lot early on,’’ Pace says.‘‘I got a lot of his gear when he got sick and it is just such a shame he couldn’t be around to see me in my career now.’’Another key influence was Bendigo track rider Brad Evorall, who was always quick to offer valuable advice.If there is one tiny down side to where Pace has found herself, it is that she misses Bendigo and her family, which also includes mum Helen, who drove her to all the country race meetings before she had her car licence, and sister Patrice.But she is grateful to master Lee Hope for the opportunity he has provided her and is determined to give professional riding her best shot.‘‘Lee is just fantastic,’’ she says.‘‘He really wants to make a jockey out of you.‘‘Who knows how long you ride for, but while I am doing it I would really like to have a good crack at it and be a quality apprentice.’’Hope said Pace was a keen young jockey who ‘‘has got a good brain about her and is aware of the situation around her when she races’’.‘‘Courtney is like all kids starting off - they have got to learn and the only way she is going to keep improving is by racing,’’ he said.‘‘At this stage she is going along `steady freddy’.’’Pace is so keen to succeed that she spends much of her spare time watching videos of horse races, studying the top riders to watch how they react in different situations.She rates Melbourne and Caulfield Cup winning jockey Damien Oliver as her favourite, and is keen to get the chance to line up in the barriers next to her idol.‘‘I can’t wait to ride against him!’’