MAKING his return to race-driving after four months on the sidelines with a broken back, Neil McCallum could have been forgiven for easing his way back into the sulky.
But there was nothing simple or painless about the four-time Group 1-winner's first trip back to the racetrack as a competitor.
Still bothered by the effects of the motor vehicle accident in April that left him with a broken T12 vertebra, two other bone breaks and seven steel rods in his back, the affable and well respected freelance reinsman last Friday headed to Mildura - an 800-kilometre round trip from his home in Lockwood South - for five drives.
If the exhaustive commute - and the associated 3am Saturday arrival time home - were not taxing enough, the hard-working and devoted reinsman was back on the road a little more than four hours later to Maryborough for a pair of drives at Saturday morning's trials.
While plenty would not have contemplated such a trying return, McCallum is quick to brush it off as 'what I do'.
"I probably didn't need to go that far; I probably would have preferred to be at Bendigo or Maryborough," he said.
"I was always timing it to come back that week because I had a horse lined up for the Victoria Trotters Derby on Redwood day, but it didn't get a run.
"I got passed (to drive) just the week before and it just happened to be I needed a few drives and a mate I knew in Mildura needed someone, so I took his two and ended in with five. We got through.
"As far as the trial the next day go, it's where you get your drives. You can't be at home waiting for the phone to ring, you've got to be out and about. Once you are around the horses, you end up on one here and one there and that leads to race drives."
It was on his way to the Maryborough trials in April that McCallum sustained the injuries that would ultimately curtail his career for four months.
A collision with a kangaroo along the Maldon to Maryborough Road, near Baringhup, left him with a broken T12 vertebra and three broken bones in total, and a destroyed Ford utility.
"Parts of my orange ute are still there on the road,' he said.
"(Kangaroos) are just part and parcel of going to the races. I've seen millions of them, but I've never hit one like that.
"I wrecked the ute .... the ute came down on a rock and it was the compaction coming up through ute that broke my T12 vertebra.
"If that rock had been a foot to the left or right, I would have still had the accident and still wrote the ute off, but I would have walked away.
"I never had a mark on me; I got out. But two days later they are sticking bolts and rods in me they are are never coming out.
"I'll just have to put up with it. I've been lucky, I've never been out this long - I've never really had that big a break."
The 55-year-old was able to defy the medical specialists to be back on the track within four months, after the initial diagnosis was for a six to 12-month stint on the sidelines.
His speedy recovery is a source of pride for the popular reinsman, affectionately known as 'Pecker'. And despite the ordeal, he is certainly lost none of his sense of humour.
"My main doctor told me 'you shouldn't touch horses for 12 months after an accident like that'. I said, 'mate it's alright to say don't touch horses, but don't forget I hit a kangaroo, that's what got me here Do you want me not to drive cars too', he said.
"I can't sit idle for 12 months, I'd waste away doing that - you have to keep moving.
"I'm fit enough and healthy enough now - I've been pushing pretty hard. I see the physio Monday and Friday and I'm in the pool at Kangaroo Flat Tuesday and Thursday, plus whatever (work) I can do around my property at Lockwood South.
"There's always something to do around the farm."
While he is yet to notch up his first winner back in the sulky, McCallum is confident it's only a matter of time.
He says there was no apprehension and certainly no nerves as he took the reins for the first time since April behind the Lachlan Prothero-trained Causenfriction, which ended up third behind the Alex Ashwood-driven and Sandra O'Connor-trained Best Of Beauty in race three on the card.
"I don't even get nervous in a Group 1 race - it's normal," said McCallum, who is the son of the late harness racing legend and inaugural Gordon Rothacker medallist Ian "Macca' McCallum.
I can't sit idle for 12 months, I'd waste away doing that - you have to keep moving.Neil McCallum
He did, however, score a trial win at Maryborough aboard the Zac Steenhuis-trained trotter Jerichos Trumpet, the horse which helped earn McCallum one of his four Group 1 victories (achieved in four different states), when they won the Empire Stallions Vicbred Platinum Home Grown Classic (3YO Trotting Colts and Geldings) in late 2017.
"It was nice to sit on him again, as I drove him all his two-year-old career and won the Group 1 on him," he said.
"Who knows, I might get back on him one day (in a race)."
Remarkably, for someone involved in such a traumatic experience, McCallum insists he has experienced far worse accidents on the track than he has during his extensive travels up and down Victoria's highways.
"At Maryborough one day they were going to chop my arm off, after I smashed into the back gate," he said.
"Another morning a horse smashed right through me and put his knee through my back - that ended up breaking a few ribs and damaging my kidney, lung and spleen.
"Twelve months down the track it actually did some damage to a vertebra and to a disc, so I had to have a back operation. I was given a 50 per cent chance of walking again, but we got over that one too.
"Amazingly I've never had an accident on the road (before April) and I'm doing 100,000 kilometres of year and have been for 27 and 28 years, but then bang I got a kangaroo."
A grateful McCallum said his return to racing would not have been possible without the efforts of his team of doctors in Melbourne and Bendigo, especially Dr Shalendra Sharma, from Healthworks Healthcare in Kangaroo Flat, and physiotherapist Paul Bennett, from Golden City Physiotherapy and Sports Injury Clinic.
"If he (Bennett) didn't tape me up before going to Mildura, I don't think I would have lasted the night," he said.
"What he's done working on my back is incredible. He tells me to get out of pain you have to go through pain, but he's got me going well.
"The recovery has been as good as it can - you do sometimes get sick of waking up sore, but there are times I feel as good as gold.
"I know some doctors are amazed I am back inside six months. I guess one thing is because we (drivers) have been doing this all our lives, our bodies are immune and pretty toughened up inside.
"While you are doing it all your life, driving thousands of horses in races and trials and work, your body is hardened to it."
When he does finally crack it for a first win back on the comeback trail, McCallum will add to the more than 1500 achieved through his nearly 30 years in the industry.
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