With a fourth straight Sydney metropolitan century and seemingly a sixth Sydney jockeys’ premiership in the bag, Kiwi jockey James McDonald could be forgiven for taking his foot off the throttle.
But that’s the last thing on McDonald’s mind as he sets his sights on Brisbane Group One targets before jetting off to England for a seventh appearance at the Royal Ascot meeting later this month.
McDonald guided the Chris Waller-trained Pretty Wild to success at Warwick Farm on Wednesday to bring up 100 wins for the season and a further win on stablemate Finepoint meant he has established a 41-win buffer over Hugh Bowman on the Sydney riders’ tally.
“Four-in-a-row, it’s been a great year. To cap it off by getting to 100 before I leave to go to Royal Ascot was good,” the 31-year-old McDonald said.
“It’s always the target to get to 100 and then hopefully everything else looks after itself – the potential for a premiership. I’m heading away for a month and I’m 41 in front so that just gives me a bit of breathing space.”
The New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame rider has already established himself as one of the greatest jockeys but even by his own high standards, his 2021-22 season has been a memorable one, among his highlights being 11 Group One wins.
“It’s been my best season for Group One wins, that’s for sure, and that wasn’t at the forefront of my mind at the start of the season either,” he said.
“To win The Everest (AUD$15 million, 1200m) and the Melbourne Cup (Group 1, 3200m) within the space of a month was pretty cool but it’s hard to beat my Melbourne Cup as an individual highlight. With Verry Elleegant and Nature Strip, they just kept churning out Group One wins over the season. Those horses were pretty valuable to that tally.
“With Verry Elleegant going overseas, she won’t be here next season so I’ll just have to find a new one.”
Verry Elleegant has recently joined French trainer Francis-Henri Graffard and McDonald doubts he will get to ride her again but said with her competitive nature she couldn’t be underestimated in Europe.
“She’s just such a wonderful horse. She just gives her all every time she goes out there,” he said.
“Her connections had been talking about Europe for the past 18 months so it was inevitable she was going to go over there and it’s just whether at her age she can keep maintaining such a high standard but she’s never disappointed me. French racing with its small fields and give in the ground, it’s as good a place as any to test the waters. I hope she goes well.”
McDonald has his own European odyssey to look forward to in the next couple of weeks as he heads to Royal Ascot to partner champion sprinter Nature Strip in the Group 1 King’s Stand Stakes (1006m) on June 14 and Home Affairs in the Group 1 Platinum Jubilee Stakes (1207m) on June 18.
He rode Nature Strip to win a three-horse jump out at Flemington last Friday, finishing alongside Home Affairs and the Anthony and Sam Freedman-trained Artorius, who is also Royal Ascot-bound.
He compared the jumpout favourably to when the pair tackled a similar assignment leading into their one-two finish in the Group 1 Lightning (1000m) at Flemington in February.
“It’s been very hard for Home Affairs to get ready because of the wet tracks in Sydney but as soon as he hits fast ground, he improves lengths so it was great to see him trial as good as he had against Nature Strip before the Lightning. He was brilliant,” McDonald said.
“If you take a line through that, we know he’s on target. Nature Strip is absolutely airborne. He couldn’t be going much better. He’s just thriving at the moment. Both horses are going as well as they were leading into the Lightning, which is a good sign.”
McDonald couldn’t hide his excitement about returning to Royal Ascot and riding at one of the world’s premier weeks of racing.
“It’s one of my favourite places anywhere in the world to ride. It’s the first time I’ve gone over there with really quality horses I’ve had an association with before and they have got to be genuine chances in their respective fields. I’m really looking forward to it.
“Every year I’ve gone there, apart from the Godolphin days when I was still probably only third in line, I’ve always gone there picking up spares just to be part of the carnival, whereas this time I’ve got two Australian horses that look as good a chances as any in their races.
“At the moment I can’t take outside rides until the visa comes through. It would be good to get it because there are some nice Australian horses heading up there that I’d love to ride over there too.”
Before he leaves, McDonald is keen on adding to his Group One tally for the season. He rides the Peter and Paul Snowden-trained Dynasties in Saturday’s Queensland Oaks (2200m) at Eagle Farm, where his undercard rides include Political Debate in the Listed The Phoenix (1500m), a race that could provide a launchpad into Saturday week’s Group 1 JJ Atkins (1600m) at the same track.
On Dynasties, McDonald said: “She goes very well but just with the wet tracks it’s hard to get a line on how she’s going because they can flop on one heavy track and go really well the next.”
McDonald will ride Political Debate in the JJ Atkins, Laws Of Indices in the Group 1 Stradbroke Handicap (1400m) and Great House in the Group 2 Q22 (2200m) at Eagle Farm on Saturday week before heading straight to the airport to fly to London that evening.