Racing’s COVID-19 enforced break was tough on many New Zealand racing professionals, but jockey Courtney Barnes said it was probably a godsend for her.
The 26-year-old from Mosgiel, near Dunedin, started her riding career strongly as an apprentice for the Anderton family of White Robe Lodge. She scored 23 wins in 2012-13, her second season of riding, and 33 victories in 2013-14, the latter featuring two black type victories on the top filly Include.
She made a good start to her professional career, riding 27 winners in 2016-17, including another two black type successes, including the Group 3 White Robe Lodge Handicap (1600m) for her main patrons Brian and Shane Anderton with a rail-hugging ride on Coulee.
But the following three seasons were a struggle for Barnes. She fell from 27 wins to 10 in 2017-18 and then to seven and eight the next two seasons. It was reflected in a much-reduced book of rides; where she had been averaging about 340 rides a season up to 2016-17, her season total fell to less than 200 in 2018-19 and 2019-20.
Given her struggles it might not have seemed helpful that she, along with the rest of the industry, were forced to break for COVID-19 from late March 2020 to the end of June that year. But Barnes said it provided the refresher that she needed.
“The lockdown break was really beneficial to me. I probably kick-started things off there,” Barnes said.
“I’d never had a break as long as that since I left school, so I really think that benefitted me a lot and it kicked on from there.”
Barnes came back feeling much better and her results have proved it. She got her total rides to more than 380, the most she has ever had in a season, and her total of 28 victories is the best she’s had as a professional, beaten only by the 33 she scored in 2013-14.
Just as importantly, the prizemoney her mounts have earned has topped $500,000 in a season for the first time.
“People want you when you’re winning so it all just eventuates from there,” Barnes said.
“I hadn’t really enjoyed it for the past couple of seasons, so to enjoy it and go really well is a huge thing.”
Barnes’s rejuvenation was highlighted at her home track of Wingatui on May 28, where she had seven rides for a win, a close second and three third-place finishes.
Her victory came aboard the Stephen McKee-trained mare Pullyoursocksup, despite giving Barnes a torrid ride by pulling quite hard while running three-wide in the middle stages of the race.
“Her win the other day was really impressive and she’s going to go on with it,” she said.
Barnes hails from a racing family; her grandfather Mick Didham was a jockey, and Mick’s brother Midge Didham had a great career in New Zealand and Australia, winning a Melbourne Cup on Baghdad Note, finishing second in another on Igloo, and also winning an Auckland Cup, Wellington Cup, and two Caulfield Cups.
She plans to spend some time in the North Island this winter, possibly picking up some rides along the way, before returning down south.