Luke Tarrant’s winning ride from homeless stable boy to top jocke   Leave a comment

Luke Tarrant’s winning ride from homeless stable boy to top jockey

Writer, TWAM
Brisbane
Luke Tarrant: “I never got a day of school holidays.” Picture: Kenny Smith

Luke Tarrant: “I never got a day of school holidays.” Picture: Kenny Smith Source: News Corp Australia

They’re all on the local boy because they all believe in fairytales. A bunch of tattooed romantics dressed in pork pie hats and ­yellow dress shirts with jungle green ties and gauze pads over their old, hard, leathery throats, signs of cancer or the ­perils of patting Ipswich pit bulls. Trackside hustlers and chancers and made men and ­broken men who worship the fickle God of Lucky Breaks and clutch their TattsBet

win/place cards like they’re overseas flight ­tickets, entry passes to Avalon, passports to somewhere that will take them — just one last time, just one last time — from deep red debt to that sweet, elusive black.

“Go Tarrant!” barks an old man in a brown suit and a brown hat resting on a brown cane, the bet card gripped in his fist marked “#6 Tisani Tomso”, ridden by the 20-year-old apprentice jockey Luke Tarrant, the underdog local boy rider who grew up near this rustic Ipswich track. “Go Tarrant!”

The track caller rattles a breathless update: “Inside the half, Tisani Tomso leads. Jesselton on the outside is running second, One Grey is third …” The boy leads. The boy has The Sit.

The great Australian trainer Frank Phillips came out of unofficial sabbatical to teach Luke Tarrant about The Sit, the way a jockey needs to crouch in a saddle, the way The Sit — low and lean and locked onto the horse — defines the run. The 80-year-old trainer spent a year walking Luke around on a track horse teaching him how to sit in a saddle before he even let him bring a horse to a trot. The Sit starts in your feet, then your knees and your arse and arms and head. “Lower! Lower!” he’d bark at the boy. Get so low and flat you’ll think your thigh ­muscles are on fire. Use your ears, use your eyes, use your instinct, he barked. “Lower!” Feel a race. Be smarter than you are brave. React first and let every other jockey react to you. Be aware. Be so conscious out there that when your ride’s owner asks what happened at 750m you can tell him Cassidy went the whip, Byrne went outside and there was a cloud passing above you shaped like an elephant.

But you can’t teach a boy to know where every horse is in a race. After a year of relentless trackwork with his most unlikely and unheralded charge, Frank Phillips leaned over to his wife Melanie, a jockey manager, and whispered: “He’s got it, this one.” The best apprentices have it: an indefinable ingredient of shit — life, heart, history, pain, determination, grit, need.

“C’mon Tisani,” screams a large woman in stone-washed jeans. The track caller’s seamless symphony reaches a crescendo: “Tisani Tomso in front. Roman Secret coming at Tisani late. Roman Secret out wide, absolutely ripping hoooooooooome …”

Photo finish. Freeze-frame. Two horses side by side, Tisani Tomso and Roman Secret frozen in time. And the track is frozen too. The punters in the stands, the bar waitresses, the beer drinkers, the bubbles in the glasses of ginger ale. It’s all still.

At the finish line, Luke Tarrant maintains The Sit, knees tucked tight into his chest, eyes straight ahead, his future in front of him, his past — death, drugs, homelessness and hopelessness — somewhere far back along the track.

The still eyes of a hundred romantics fixed on the boy. The Australian flag on the inside of the track frozen mid-flap. Stable horses with one leg up and three legs down, paused. An old man sucking on an asthma puffer, stiff as a board. An ambulance on the inside of the track. Immovable clouds above. Still grass blades below. Ripped tickets floating still in midair. A gambler’s face in anguish, eyes closed, head back. The woman in stone-washed jeans with her lips frozen on an “F” sound. “Fffffffffff ….”

Fate. Family. Fairytales.

The gallops were built on gossip. The track thrives on hot tips, inside words, good mail and great rumour. In the past three years, as Tarrant has grown into a startlingly efficient jockey with an even more startling stat sheet — 204 firsts, 180 seconds, and there aren’t a pair of thumbs quick enough to count his career horse earnings, $6,648,425 — so have grown the rumours concerning just how many months of his 16th year he spent sleeping rough. Just how and why he came to be homeless, sleeping in secret every night in piles of sawdust amid 20 snoring ­thoroughbreds in the stables of seasoned trainer Tony “TJ” Sears, on Queensland’s Darling Downs.

“People have all kinds of stories about that,” Luke laughs. A big, likable smile, skinny jeans, a Gen Y fringe. His appearance belies his old‑world, gentlemanly manner. When I first meet him I extend my hand and say my name and he says, with a hint of Olivier, “Then you’re the man I’m looking for.” It’s a jockey thing, from a world where trainers and owners are still called “Sir”. As in, “Tarrant, get these stables mucked out by 3am.” “Yes, Sir.”

In the members’ enclosure on race days, Luke reminds you of one of those well-groomed, fresh-faced Australian boys who sailed wide-eyed to Gallipoli. The old, hard-wrinkled jockeys surrounding him remind you of the ghosts who made it back.

His knees are fully functioning but he is so accustomed to sitting in a saddle with his knees up that he sits here now, in the rear courtyard of Frank and Melanie Phillips’ yellow brick home in the Sunshine Coast ­hinterland, with both knees up to his chest in an outdoor chair, dragging on a cigarette as he ponders the truth behind those stable stories.

Beneath his black T-shirt is a wire-thin 1.5m frame and a chest covered in a tattooed daily career reminder: “Second Sucks.” Nothing matters but the win. Second frustrates owners. Second doesn’t guarantee more rides. Second sucks.

His win-or-nothing drive is what saw him become the frontrunner to take out the 2014-15 Queensland metropolitan jockeys premiership, which no apprentice has won in 12 long years. His win-or-nothing drive, some say, is what saw him throw his premiership chances away on May 23 when his ride, Jumbo Prince, made what race officials considered a reckless move across the face of the field in Doomben’s Grand Prix Stakes, earning a stat-killing six-week ban that Luke dismisses as “ridiculous” but racing insiders described as a wake-up call.

“That tattoo tells you something about his brain,” says Helen Page, the veteran Gold Coast trainer who chose Luke to ride her horse, Rudy, in Royal Randwick’s prestigious Villiers Stakes last December, Luke’s first race outside Queensland, a race he had no right to get a place in, let alone win, launching himself into racing’s big league. “He wants to win. That’s why you want him on your horses. Balance, technique, brain, drive. You can’t make a ­champion. The ones that are different shine from the start. Luke’s shining. Frank broke that kid in like a horse. Now he’s galloping.”

“I’ve never seen an apprentice do the things he does,” says trainer Tony Sears. “Horses run for him. Horses like him. People like him too.”

Sears was watching the $2 million Gold Coast Magic Millions 2YO Classic with his wife Leigh in January when Luke crossed the finish line first on Le Chef. Leigh was so moved by the moment she broke down in tears. Because she likes the boy that much. Because she knows his story, knows the truth about those stable rumours.

“It really is a mad story,” Luke smiles.

He looks across the courtyard table to see his great mentor, his second father, Frank, weeping. Frank Phillips, as hard as they come, turning 81 in only a few days, with 62 of those years spent professionally training horses and jockeys in New Zealand and Australia; training them to be hard, to be disciplined, to not come second.

“He’s all right,” Melanie smiles, sitting beside her husband. “He just gets emotional.” Frank weeps at the slightest emotional ­trigger, a reflex action that may or may not be related to a stroke he had last August. He weeps when he remembers a horse, Poet’s Pride, that ran loyally for him in the 1960s. He weeps when he thinks about the small family training stables he established with Melanie in the mid-1980s near Rosehill Gardens Racecourse in western Sydney. And he weeps now when he thinks about the gentle, sweet-faced 19-year-old girl, Fiona Trench, who answered their newspaper job advertisement seeking a stable hand for their blossoming Rosehill venture.

“My Mum,” Luke says.

“Fiona was pretty streetwise,” says Melanie. “But she had no idea about horses. She’d say, ‘It’s so boring. What is this? How stupid, why are these horses just going round and round in circles?’ But she grew so close to the animals. She loved all animals. She lived with us for eight years. She became one of my best friends, and she was like a daughter to Frank.”

Frank weeps again at this thought. In his mind are the days he spent teaching Fiona to ride, teaching her patience and horse sense, teaching her the mystical communications of The Sit. “She loved the life,” he says. “People come and go, but she didn’t.”

“Then she met Luke’s dad,” Melanie says.

Frank has seen every kind of apprentice jockey over all his years of training. A good one, he says, rides the trainer’s race, not his own; a good one listens to each individual horse trainer’s instructions for any given ride and carries them out faithfully, only deviating mid-race from those instructions — instinctively, sensibly, courageously — when the race calls for it.

“Mark would always say, ‘I disagree’,” Frank recalls.

“Yeah, Dad loves a fight,” Luke smiles.

“We adored Fiona but we weren’t quite ­getting along with Mark,” Melanie says. “I think it was easier, in the end, for Fiona to drift away from us. They moved up to Queensland.”

Melanie has an old photograph — a shot of Luke, one year old, and his sister Lemaya, on a pony in the driveway of Frank and Melanie’s Rosehill property, their mum, Fiona, steadying Luke. “That’s the first time you ever sat on a horse,” Melanie beams. “Look at your mum.”

Luke smiles at the photograph.

“Mum never really spoke about Dad,” Luke says. “They split up when I was about four, I think, and Mum wasn’t really in racing anymore. But Dad was always a jock. I lived with Mum for a long time and I’d go to Dad every second weekend.”

Fiona raised Luke and Lemaya on her own. “She always struggled, I guess,” Luke says. “She got caught up with drugs and that sort of thing and she struggled. I wasn’t helping things, playing up at school, getting in trouble a lot. She didn’t have much money, but that sort of made her appreciate things more.” He pauses for a long moment, shakes his head. “And I wouldn’t be racing if it wasn’t for her.”

Luke was 13 years old when his father took him to a race meeting at ­Gympie, 160km north of Brisbane, one of the many regional and bush tracks where Mark Tarrant found his riding niche in later life. Luke remembers seeing his father atop a horse, in his silks, waving down at him. He remembers his father being happy in that moment, happier still when he rode a 100-to-1 winner. “I remember his face when he came back in and he was being cheered,” Luke says. “That was the day I wanted to be a jockey.”

A year later he told his father of his ambition. “He said I was being ridiculous,” Luke says. “See, my dad used to study accounting and I think he sometimes regrets not following that further. He didn’t want me to go down that jockey road as well. In saying that, he’s my biggest fan to this day, calls me after every race.”

By his 10th year of school, Luke was living with his father in Toowoomba, reminding him of his ambition on a weekly basis. Mark had an ace up his sleeve: the soul-destroying, red-eyed hard labour that defines a life in horse­racing. He had just the thing to shake jockeying from his boy’s system: a school holiday job in the ­stables of the hardworking Toowoomba trainer, Tony “TJ” Sears.

“I never got a day of school holidays,” Luke says. “School finished on the Friday and my first day of work was Saturday, 2.30am. I skated there on my skateboard at 2.30am to pick up horse shit. The cold was insane, working a 60-hour week, 2.30 to 10am, have a break, start back at 1.30pm then work ’til dark.”

“He was cheeky when he started,” recalls Sears. “We soon sorted that out. But I liked him from day one. Something about the little feller.”

“I knew they were testing me,” Luke says. “But I just kept turning up. I was getting $300 a week, which is enormous money when you’re 15. Enormous money.” Enormous enough to get a kid in trouble. He won’t go into detail about the events that led to his homelessness at 16 — detail, he says, that could cause key horse owners across Australia to pull him off key rides — but, he says, “I was just with the wrong crowd.”

“The mob he was tangled up with you would not want to be saying too much about,” says Sears. “Luke could have gone one way or the other. He had to get out of Toowoomba.”

“I was the only one in my crew who had money and I got into the partying, into the drinking,” Luke says. “One weekend my dad went away to do something and I had myself a big party and Dad came home early and said, ‘I want you out, I can’t deal with this’. And I left home but I didn’t leave town.”

Like most new homes, the stables got more comfortable the longer Luke occupied them. The first full night he spent secretly in Sears’ ­stables he slept on a mound of sawdust beneath a tarp. Beside him was his skateboard and a garbage bag full of his clothes. Leaving town and moving back in with his increasingly frustrated mum in Ipswich, an hour’s drive east, would have meant leaving his job with Sears and, in turn, his one shot at a career in racing.

“I had nowhere else to go,” Luke says. “It was embarrassing. I didn’t know what to tell people because I didn’t want that charity. I didn’t want to be like that so I just never told anyone. My friend, Blaze, who is still a really good friend, he’d call me up, ‘Man, I’ve got some leftover pizza, just come over and have it’. And I’d go over and eat pizza and say goodbye to his mum and then skate back to the stables.”

He soon found a loft in the stables, accessed by a ladder running off a kitchenette area built into the horse barn. He acquired a swag, a sheet, a blanket, a pillow. “I slept there a long time,” he says. “Probably six months. Nobody knew about it. Tony [Sears] never knew. I used to take girlfriends up there. There was a fridge in the kitchen below me, I could charge my phone and make myself a coffee.”

“His dad kept ringing me,” says Sears, ­“asking me where he was staying and I said, ‘I don’t know, but he’s been here every day working’. Luke would tell me in the afternoon after work, ‘All right, see you later, Boss’, and off he’d go out the front gate and then he’d sneak back into the stables later. I’d see him bright and early waiting for work the next morning and think, ‘This kid’s bloody keen’. I said to my wife, ‘You couldn’t get much handier than this kid, he beats everyone to work’.

“Then one day I see this bit of hay hanging from the loft and I look up at it closer and I realise it’s a bloody ­bedsheet hanging from the loft. I climbed up there and here’s a mattress and a sleeping bag.” Luke had left Toowoomba by that point. Three months earlier, tired, depressed, frightened and hopeless, at the beginning of ­winter, he had phoned his mum with a simple, desperate plea: Help me.

Melanie Phillips walks into her ­living room and returns to the courtyard with a scrapbook. She’s been ­collecting newspaper clippings about Luke’s victories for the past three years.

“When did you do this?” Luke asks.

“Well, I finally got around to sticking these all in,” she says.

Luke is visibly moved by Melanie’s gesture. He loves her like blood. She loves him like a son.

Melanie and Frank moved to the Sunshine Coast in 2003. They had heard from Fiona only sparingly over the years, mostly in times of ­crisis. “Luke’s sister, Lemaya, would call us sometimes, ‘Can you come get us, Mummy is unwell, we can’t wake Mummy up’, and we’d go over and Frank was always excellent in those situations,” recalls Melanie. “Maybe eight more years go by and we don’t hear from her then we get a call, ‘Hello, Frank,’ and it’s Fiona.”

“Can you apprentice my boy?” Fiona asked.

It didn’t take Frank long to answer. “No.”

Because training apprentices is a hard, thankless business. Because apprentices often grow into rich and celebrated jockeys who forget who first taught them how to mount a horse. Because Luke had never ridden a racehorse. Because Frank was nearing 80 years of age. Because he didn’t want to love another teenage stable hand like he might his own child and then watch them drift away for two decades.

But Fiona was desperate. She phoned back the following day. “Frank,” she said. “If you don’t want to apprentice him, would you just teach him to ride so he could become someone else’s apprentice? Could you teach him to ride like you taught me?”

“She knew I was struggling,” Luke says. “She would have done anything.”

Luke watched his mum put the phone down that day. “You’re going to the Sunny Coast,” she told him. “Get your shit ready.”

On an inauspicious Wednesday at the inauspicious Ipswich Turf Club, racing steward Kerry Nutley looks at his watch. “I think young ­Tarrant’s running late,” he says. Then the young apprentice appears, black sunnies, black jeans, wheeling his jockey’s bag into the change rooms.

“I pay $50,000 for a brand new Chrysler and it breaks down on me!” he smiles, exiting in fresh racing silks. He takes a look at the form guide for Race 7, studies the weights of other rides, pictures his run, considers his barrier, how fast each horse will push. “Tisani Tomso is a pretty special horse to me,” he says. “The first ever metropolitan race that I won was on this horse. In a way, it all started with Tisani.”

His race plan is to sit Tisani in the middle of the pack, just behind the leaders. Horses have been winning all day from the middle. But minutes before the race is due to start, Tisani’s trainer changes the race plan, instructs Luke to gun it from the gate, lead it all the way. And Luke follows his instructions like he’s been trained to do.

“Tisani Tomso in front. Roman Secret coming at Tisani late. Roman Secret out wide, absolutely ripping hoooooooooome …”

Photo finish. Freeze-frame. Two horses side by side, Tisani Tomso and Roman Secret frozen in time. Luke Tarrant frozen in The Sit. His formless future ahead. Behind him, somewhere far back along the track is his past, every last grainy fragment of The Shit.

All those private tears you shed after brutal and relentless training sessions with Frank. All those hot-blooded, vein-popping arguments with Melanie about bad behaviour in the early days around the house on the Sunshine Coast; that day she laid it out to you plainly: “You know, Luke, I have to tell you, you are not a pleasure to be around. You create work, you create angst. There is nothing you do that brings pleasure in my day.”

The way Melanie screams your name during races now, finds race day ensembles of the most hideous colour tones to match, for luck, the ­colours of your silks. The smell of horseshit while alone all those nights in the freezing cold stables. Heavy falls on bush tracks while trying to jag a metro ride. The way Frank cries when he thinks of your mum. The way Fiona got her life back together when you went to live with Frank and Melanie, found a job in aged care, making use of that great capacity to care. The cruel way you learnt there’s no inside mail, no form guide on life, no hot tips on existence and how best to ride it out. The way you heard the news in November 2011 that your mum was killed in a car accident. The way you crossed the finish line of the Magic Millions and tilted your head to the sky and thanked your mum who never got to see you ride a single race.

Take it all with you. Own it. Use it.

The rustic Ipswich Turf Club snaps back into motion and the track caller reads the results from the photo finish.

“Close finish and … Roman Secret has got the judge’s nod. Second, Tisani Tomso.”

“Ffffffaaaaaark!” wails the woman in stone-washed jeans.

Second sucks.

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Posted July 25, 2015 by belesprit09 in Uncategorized

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