Michelle Payne shocked the racing world the day she created history by being the first woman to ride a Melbourne Cup winner.
Not by riding Prince Of Penzance to win the world’s most prized handicap on that beautifully fine Flemington day, November 3, 2015, but by saying down a live television feed that racing had a chauvinistic attitude and for the non-believers in woman jockeys to “get stuffed”.
She hoped there would be a positive. There was – but for that statement there would have been someone other than Kate Cowan in Nashville’s saddle as he cruised over the line in Saturday’s $100,000 Winter Cup at Riccarton.
Kate Cowan, 24, is the daughter of former high class jumps jockey Alex ‘Snooky’ Cowan. At no stage of her young life did the Cantabrian think of becoming a jockey, despite the close association. Cowan’s time at school and beyond was consumed by drama and acting.
“I didn’t take notice of dad’s riding because I was very young when he was in the headlines. It never entered my head that I would become a jockey. I took a degree at drama coaching at university, but didn’t quite finish it.” Instead she travelled to the United States during our winter to do two stints of drama coaching at a university town just outside Boston”.
On the second trip back to New Zealand I’d decided I wouldn’t make a career out of acting.” She was sitting on the couch at home searching for a new career path when November 3, 2015 rolled around. “I watched that Melbourne Cup with only fair interest then suddenly a switch went off in my brain. I thought can I do that’. It looked so exciting and I was hooked from that moment.”
That was a bare 21 months ago – a blink in how long it can take to getting an apprentice to the right level to win races, but Cowan roared into view immediately. Saturday was her 10th victory and to do it in a group-raced event is remarkable.
Saturday saw a rare coincidence. Snooky Cowan was one of our best riders over fences, winning the Great Northern Steeplechase at Ellerslie on Rock Crystal in the 1980s, but his greatest thrill was winning Riccarton’s Grand National Steeples on Dee Cee Seven at what was his third-last race ride and his last winner.
“I’d won all the others and that made the circle complete,” he said yesterday. That his daughter should create her biggest moment in the saddle so far on the same course when she is apprenticed in the North Island was a big thrill. Making that even more intense for the former jumps jockey was that he led Nashville into the birdcage and back to scale after the race with his daughter aboard.
“That wasn’t planned. When I had Signify up at Trentham for the Telegraph and the Lightning earlier in the year, Harry Bull gave me a hand by leading him in for me both times. I told him I would return the favour if he brought a horse south, not knowing that if he did Kate would be riding it. That was huge leading her back in yesterday.”
Cowan is apprenticed to Nashville’s trainers Harry and Adrian Bull at Hunterville. On the surface it looked a magnificent tribute to their apprentice to be putting her up in a $100,000 race in which she could not take advantage of her apprentice claim, but there was behind the scenes reasoning.
Said Snooky Cowan: “Nashville is nine years old now and horses can get a bit grumpy and moody as they age and Harry told me Nashville had been a bit fussy what mood he would show up in, but that he’d improved since he started putting Kate on.
“When I led him around the parade ring and into the birdcage he was up and strutting and I knew that he knew he was going to do something on Saturday.”
Daughter agreed. “Dad told me that and he was right. As I walked him up to the start he came right up underneath me and gave me a great feel.” If Nashville picks his days, this was certainly one of them. Cowan had him saving ground mid-field on the rails to the home and copped a lucky break in pulling him to the middle of the track, but he was under 60kg topweight and still eight lengths off the lead. At the 150m it looked as though he might finish second.
So powerful was his finishing burst that he swept by to win by a couple of lengths.
Nashville has now won 13 races and nearly $950,000 and probably feels it’s his right to turn up grumpy at times.
He’s got a point.