School of the saddle at Lindsay Park

7 min read
Lindsay Park Racing is ahead of the eight ball with the creation of its in-house riding school, which aims to tackle internally the industry-wide shortage of track riders.

Cover image courtesy of Lindsay Park Racing

For a few months now, Australian racing has been having a conversation about track riders. There’s a shortage, something that is blamed on absurdly early mornings and poor pay. In 2020, a Skills Impact Survey flagged trackwork riders as the greatest occupational shortage in the industry, a problem made infinitely worse by the onset of COVID-19.

In Victoria, Lindsay Park Racing had 180 horses and a dearth of exercise riders. It wasn’t a new issue, but it was becoming a significant one.

To counter it, in January the organisation kicked off an in-house trackwork education program, teaching existing employees the skills required to become competent Lindsay Park track riders. Last week, the program’s first four students graduated.

It was an idea born out of necessity, and put in place by the team at Lindsay Park with program directors Matt Pumpa, a former jockey and apprentice coach in Victoria and Singapore, and farm manager and former trainer Richard Nettleton.

Matt Pumpa with the G1 Oakleigh Plate in 2004

“I ran into Tom Dabernig in Singapore just before Covid hit,” Pumpa said. “We sat down and had a discussion about things, and because I’d done the last two years of my riding apprenticeship with Lindsay Park, I’d always stayed close with them. When Covid set in, I made a phone call to Tom, and the management team at Lindsay Park had come up with an idea. They offered me a position to train up their best existing staff for a track rider program.”

It was some time before Pumpa was able to return from Singapore and, when he finally did in December last year, he worked closely with the brilliant Nettleton, designing a program that would teach Lindsay Park staff the skills to exercise racehorses. Pumpa had five years of experience coaching apprentice riders in Victoria, and a further two of the same in Singapore.

School of the saddle

The program invited expressions of interest from Lindsay Park staff, with the first four students kicking off the inaugural course on January 11. Across two months, they learned the balance and safety skills of riding horses in work.

“Most of our students had some experience in riding pony club, or riding of some sort,” Pumpa said. “But trackwork requires a very different seat position and balance, and that can take some getting used to. This has been a very different experience for me, because the apprentices I worked with in Singapore and Victoria could already ride. But we’re teaching here without the pressure of raceday, so it’s been really enjoyable.”

"Trackwork requires a very different seat position and balance, and that can take some getting used to." - Matt Pumpa

The program occurs over three days each week on the extensive grounds of Lindsay Park, with riders exposed to long, uphill gallops on the Pro-Ride, or sharper bursts over the sand track.

“You form a bond with these riders over the eight weeks,” Pumpa said. “You go for a ride and you have a chat, and you become quite close.”

Gallery: Images courtesy of Sam Gibbons

Horses for courses

Lindsay Park isn’t short of racehorses, and the program is blessed with some very good retired gallopers to assist with the schooling of students. Among them is 5-year-old gelding Ocean Knight (NZ) (Ocean Park {NZ}), nine-time winner Faatinah (Nicconi), $1.4 million earner Fast ‘N’ Rocking (Fastnet Rock) and three-time winner Snitzson (Snitzel).

“We give a lot of the retired racehorses jobs to do around the farm,” Pumpa said. “Some are nannies and some are ponies that ride out in the morning, and we had a list of horses that we could use for this program. Obviously they had to be safe, so both Richard and myself test-rode them to make sure they were suitable for the job.”

Pumpa has a soft spot for Faatinah, a wildly talented sprinter that won the G2 McEwen S. in 2019 and had two winning campaigns in Dubai. The horse pocketed over $1.3 million during his 42-race career, and Pumpa said he admired how settled the gelding is.

“You’d think a Group 1 sprinter like him, who’s been around the world a couple of times, wouldn’t take to this job too easily,” he said. “But he settled right in, and he’s just a lovely horse to ride.”

The class of 2021

Lindsay Park Racing’s first trackwork students graduated from the program a fortnight ago, two women and two men, among them 30-year-old English ex-pat Sam Gibbons.

Gibbons arrived in Australia on a working holiday visa in March 2019, and found his way to Lindsay Park for the mandatory three-month farm spell required of his visa. The experience was so good that he never left. While Gibbons knew how to ride, he had never before ridden trackwork, and the riding school program was the perfect opportunity to learn.

Sam and his best mate Viadana, race name Exceed Tycoon

“I was over the moon when they told us someone was coming in to teach trackwork,” Gibbons said. “I went straight to the office and signed up. And I learned so many skills, like how to have the right hold (on the reins) and the different types of work you might do in the morning. It was a bit confusing at the start, because I was used to riding quarter horses, and my mum has two Arabs, but my confidence has really improved and I absolutely love the riding aspect of my job now.”

Gibbons said the practical skills he learned were vital, like how to bridge the reins and beware of shying horses. However, one of the important off-shoots of this program is the new lease on life it has given the riders at Lindsay Park.

“I’ve always enjoyed riding, but being able to do it as a job has changed everything,” Gibbons said. “I don’t actually class it as work now because, even though it is work, to ride each day is unbelievable.”

Gallery: Images courtesy of Sam Gibbons

A new approach

The program generated significant interest from staff across Lindsay Park, with another four riders already into week two of the course and a third group in the wings. It’s a case of a good idea being so good, why wasn’t it done before?

“A lot of people have been talking about this for a long time, and everyone thinks it’s a good idea,” Pumpa said, “but you need the facilities, the horses and the right people to deliver it. Racing Victoria has been out to have a look, and I got a call from South Australia, so it has definitely created a lot of interest.”

Prue Hayes, who is important in the day-to-day operations of Lindsay Park, said the shortage of industry riders had been an issue for a long time.

"We decided to take the matter into our own hands," she said. "We hope this program is one that will continue to develop over time to ensure our employees are skilled, happy and safe. Our best asset is our staff, and many had never been afforded the opportunity to learn to ride a thoroughbred racehorse."

In the wake of Covid, a National Industry Insight Report recently flagged changes that needed to occur to solve the Australia-wide shortage of riders. It stated that the industry needed to explore changes to existing skill sets for trackwork riders, to assist those who may not wish to be jockeys but pursue a career in riding work.

In this respect, Lindsay Park was ahead of the curve.

Lindsay Park
Matt Pumpa
Richard Nettleton
riding school
track work riders