John Kissick was living his childhood dream. A successful jockey who had won three SDRA jockey premierships and spent time with Australia's biggest trainer in Chris Waller. But a moment of madness when he jumped aboard a steer in 2016 nearly changed his life forever. The 28-year-old caught up with The Border Mail's BRENT GODDE during the week.
BRENT GODDE: Growing up, did you always have ambitions of being a jockey?
JOHN KISSICK: I grew up in a harness racing family and my pop was a trainer in Penrith. I used to get up early every morning and help him with the horses before school. I did that until the age of 11 before the family relocated to Griffith. I really got the bug around aged nine when I went to the races with David Royle who is an ex-jockey. From then onwards I wanted to be a jockey.
BG: You joined the Waller stable as an apprentice. What are your memories of your time in Sydney?
JK: It was a good experience and I learnt a lot off Chris who I consider as the best trainer in Australia. Obviously I got to ride some really classy horses that give you a different feel to the horses you ride locally. The way they work their horses was also a real eye-opener. I had never been on a horse that quick until I went there. It also teaches you a lot about business as well, because it's such a cut-throat industry with a lot of money at stake and competing against the best jockeys.
BG: If you had your time in Sydney again, would you do anything differently?
JK: I probably would have waited another 12 months before I went up there. I was probably a bit immature at the time and didn't handle the pressure real well. Even though I was 21, coming from a country town and riding for the leading trainer in Sydney, the pressure got to me.
BG: On your return,you soon established yourself among the top echelon of jockeys in the Southern District. Did you have any ambitions to return to the city?
JK: Not really, I toyed briefly with heading to Brisbane but then my father passed away so I decided to stick around locally. I ended up moving to Canberra which I was enjoying before I got injured.
BG: Your world was turned upside down in October 2016 when you fractured your T-12 vertebrae after being thrown from a steer and landing on your head. What are your memories of that day?
JK: I remember I rode at the Queanbeyan cup meeting and the next day I caught up with a few of my mates who do the bull riding and steer riding. I had done it before, so we just headed out to the farm to do some work and then have a crack at riding the bulls and the steers. It was obviously a huge mistake that was life changing. It was just something that I thought I would do in my downtime, just to get away from racing a bit. Admittedly I thought the worst thing that could happen was I could break my arm or shoulder. I never dreamt that I would fracture my spine.
BG: Did you fear the worst and think you may never walk again?
JK: When it initially happened, I knew I had done something pretty bad. But after a while when I was on the ground I thought maybe I have just sprained my back and went to stand up but I couldn't bear the weight of my body. I knew I was in trouble then. But I could still move move hands and my legs, so I wasn't sure what I had done t be honest. Once I got to hospital I realised what an idiot I was and steer riding was something I shouldn't be doing.
BG: Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but was jumping on that steer one of your biggest mistakes?
JK: For sure, especially considering that I was a jockey. You have to think of your career when you are in this game and you don't have a long time in the saddle. It's put me out for three years now so it was a massive mistake.
BG: What did your recovery include?
JK: I had to have surgery where I had two screws and a rod inserted from my T10 through to my T12 vertebrae and basically had to rest for 12 months. There has been a lot of physio and a lot of pool work. It hasn't actually come right until the last six months when I finally got cleared from the specialist to start going to the gym and doing some strength work.
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BG: Initially you were told you would have to have 12 months on the sidelines. How did that feel?
JK: I wasn't happy but it is what it is and you have to let your body heal. The biggest shock was trying to fill in time each day when you are not allowed to do anything physical. But I thought I would be back in 12 months but instead its been nearly three years. I feel like I could probably hop on a horse again now but I still have to wait to get the all clear from the specialist before I can clear that hurdle.
BG: How tough has it been?
JK: To be honest, it's been the worst three years of my life. I'm not going to get the violin out but it's been really tough. I had a lot of people around me at the time but it's not until something like this happens you realise who your real friends are. I've had a few close friends that have stuck by me and been really supportive. My nan has been a big help and my girlfriend, Ellie, has been enormous. I'm just looking forward now and not back.
BG: How about financially?
JK: Unbelievably tough. I wasn't entitled to WorkCover because it wasn't work related when the accident happened. I couldn't work for the first 12 months either because I wasn't allowed to do anything physical. I wasn't allowed to lift anything above 2kg or bend at all. So I had no income, the jockey's trust has been good but at the end of the day, I made the mistake and have had to deal with the consequences. I had to move back to Sydney and live with my nan for over 12 months to help make ends meet. I lost my car, all my assets and basically everything I owned. So it's been tough but as I said before, I'm only looking forward now.
BG: Has the whole ordeal dulled your passion to return to the saddle?
JK: Definitely not. For the first year I probably didn't like watching the races on Sky Channel because it just annoyed me that I wasn't able to ride. But lately, I'm not as bad but am itching to get back into it. I would jump on a horse tomorrow if I could.
BG: You have recently relocated to Albury?
JK: I've been living in Albury for about two months and working for Mitch Beer and doing some pre-training. Mitch is a young, successful trainer and I feel fortunate to be working for him.
BG: Obviously the fall has been the low-point of your career. Who are some of the people who have helped you through the dark times?
JK: My girlfriend Ellie and my nan have been massive. A few of my close mates like Michael Williams, Tony Crisafi and Brodie Loy have also stuck thick. Joe and Charlene Cleary have also stuck by me as much as anyone else.
BG: Have you suffered any serious injuries previously while riding?
JK: My worst injury was when I broke my pelvis in seven spots in 2009 and was out for nine months. I've also fractured my wrist, collarbone, a rib, left ankle and a finger.
BG: I'm guessing you won't be in a hurry to ride a steer again?
JK: I'll never do anything that puts me at risk of losing my job again.
BG: What do you consider the highlight of your career?
JK: Any win for my old boss Peter Clancy. We had a great association and he was a massive help to me when I was an apprentice. Any win for Peter, I rate higher than anything else.
BG: Who do you consider some of the best jockeys locally?
JK: Nick Souquet is a very competitive rider but Mathew Cahill is my No.1.
BG: Are you confident you haven't lost any of your ability and will be able to re-establish yourself as a leading jockey?
JK: I've got a lot of fire in the belly and goals that I want to achieve. I suppose it's a bit like a football player coming back from a knee, you don't lose your ability.
BG: Where are you up to in your comeback?
JK: I've been give the all clear by two specialists. I've had a meeting with Racing NSW and have to get cleared by their specialist and once that happens I should be right to resume track work. If everything goes to plan I could be back riding before Christmas. It would be a good present.
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