Jo McKinnon Column

McDonald the horseman with the Midas touch after record-breaking Carnival

There was a poignant moment in the half-hour leading up to the running of this year’s Melbourne Cup (Gr 1, 3200m) that signalled James McDonald was quite possibly about to enjoy the ride of his life on Verry Elleegant (Zed).

It occurred when the horses were made to hold up as they emerged from the tunnel linking the saddling area to the mounting yard.

‘Ellee’, as they call her for short, stood there motionless craning her neck and head high over the rump of her rival in front, surveying the scene. 

There was a gladiatorial look in her eye. The mare was ready for battle. 

McDonald distinctly remembers the mood she was in at the time.

“She was in the zone and that was the same as The Strip (Nature Strip) in The Everest. It’s an incredible feeling when they zone in like that,” said the champion jockey.

“She was the same at the start behind the barriers. I have never seen her like that before. She had like a killer instinct in her eye and wandered around like she owned the joint. It was quite incredible.”

Having partnered the mare for 20 of her 34 starts, McDonald knows Verry Elleegant better than any other race rider and he’s also been instrumental in her becoming one of the greatest Melbourne Cup winners of the modern era.

He rode her at her first-ever start for Chris Waller in the Vanity at Flemington in 2019. Still a big, raw, wayward-going type of mare, she was beaten that day. 

But after that, the pair went on a three-race winning streak collecting two Group 1s along the way including the ATC Oaks (2400m) and the Vinery Stud Stakes (2000m).  

It took a while for her to hit her straps during the next preparation and it was evident plenty of work needed to be done to smooth out her rough manners and harness her talent.  

“We thought we were at the crossroads but perseverance and patience have been the most important thing,” McDonald continued.

“We have tried so many things. She was highly strung and we tried ear muffs and different bits but in the end, we had to let her do it when she was ready to do it. It comes down to the maturity of the mare.”

It’s been a similar story for her stablemate, Nature Strip, a fellow Group 1 winner over the Melbourne Cup Carnival in the Darley Sprint Classic (Gr 1, 1200m).

Like Verry Elleegant, the powerful chestnut sprinter has plenty of quirks that have seriously tested McDonald and Waller’s horsemanship.

“They can throw in a rough one but from the last couple of preparations, they have come to a point that they are more consistent in their performance.

Plus their track riders get to know them pretty well and the feedback from them has been a huge part of it.

“We have let them come to hand in their own time.”

Electing to do that meant taking a different approach to race day with each of the horses.

“We used to come up with plans to try and win a race and forget about the horse but now we completely forget about the race and ride the horse and that’s been a massive difference between their results this prep and the previous.

“They are the types of horses where you can’t ride the race, you ride them. In a weird sense that’s how it works.

“They are good enough to overcome certain things in a race anyway and you just keep them happy and they do the rest.”

Growing up in New Zealand, the 29-year-old spent much of his spare time in the saddle. From the age of eight, he competed at a high level of show jumping, sailing over fences far bigger than himself.

McDonald is a horseman through and through and his ability to read the animal has unquestionably been the key to unlocking the endless talents of these two gifted yet very different racehorses.

 “My parents gave me every opportunity. I had really good ponies. We had five or six doing the jumping circuit every year and we did hunting in the winter and had a really good grounding. 

“I think that’s the difference between knowing a horse. With dressage and show jumping it’s not about hopping on and hooning around. It’s all about the commands and you learn so much about how you can control a horse with little signal and get a horse’s attention 

“What I learned is definitely useful now. I definitely think that,” he said.

His long-time partner Katelyn Mallyon, herself a Group 1winning jockey, enjoyed a similar upbringing. They have a deep love for not only each other but horses and that is unquestionably a major ingredient in all the success.

“She’s fantastic. I’m very lucky to have her. She understands it very well and we are bouncing ideas off each other all the time. She lives and breathes my riding every day of the week and she loves it as well.”

After a history-making ten wins during Cup week, including four Group 1 winners, McDonald says he’s still coming to terms with his unprecedented achievements.

“It’s been an unbelievable three weeks. My feet feel like they haven’t touched the ground and I can’t wait to lie down and regroup at home. I don’t take it for granted, it’s just amazing.”

A humble, gifted horseman, McDonald is an endearing character. The public loves him and, most importantly, so do the horses. They run their best for him and that’s why this will not be the last time he enters racing’s record books or rides the winner of the country’s most iconic race.