James McDonald is a man at the top of his game.
The 28-year-old jockey has long been regarded as one of the best in his field, but his dominance of the cut-throat Sydney racing scene in recent weeks has seen his status elevate again.
The punters pal has 81½ wins to his credit nationally in Australia this season and leads the Sydney jockeys’ premiership with 68½ wins as he heads towards a fourth Sydney title, remarkable given the calibre of his opposition.
His mounts across the Tasman have amassed more than $14 million in prizemoney this season, while the kid from Cambridge also gave New Zealand racing fans a first-hand reminder of his supreme talent, when he dominated Ellerslie’s Christmas – New Year Carnival.
Seven winners and seven placegetters from 16 rides was not a bad effort from a couple of forays to his homeland, which included January’s Karaka Million meeting, with his New Zealand mounts earning in excess of $800,000.
Soon to be the youngest person to be inducted to the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame, when the event which was originally slated for May, eventually takes place, McDonald showed his wares when landing four winners on a bumper day at Rosehill last weekend.
It is the second time this month that McDonald has ridden a Saturday metropolitan quartet, while the win on Verry Elleegant was the jockey’s 45th Group One win of his career.
The former Kiwi galloper has stamped herself as one of the stars of Australian racing and McDonald sees no reason why spring majors such as the Gr.1 Caulfield Cup (2400m) and Gr.1 Melbourne Cup (3200m) could not be within her grasp.
“If she held her form from the way she is going now until the spring, she would be extremely competitive in Caulfield and Melbourne Cups,” McDonald said.
“I think she is a mare that is only going to get better as she gets on. She is only four and she is New Zealand bred and only maturing now.
“Whatever she has done previously is actually a bonus. She is a late bloomer but she is absolutely airborne and those sort of races are not out of reach and any rain on the day enhances her chances.”
While Verry Elleegant was the star of the day, McDonald also notched victories aboard Night’s Watch, Cascadian and Quick Thinker.
McDonald said it was an odd feeling returning to the winner’s circle in front of empty grandstands as racing continues behind closed doors.
“You have to enjoy yourself a little bit, but it is a very eerie feeling and obviously with every sport that people play, we enjoy the crowd being there.
“It does give you a bit of a lift, but at the moment with the crowds not there, you have to make your own fun.
“When you get to ride those good horses, the adrenalin kicks in.”
The racing industry right around Australia is going to extreme measures to enable it to continue under Covid-19 restrictions and McDonald said he and his fellow riders were doing their bit.
“Everyone in the community is in the same boat, but as a jockey, we are just travelling to Wednesday and Saturday racemeetings and only doing trackwork on a Tuesday,” McDonald said.
“For the rest of the week we are locked inside and none of us want to get sick so we’re taking every precaution possible to keep racing going and we’re very grateful it is going.
“Obviously there have been a few sacrifices but we’re willing to make them.”
With the pinnacle of the Sydney Autumn Carnival, The Championships, looming over the next fortnight, McDonald has a number of plum rides to look forward to.
Among them are enigmatic sprinter Nature Strip in the Gr.1 T.J. Smith Stakes (1200m) and high-class three-year-old Castelvecchio, who will be out to emulate his sire Dundeel, whom McDonald rode to victory in the Gr.1 Australian Derby (2400m) seven years ago.
“Nature Strip is going really well,” McDonald said. “Obviously he is a quirky horse with a mind of his own but when he does put his best foot forward he looks sensational and he feels great. At home, he can’t be going any better and he trialled super the other day.
“I’m looking forward to riding Castelvecchio. He looks like he will relish the trip and he is a pretty exciting horse. Hopefully he can do the job in the Derby.”
McDonald’s other rides this weekend include outsider Mister Sea Wolf in the Gr.1 Doncaster Mile (1600m), progressive colt Bartley in the Gr.1 Sires’ (1400m), Godolphin’s Oaks filly Colette in the Gr.3 Adrian Knox (2000m) and the Murray Baker and Andrew Forsman-trained The Chosen One in the Gr.2 Chairman’s Quality (2600m).
The ace hoop has also landed the ride on Japanese raider Danon Premium in the Gr.1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes (2000m) on Saturday week.
One of the best gallopers at a mile to 2000m in Japan, the Group One winner is likely to clash with a field that includes New Zealand stars Te Akau Shark and Melody Belle, English challenger Addeybb, emerging star Master Of Wine and potentially Verry Elleegant, a last-minute addition to the line-up.
“From all reports, Danon Premium sounds like an absolute rocket, so I am looking forward to sitting on him in trackwork,” McDonald said.
“His form lines are second to none in Japan, so if he brings that sort of form down here, he should be hard to beat in a very competitive Queen Elizabeth.”
While grappling with his restricted life in Sydney at present McDonald also has thoughts for his family and friends in New Zealand, who are under level 4 alert lockdown at present.
“Mum and Dad are doing it a bit tougher and are a bit bored and they feel like they’re a bit isolated away from my brother Luke and I, who are both in Australia,” he said. “But I suppose we will just get through it and see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.”