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DARREN Gauci first encountered horses when his apprentice brother Mick asked him to help out at the stables of trainer Don Shannon after school. That led to the soccer mad teenager being bitten by the racing bug and enjoying a wonderful career as one of Australia’s leading jockeys. Now at 50, he’s still riding winners and is enthusiastic about being able to impart his knowledge to a new generation of race riders when he hangs up his saddle.
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NOW that he is 50 Darren Gauci has no illusions about being in the twilight of his career as a jockey. Yet despite two fearsome falls that could well have ended his riding days he retains all the energy and enthusiasm of someone much younger. At the same time Darren is planning for a future outside the saddle.
On the days when he does not have a mount, which are more often than he would like, he is busy making race riding and track work gear with the idea of developing that further. He also has ambitions of finding a position with Racing Victoria, teaching the art of race riding to apprentices and others coming through the ranks, a role for which he would be eminently suited.
For besides being immensely popular and highly thought of wherever there is racing, Darren is a natural, who possesses a rare gift of making horses comfortable and wanting to run for him.But he is in no hurry to head in that direction. “I’ve always loved being a jockey and it has provided myself, my wife Karen and our four children with a great way of life,” he said. “I feel I am fit as I’ve ever been and I still feel I’m riding well, even though I’m not receiving as many opportunities as I have in the past.
“Having said that if I don’t have a ride in the city of a Saturday I will go to a country meeting and as far as I am concerned that’s fine, but I would like to go out of the game on my own terms. I have a feeling that one day I’ll go to the races and I’ll say ‘that’s enough’ and that will be it. “In the meanwhile I am trying to have something to fall back on when I do retire, such as making the race gear.
I’d also like to do some mentoring or something like that which would keep me in racing and would keep me ticking over.” Whatever happens Darren, with more than 1300 winners to his credit, has come a long way from his early days in the outer Melbourne suburb of Glenroy. His parents Bill and Shirley, who are of Maltese origin, initially had no interest in racing but a grandfather did and he would take Darren and his elder brother Mick to the races.
As a teenager Mick, who rode successfully for a number of years, became apprenticed to Caulfield trainer Don Shannon. An enthusiastic soccer player in those days Darren was asked by Mick to “help him out” at Shannon’s stables. “I was mucking out boxes and stuff like that,” says Darren, who at 13 was so small he had to stand on an upturned bucket to look over the stable doors. “After a while I graduated to riding the pony and once I learned how to ride I loved it.
From then on I’d catch the train down to Don’s after school and every weekend until Mum and Dad moved to Caulfield.” With that he was enrolled at Caulfield High and with his birthday being on December 26 he was able to finish his formal education the year he turned 15. Not long afterwards Don Shannon moved to Manila and that led to Darren transferring to Frank King, who like Sydney’s Theo Green, had built a reputation for developing apprentices.
Within a few months he had secured his license only to have an ordinary debut to race riding, on April 3, 1982, when he finished second last. He also finished second last at his next ride, but on April 11 he saluted the judge in a three-horse field contesting the CUB East Gippsland Cup at Bairnsdale. “The horse was odds on so thank God it won,” he said. At that stage he began establishing the Gippsland area of Victoria as his base.
“I was only having one or two rides of a Saturday until one day at Traralgon another apprentice fell off. I only had one ride that day but picked up a couple rides and rode two winners. “From then I found I was getting more opportunities and some of the trainers were putting me on the city because I had a claim.
I was fortunate enough to win an apprentices’ race at Moonee Valley on a horse called War Flight, who was trained by Ray Lawson, at one of my first rides in town.” “Being at Caulfield I was riding a lot of track work for the late Geoff Murphy, who was a leading trainer, and he was putting me on horses, using my claim basically.
That’s when it sort of kicked-off. Geoff was a tough bloke but underneath his hard exterior he was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. “I remember at one of my first rides for him in town I slaughtered the horse and I wasn’t looking forward to going to track work on the Monday. When I arrived all he did was ask me where I was riding the following Saturday and when I said nowhere he said ‘good you can ride Beach Boy at Flemington’ which was going to be one of the favourites.
Beach Boy won and I got to ride horses like Albany Bay, who was one of the top class three year-olds Geoff had in the stable.” Murphy’s team also featured the emerging stayer Chagemar (NZ), a gelding by Zamazaan, who played a notable part in Darren’s career development. He provided Darren with a major victory at 1983 Melbourne Cup Carnival at Flemington when he won the VRC The Dalgety-Gr.2 (2500m). Three days later he made his debut in the Melbourne Cup on Chagemar, winding up ninth behind the fast finishing New Zealander Kiwi.
Two days after that he notched his first Gr.1 victory and outrode his claim in winning the VRC Oaks (2500m) on the Taj Rossi filly Taj Eclipse, who was trained by the late Bart Cummings. It is a testimony to Darren’s innate skill, his wonderful hands, his perfect balance and excellent judgement that he lost his allowance in the metropolitan area just 571 days after opening his winning account at Bairnsdale.
At season’s end he won the Melbourne Jockeys’ Premiership and Apprentices’ Premiership with 65 winners. They were titles he was to capture again in the 1984-85 and 1985-86 seasons. This meant his services were in demand on the racetrack and elsewhere. On the insistence of his master, but against Darren’s wishes, he made a guest appearance on the popular television program of the era, Young Talent Time, which featured Karen Dunkerton. “I went in and when I saw Karen I thought ‘wow’,” he said.
“Nothing happened until about six months later when I was in hospital after having a minor fall at Sandown. The Young Talent Time people rang me to see how I was and then Karen got on the phone. That’s when it all started.” The couple married in 1989 and they have four children, Jade, Brianna, Sean and Brooke. Karen, who performed alongside such stars as Tina Arena and Dannii Minogue, made a comeback of sorts when, with Jade and Bree, she sang the National Anthem at the Sandown Classic meeting in 2007.
While the romance was beginning to flourish, the association with Chagemar, among other Murphy headliners, was being maintained. In the spring of 1984 his Melbourne Cup preparation yielded victories in the GRC Geelong Cup-LR (2400m) and The Dalgety for a second time. In both those races the Silver Knight (NZ) gelding Black Knight, trained by the late George Hanlon, finished in the minor placings.
However, with Peter Cook aboard, Black Knight forced Chagemar into second place in the Cup to Darren’s disappointment. “I thought I was a great chance but Black Knight was too good on the day,” he said. It was not long afterwards that Darren was contracted as number one jockey for the late Colin Hayes and his Lindsay Park operation. Foremost among his wins for C.S. were the VRC Newmarket Handicap-Gr.1 (1200m) on Red Tempo, by Mussorgsky (IRE), only for Darren to find after 12 months that he was “not ready” to fill such a responsible role.
“I rode quite a few winners for Colin but I was only 18 and I was probably too young to be in a position like that. It was a big job and my boss, Frank King, said that he preferred I went back to riding freelance, which I did.” As Darren appreciates he was “very lucky” to be apprenticed to King. “He was the best mentor I could have had,” he said. “I lived in his house and even though things were happening quickly for me he always kept me level-headed.
“My work-load always stayed the same however many winners I was riding . . . I was still mucking out boxes and sort of thing. Besides that he always gave me the right advice and I always will be grateful for him keeping me on the straight and narrow the way he did.” Although he was no longer stable jockey for Lindsay Park, Darren continued to ride more than his share of winners with five coming up on the card at Cranbourne in 1987, Sandown in 1988 and Ballarat in 1989.
There were also further Gr.1 winners for Colin Alderson, the late J.J. Atkins, Bart Cummings, Lee Freedman, George Hanlon, John Meagher and John Sadler. With Freedman being an enthusiastic supporter, Darren became associated with the Imposing (NZ) gelding Super Impose, who he regards as the best horse he has ridden.
In March 1989 the pair combined to capture the VATC Carlyon Cup-Gr.2 (1800m) but the brilliant Vo Rogue proved a stumbling block in the VATC Orr Stakes, St. George Stakes and VRC Australian Cup. They combined successfully again when Super Impose was triumphant over Horse of the Year Research in the VRC Turnbull Stakes-Gr.2 (2000m) in October of 1989.
That was followed by a fourth in the VRC Mackinnon Stakes and a second to stable mate Tawriffic in the VRC Melbourne Cup-Gr.1 on the first Tuesday in November. “I had to make a choice about two weeks before the Cup and I decided to stick with Super Impose. When I galloped them on the Saturday before the race their work was exactly the same.
I jokingly asked Lee if I could change to Tawrrific because I knew he’d run the two miles but it was too late.” As Freedman said, “Darren made the best possible use of an inside barrier, got out at the right time and had the race won until the better-weighted Tawrrific came along”.
The following year Darren won both the AJC Warwick Stakes-Gr.2 (1400m) and Epsom Handicap-Gr.1 (1600m) on Super Impose, who was to be ridden by Darren Beadman in his 1991 Doncaster and Epsom victories. It was in June of that year when “The Gauch” suffered severe head injuries in a fall at Yarra Glen, which not only threatened his riding career but his life. “For a long while I couldn’t remember anything about the fall but I can now,” he said.
“I’d ridden a couple of winners earlier in the day before I rode Strike The Gong for George Hanlon. I came out from behind the leaders and I was going to win when the horse suddenly did a left hand turn on me, which forced me on to the heels of another horse. Down I went and, basically, it knocked me out for eight days.”
However, his fitness and resilience shone through during his recovery period enabling him to be back in the saddle after two-and-a-half months. Then, not long afterwards, he was offered a contract by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which was accepted. He rode for two seasons for the late Lawrie Fownes, Casper’s father, and for another year with the redoubtable Neville Begg, who put together an outstanding record in the Chinese colony. “I won quite a few races while I was in Hong Kong, including a Centenary Cup. I think I finished fourth on the jockeys’ premiership each year I was there.”
On returning to Melbourne Darren teamed up with John Hawkes, who at that stage had stables at Epsom prior to moving to Flemington and later Warwick Farm in his capacity as trainer for the Inghams’ Woodland Stud Syndicate. The combination was immediately successful with a fourth Melbourne jockeys’ premiership going his way in 1995-96, when he booted home 61.5 winners. Among the headliners he rode carrying the all cerise was Horse of the Year Octagonal, who went smoothly for him in track work but was unplaced the five times he rode him in races.
There were plenty of other winners, though, including Octagonal’s exceptional son Lonhro on whom he won the MRC Caulfield Guineas-Gr.1 (1600m) and Yalumba Stakes-Gr.1 (2000m). A memorable win came on the Dr Grace (NZ) three year-old Over when he defeated the champion mare Sunline in the 2000 running of the AJC Doncaster Handicap-Gr.1 (1600m). “Over was only carrying 51.5kg but it took him all the way down the straight to wear down Sunline,” he said. “My God she was hard to beat.”
There were, among others, three Gr.1 victories on the gutsy sprinter Yell, a VRC Crown Oaks on Tributes, a Lightning Stakes on Sports and a QTC Stradbroke Handicap on Crawl. “I had 12 years as stable jockey for John and rode a lot of winners for him. He was very good to me. I had more Gr.1 winners for John than I’ve had with any other trainer but all good things come to an end.” As he was becoming more readily available Darren was secured for the Pins gelding El Segundo (NZ) and in the spring of 2005 he was victorious on him in the Yalumba Stakes. Another booking was for the Jeune (GB) gelding On A Jeune, who had just 51kg in the Melbourne Cup.
“On A Jeune was a grinder and he kept whacking away at the one pace. Coming down the straight I was going to run 10th, then I was going to run fifth and I finally finished up running second to Makybe Diva, who brought up her third straight Melbourne Cup win with 58kg.” The most recent of his 34 Gr.1 winners was notched on September 23, 2006 in the MRC Underwood Stakes (2000m) on El Segundo, who went on to finish a close second to Fields of Omagh in the MVRC Cox Plate-Gr.1 (2040m). It has not been easy for Darren over the years since.
“The big stables, and I’m not being critical of them, have huge numbers of horses and have their own jockeys doing the work,” he said. “It’s not leaving much for the smaller trainer or a jockey, who is less in demand.” However, one of the most astute of the bigger owners, Lloyd Williams, banked on Darren’s ability when he engaged him for the imported Galileo gelding Muir (GB) in the SAJC Adelaide Cup-Gr.2 (3200m) in March 2011.
An absolutely perfectly judged front-running ride brought Muir home a winner over Sadler’s Story, Macedonian and 15 others but just three months later tragedy struck again when Darren’s mount crashed in a race at Mornington. “I crushed a vertebrae, my L1, and I was out for 10 months. It’s the longest I’ve ever been out.” Unperturbed by the damage he suffered he did not have any thoughts of retiring. “The only way I would have given up riding would have been if the injury hadn’t healed properly and was going to restrict me in some way, but fortunately that didn’t happen so I’m still going.” n