Sometimes it really helps if you are a lightweight

By Sophie Baldwin

As the meek shall inherit the earth so the natural lightweights shall rule at the racetrack — where the less you weigh the more the trainers love you. SOPHIE BALDWIN caught up with the diminutive Mikaela Claridge to find out what she gets out of one of the world’s more dangerous sport.

FEAR IS THE last thing on Mikaela Claridge’s mind as she thunders down the straight.

Most people would be horrified reaching speeds of 70 km/h while straddling more than 500 kg of highly strung nervous energy with nothing but a small helmet and padded vest as your only form of protection.

But not Mikaela, she is too busy living the dream now she is a jockey — albeit an apprentice.

A mere 47 kg stripling, often perched atop a horse more than 10 times her own weight, she knows no fear.

She is simply doing what she loves.

“Being a jockey is an absolute dream for me and I can’t believe it is my job — it’s so exciting,” Mikaela said.

“I know it is dangerous but when you are in a pack of 16 horses at full gallop you don’t have time to think about that, you just want to do your job and ride as best as you can and hopefully cross the finish line first.”

After recently joining the Michael Cornish/Donna Gaskin stable in Echuca, Mikaela rode her first race at Wangaratta in August.

She is hoping this is just the start of what will be a long and successful racing career.

Growing up in Hamilton surrounded by horses and a family of equine enthusiasts, Mikaela’s first love has always been horses but it was in the eventing field rather than racing where she began.

“I think I entered my first competition when I was about seven,” she laughed.

She remembers having a Shetland pony following her mother and grandfather everywhere they went.

Mikaela can’t really remember any of her childhood not associated with horses or horse riding.

“I always knew when I grew up I wanted to do something with horses but there is not a lot of money in eventing and I knew I needed to look at a different avenue.”

When Mikaela was at school she got a part-time job at the stables of Allan Cook.

“I would be out there before school and during the holidays doing ground and track work. It was a 6 km bike ride to the stables and I would get myself there at 5 am — sometimes dad would take me but most of the time I was on the bike,” she laughed.

When she finished Year 12 she applied for Racing Victoria’s apprentice jockey program.

“When I told mum and dad I wanted to be a jockey they weren’t too big on the idea because they were worried about how dangerous it would be.

“Now they love coming to the races and mum especially is right into it. She is always watching the racing and knows more about it than I do.”

Mikaela’s fiancée Jamie is also very supportive and jokes one day he will give up teaching to become her full-time manager.

Jokes aside though, it is not easy to become a jockey.

To be accepted as an apprentice Mikaela had to go through a fairly in-depth application process including her riding history.

She had to send in riding videos and once she passed that step, coaches came out to watch her ride at the track.

There is also a huge element of fitness involved and she had to test things including her VO2 level, skin folds and mobility.

And that’s just to be accepted.

Then the hard work and dedication kicks in.

Mikaela is up early and out at the track rain, hail or shine and she returns again most afternoons.

In 2015, just four months into her apprenticeship she had a fall which forced her to take the rest of the year off.

“I decided to get my bachelor of primary education and during that time I was also working in the equestrian program at Hamilton College which I really enjoyed.”

At the end of 2016 Mikaela and Jamie decided to move to Echuca.

“I got a job at Mick Cornish and Donna Gaskin’s stable just as a track rider. I didn’t decide to get back into my apprenticeship until March 2017 and that’s why it seems to have taken me so long to finally achieve this goal.

“It was such a relief when I finally got accepted.”

She said race days were huge.

“It is such a funny feeling watching the joy that comes out of people, betting on you and wanting you to win.”

She managed a second place in her first official race.

“On that first day I was sitting in the barriers shitting myself but once the gates opened I had no time for nerves. I just had to put my race brain on and focus on my tactics and how to ride the race.

“At 300 m I thought I had the race won but the horse beside me got me on the line. I wasn’t too disappointed though because it was just so amazing to be finally racing.”

Mikaela rode her first winner at Echuca on Kings Hand on September 6 and she is hoping to one day make it to ride in the big meetings in the city.

In the world of racing she said quite often male jockeys outweigh females but that certainly doesn’t worry her.

“I was riding at Berrigan the other day and there were so many female jockeys we ended up in the big male change rooms and the boys had to get changed in the smaller female ones.”

Mikaela said with her weight sitting at a fairly stable 47kgs she was lucky to not have to waste or sweat before a race.

“I am lucky I just watch what I eat and I am able to feel good and fit. I am an athlete like any other in a paid sport and I have to look after myself.”

Mikaela might only be just finding her feet in the sport but she sure is determined to make a serious go of it.

“I might have come from an eventing background and was big on that at the start, but my love of horses has certainly grown into a love of racing and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else now. It is an absolute dream.”

Since being interviewed Mikaela has gone on to win her first race piloting King's Hand to a two length win at Echuca in September. 