This was one of the feel-good moments in racing this year — and no one was there to see it.
But jockey James Innes says his upset win on Nettoyer in the Doncaster Mile this year was made all the more memorable because Royal Randwick’s grandstands were empty.
Instead of cheering crowds, all Innes could hear after the race was rival jockeys roaring and yelling for him.
“I get goosebumps thinking about it even now,’’ Innes said.
“When the Doncaster is brought up, everyone says to me how disappointing that coronavirus meant there was no crowd but it made the win even more special because it was so quiet and I could hear all the other jockeys yelling for me.
“It just goes to show the sportsmanship between the boys. This is a tough industry for everyone and I haven’t got that big name and reputation that the boys have I was riding against but there is not a person in that jockeys’ room that I don’t get along with.
“I have been involved in big races and I’ve never heard anyone yell out and say well done out on the track, we usually congratulate the winning jockey back in the room.
“When I heard the boys erupt it was amazing and I guess that is why I got a bit emotional after the race.’’
Innes, 25, was having only the fourth Group 1 ride of his career. He never really expected to win a major race, particularly a Doncaster.
“Group 1 rides are very hard to get and the fact I could win one was very satisfying,’’ he said.
“There are a handful of riders winning the Group 1 races consistently like Hughie (Bowman), Kerrin (McEvoy), Tommy (Berry), James (McDonald), Bossy (Glen Boss) so for someone like myself to win one was a bit of a change.’’
Nettoyer’s Doncaster was also the first Group 1 win for the mare’s trainer, Wendy Roche. She joined Gai Waterhouse and Barbara Joseph as the only female trainers to win the famous Randwick mile.
When Roche revealed Nettoyer’s penchant for eating pizza and drinking beer and champagne, the trainer and her mare became instant celebrities, making front page news for days after the Doncaster.
For the trainer and jockey, the Doncaster win was a life-changing moment — or was it? Some six months later, Nettoyer’s Group 1 win didn’t provide Roche or Innes with the career boost they might have expected.
The trainer hasn’t got one extra horse in her stable and the jockey still struggles for rides.
“After the Doncaster, as far as getting more horses, I didn’t get one call from other owners,’’ Roche revealed. “I didn’t get another horse.’’
Innes hasn’t had a ride in the city for nearly a month. His last metropolitan mount was Nettoyer when the mare ran unplaced in the Chelmsford Stakes back on September 5.
“All the Doncaster win did was help me pay a few bills,’’ Innes said. “It’s still a struggle for me to get rides.’’
So, Roche and Innes have a point to prove when they team up with Nettoyer again for the Group 1 $1 million TAB Epsom Handicap (1600m) at Royal Randwick on Saturday.
They want to show they belong on racing’s big stage and that Nettoyer’s Doncaster win was no fluke.
Roche has a lot of faith in Nettoyer’s ability even if the moody mare doesn’t exactly endear herself to the Warwick Farm-based trainer with her troublesome stable and trackwork work antics.
The trainer is the only person who rides Nettoyer trackwork. Roche is probably the only person game enough to ride the mare as she often refuses to go out onto the track for her morning exercise, and other days she is intent on throwing her rider.
“Nettoyer picks me up and throws me around, I’ve had a lot of bites and bruises from her,’’ Roche said.
“The only reason we found out she loves pizza was because one day I gave her a slice to distract her.
“I had ordered the pizza for the farrier and the mare was playing up so I gave her some pizza. She liked it so much, she ate the lot.
“We do anything we can to keep her happy and distracted so we don’t get hurt.’’
Innes has an understanding of what Roche goes through every morning after riding another of the trainer’s team alongside Nettoyer in a track gallop earlier this week.
“When Wendy is trying to get a saddle on Nettoyer, the mare can be pretty savage,’’ Innes said.
“At trackwork the other morning Wendy grabbed her skull cap and vest and put them on before Nettoyer was even saddled for her gallop.
“I asked Wendy what she was doing and she explained she needed to put on the skull cap and vest as protection just to saddle Nettoyer. I watched on as the mare did try to bite Wendy’s hand a few times. She also tried to kick Wendy — the mare has a bit of character.’’
But Nettoyer’s wilful antics don’t mask her racetrack ability. She has won six of her 32 starts and earned more than $1.6 million prizemoney — an impressive return on the $20,000 Roche needed to buy the mare as a yearling.
Nettoyer is most effective on the Randwick track where she has won five races including four over the Epsom course, most notably the Doncaster Mile.
She is attempting to become the first mare to win the Doncaster-Epsom double in the same year — a feat achieved only by four horses: Racing To Win (2006), Super Impose (1990 and 1991), Blue Legend (1946) and Hyman (1909).
Roche said Nettoyer races best when fresh and she was not concerned by the month between runs.
“We gave her a jumpout last Friday and she was excellent, really strong through the line,’’ Roche said.
“I wanted the mare to have a good hitout to get the adrenalin flowing. The boys at the barriers were impressed and said the way she went it felt it was like the Doncaster all over again.
“She does go well when she is fresh and over the mile. I suppose she has only ever won with lightweights but I don’t see the 54kg as a big problem.
“I ride her every day, I’m considerably heavier than James and the mare doesn’t have a problem with me.’’
There will be a crowd at Royal Randwick for Epsom Day, albeit restricted due to the pandemic. Roche and Innes deserve overdue recognition if Nettoyer can win the big race – and it won’t only be the jockeys cheering for the mare this time.