Evergreen jockey Robert Thompson still riding winners.
Evergreen jockey Robert Thompson still riding winners.

Would you retire if you had ridden 4441 winners?

The stewards joke they would be out of a job if they were all like Robert Thompson.

Some trainers say the champion jockey is the best "horse" in their stable. Everyone remains in awe of his continued excellence in the saddle.

Thompson turns 62 on Tuesday. He's the most successful jockey in Australian racing history with 4441 wins - and counting.

He is riding at Taree on his birthday then preparing for one of his favourite race meetings, Friday's Scone Cup.

Almost every year since the two-day Scone Cup Carnival was introduced in 2011, I've interviewed the Hall of Fame jockey about his career and possible retirement plans.

Every year, the answer is the same: "No, I'm not retiring,'' Thompson said last week, almost as if he was anticipating the question.

"I've cut a lot of the travelling down to race meetings, I've eased back a bit but I'm still enjoying riding.''

Thompson is a bridge between the past and the present, a contemporary champion who has been at the top of his profession for nearly five decades.

 

Robert Thompson with his 60th birthday cake at the Scone Cup Carnival in 2018.
Robert Thompson with his 60th birthday cake at the Scone Cup Carnival in 2018.

 

Most of the jockeys Thompson will be competing against at Friday's Scone Cup weren't born when he began riding in 1973.

Thompson started in an era when Kevin Langby, Ron Quinton and Peter Cook were Sydney's leading jockeys, when all rode with their feet firmly in the irons and vigorous whip riding was encouraged.

These days, almost every jockey has adopted the toe-in-the-iron style and there are restrictions on whip use.

But Thompson's horsemanship skills ensure he remains as competitive as ever even though he has continued to ride in the traditional style. Fellow Hall of Famers Darren Beadman never really changed his style and Hugh Bowman usually rides with his feet in the irons.

"I suppose as the old saying goes it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks,'' Thompson said.

"I did try to ride with my toes in the irons at trackwork but I just felt it was not for me.''

 

The evergreen Thompson first began riding in 1973.
The evergreen Thompson first began riding in 1973.

 

Racing NSW chief steward Marc Van Gestel said Thompson does have his irons lower than most jockeys but he is still very effective.

"Robert has great balance and hands. As stewards, we notice how he prefers to keep his horses balanced and with room,'' Van Gestel said.

"He is a rider that generally conforms to the rules, he understands the industry very well, he is a thorough gentleman and always of exemplary conduct.

"I've often said if they were all like Robert Thompson there wouldn't be a requirement for stewards.''

In fact, Thompson has had only two careless riding suspensions since 2007 - but this is not a reflection on his competitive streak.

 

Thompson gets another one home at Doomben.
Thompson gets another one home at Doomben.

 

Thompson's close friend, Sky Thoroughbred Central presenter Gary Harley says the jockey's quiet, polite manner can't mask his fierce determination and competitiveness.

"Robert is still as strong as ever, even though he is not riding as much now,'' Harley said.

"He's always been very fit and strong. I think that is mainly because he is a quiet-living bloke, he doesn't go out and get on the drink, he's very dedicated to his riding and he's a great family man.

"The other thing is his judgment and how quickly he can work out a race. His ability to size up a situation is incredible and that is something he has had all through his career.''

 

RT with trophies presented to him to mark his 4000 race wins.
RT with trophies presented to him to mark his 4000 race wins.

 

But so much has changed since Thompson first rode at the Scone Cup nearly 50 years ago.

Scone's White Park racecourse, which took some riding in the old days due to its tight circumference, is a fading memory. The New England Highway bypass goes straight through the site of the old track.

The new Scone racecourse is now recognised as one of the best in NSW, an expansive track that generates competitive racing and is located at the very heart of the world famous Hunter Valley thoroughbred breeding industry.

Thompson, known as the "Country Cups King" because of his remarkable record of multiple wins in many of NSW country racing's feature events, estimates he has ridden in up to 40 Scone Cups over the years but has only one trophy on his mantelpiece with Drogheda in 1997.

"I couldn't win the Scone Cup on the old White Park track, had a few placings though,'' Thompson recalled.

"When I finally won the Scone Cup, it was a very wet day and I rode Drogheda for Les Bridge. I'd love to win the race again.''

 

One of Thompson’s big ambitions these days is to ride another Scone Cup winner.
One of Thompson’s big ambitions these days is to ride another Scone Cup winner.

 

The Scone Race Club this Saturday also celebrates its 10th stand-alone meeting - their two-day Cup Carnival becoming one of the most successful and significant in NSW racing.

However, this will be the first Scone stand-alone Thompson won't be riding. Protocols introduced due to the coronavirus pandemic means Rosehill Gardens will host the Scone meeting which includes six Group or Listed races.

Thompson is prevented from riding at metropolitan racetracks for the foreseeable future as one of the biosecurity measures requires jockeys to ride in their region.

"It's a little disappointing that I can't ride at Rosehill next Saturday but at least racing is continuing,'' Thompson said.

"I am surprised to a degree that racing has kept going but everyone has worked well and done the right thing. These are difficult times but they have done the best they can and we have been lucky to be still racing.''

Thompson, true to his nature, found a positive out of the present predicament.

The health and wellbeing of jockeys is paramount during the COVID-19 outbreak and social distancing protocols on racedays require them to be kept apart and spread between various areas on track including club committee rooms on racedays.

"I've said to some of the club chief executives we are in better rooms now so when things do get back to normal I said I think the jockeys should stay in these rooms!'' Thompson said.

As for any talk of retirement, Thompson hinted that's on hold for another 12 months at least due to the pandemic.

"It's hurt the super and the shares so I have to keep going,'' he said.

 

 

Originally published as Would you retire if you had ridden 4441 winners?

Thompson always makes an appearance at the Cairns amateurs.
Thompson always makes an appearance at the Cairns amateurs.

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