Damien Oliver chose to return to race riding after his 10-month betting ban at a low-key meeting at Geelong on a quiet Friday in mid-September rather than at the more high-profile Moonee Valley meeting the next day.
When asked why, his response was short and sharp.
”It’s the first day I could come back and ride, it’s what I do. I’m not into show business mate,” was his retort after he returned to scale following his victory on Lion of Belfort on his first ride back. He might not be into show business, but in the three weeks or so since his return to the saddle, he has stolen the spotlight.
Oliver has ridden half-a-dozen metropolitan winners, teamed up with some of the nation’s biggest trainers, secured the mount on one of the Cox Plate and Melbourne Cup favourites, been suspended and also shown that his competitive edge – on the track and in the stewards room – has not softened during his enforced absence.
When you are very good at what you do, people tend to make exceptions, and there has been a sympathetic response to the fallen star as he rebuilds his career and reputation.
There will always be those who argue that he got off with a far more lenient sentence than he should have, given the career-ending penalties handed to other jockeys convicted on integrity charges in overseas jurisdictions.
The shadow over the champion jockey’s integrity will remain after he admitted to betting $10,000 on the favourite in a race in which he was riding another horse: that’s just the way things are in life when you commit a major offence and admit your guilt, statute of limitations notwithstanding.
Certainly leading trainer David Hayes was shocked at the vitriolic reaction on social media in mid-August when he revealed Oliver had been riding work at his Euroa property. ”From some quarters they were accusing Damien of being a cheat. I’ve got to say I was genuinely taken aback at the harsh criticism about the jockey,” Hayes said at the time.
And you don’t hit the ground running after a 10-month break with your tactical awareness, judgment of pace and balance seemingly even better than ever unless you are a freakish talent.
Given the forgiving nature of the racing business, where transgressions are forgotten quickly as the pursuit of the next big race win outweighs other considerations, Oliver has been able to step back into the limelight with relative ease.
Victory in a major race can mean a difference of tens of millions of dollars in a horse’s worth – if it is a colt and has a future at stud. Thus it was not surprising to see Cox Plate and Melbourne Cup contender Fiorente’s owners immediately going into a huddle in the Flemington mounting yard after their star performer had finished fourth in the group 1 Turnbull Stakes on Saturday. They were not happy with the ride Nash Rawiller had given the son of Monsun, making it clear they thought the jockey – himself a top-flight performer and winner of multiple Sydney premierships – had given their horse too much to do.
It quickly became clear they wanted only one man aboard on big race day – Oliver, for whom the ban appears to have been an opportunity to recharge his batteries, freshen up and come back with his focus renewed.
Rawiller is unlikely to be the last big-name rider to be ”jocked off” in the next few months if Oliver continues in his current form. He will be hopeful of adding to his group 1 tally on Saturday on Prince Harada in the Caulfield Guineas.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.