Introducing Australia’s next racing champion

Living Well | Interview: Peter Hanlon | Photo: Matt Harvey | Posted on 09 October 2019

Up-and-coming Aussie jockey Jamie Kah loves winning almost as much as she loves horses.

Ever since I could walk I’ve been riding. Mum used to lead me around the streets of Adelaide on miniature ponies while everyone else was getting pushed in prams. I started off doing mounted games, which involves all sorts of novelties and fast relay races on ponies, constantly jumping off and on, and picking things up off the ground at a gallop.

Jamie Kah


Mum and Dad both represented Australia
in speed skating at the Winter Olympics. It’s pretty cool to be able to say that. They were good mates with Steven Bradbury – I think Dad actually taught him to skate. I’m terrible at skating, and if I’m not good at something I just stop.   

At 13 I worked at a stable five minutes down the road from home, mucking out boxes and looking after horses. Mum said, “That’s fine, I just don’t want you riding any of those crazy thoroughbreds.” One day I came home from school and said, “Mum, I did a gallop this morning – I’m going to be a jockey.” I left school at 15. Mum wasn’t happy with the idea, but once they could see that’s what I was determined to do they supported me all the way.

I won the Adelaide jockeys’ premiership at 16, in my first year as an apprentice. I don’t think I really appreciated it; it hit me a year or so after that, and I just couldn’t deal with it. I’d had to grow up so quickly. I moved to Melbourne and finished my apprenticeship at Caulfield, but I didn’t know anyone. It was tough and lonely.

I decided to take a break and get away when I was 18. I had a lot of people tell me, “You’re ruining your life, you’ll never make it again.” I went to Europe and worked with show jumpers – Dad’s parents were born in Holland, and I’ve got cousins there. I had a life and got fat. I went on a Contiki tour around Europe, no responsibilities. I loved Switzerland – we went sky diving, snowboarding, stayed in hostels.

In January I decided to give it another go in Melbourne. In March I won the Australian Cup on Harlem, my first Group 1 winner. The word that comes to mind is relief. People were saying, “She’s already tried to make it in Melbourne, she won’t make it this time either.” I’m hungry for more Group 1s now, it’s not going to stop there.

I don’t have spare time – I ride horses. I set the alarm for as late as possible, roll out of bed and leave Cranbourne at 3am to get to Caulfield, ride about eight gallops at trackwork, then have jump-outs. One day I did trackwork at Caulfield, jump-outs at Flemington, drove to Moe to ride in the afternoon, then to Moonee Valley for night races. I got to bed after midnight, having ridden 23 horses, and the alarm went off again at 3am.

It doesn’t matter where I am, if I’m on a horse I’m happy.

I’m really close with Michelle Payne. Watching her win the 2015 Melbourne Cup on Prince of Penzance was just goose bumps, so very cool. I’m funny on the subject of women in racing – people still think there’s such a bias, that there’s sexism in the sport, but if you’re good you’ll get rides, it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female.

I’ve been very lucky to grow up with horses and create a balance with them. I’ve spent half my life hanging off a horse, picking things up off the ground, vaulting on and off their backs. 

My hip gives me pain every time I ride, but that’s a given – all jockeys have bad hips and bad knees. That’s just from riding work and races, riding 23 horses in a day. I’ll be a nice crippled old person.

I’ve got 20 acres back home in the Adelaide Hills with a few ex-racehorses and horses that I’ve bred. I rehomed about 20 before I came here, but there’s a few that will never leave me. I brought Brax over in my little float when I moved. He’s named after the Home and Away character because he’s so handsome. I take him show jumping when I’ve got a weekend off. When everyone else is relaxing on their Sundays off, I’m at some show jumping ring at 8am ready to go.

I still get that excitement from winning a race, there’s nothing like it. But it’s really just the horses. It doesn’t matter where I am, if I’m on a horse I’m happy. I still can’t believe what they do for us – you can’t make them do anything, but they try their hardest to win for you. 

The early mornings and the weight loss, that’s not fun. But it’s pretty cool to do a job that you can say you truly love.

FLASHBACK

  • The first female jockey to obtain a licence in Australia managed to do so only because she pretended to be a man.
  • Born in 1886, Wilhelmena Smith was an orphan who rode with considerable success in northern Queensland as Bill Smith – dubbed ‘Girlie’ by fellow jockeys because they never saw her get changed in the jockeys’ room.
  • It was 1979 before women were allowed to obtain a jockey’s licence. New Zealander Maree Lyndon made history as the first woman to ride in the Melbourne Cup in 1987, and Michelle Payne famously took the next step when she won on Prince of Penzance in 2015.
  • The history for female trainers is equally ignominious. Sheila Laxon was the first woman to train a Melbourne Cup winner, with Ethereal in 2001. But the real glass ceiling breaker was Hedwick ‘Granny’ McDonald, who coaxed Catalogue to victory in the 1938 Cup. Unlike in her native New Zealand, women could not hold a trainer’s licence in Australia – so the win was credited to her husband.
  • Now, more than 20 per cent of all licensed trainers in Victoria and almost 23 per cent of licensed jockeys are women. Since the 2014-15 season, the number of female riders in races in Victoria has increased by 51.5 per cent, and the number of wins by an almost identical 51.4 per cent.