Mark Newnham

published: 01 Sep 2015 in Personality profiles

Despite growing up in a family of racegoers and being exposed to the sport at an early age, Mark Newnham was a late starter as a jockey after stints working for trainers Bobby Thomsen and Bart Cummings. After his apprenticeship concluded he forged a strong partnership with trainer Gai Waterhouse, firstly as a stable jockey for Tulloch Lodge before becoming assistant trainer to the leading Randwick-based mentor on his retirement from race riding.

IT is going on for 20 years ago now that Mark Newnham fully realised Gai Waterhouse was going to be a dynamic force in the racing industry. After a lengthy, frustrating battle with the Australian Jockey Club, Gai had been able to take over training at her father Tommy Smith’s Tulloch Lodge on January 3, 1992. The winners soon began to flow for the stable as Mark learned first hand at a meeting at Kembla Grange late in 1996.
  “I rode three seconds on Randwick-trained horses that day and each of the winners was trained by Gai,” he said. “With that I decided, ‘if you can’t beat them join them,’ so on the following Monday morning I rang Gai asking whether I could ride work for her.”
  That phone call provided the foundation for what has become a remarkably successful association. By the time he retired as a jockey Mark had ridden 600-plus winners, and more than 300 of those came from Tulloch Lodge. It was on hanging up his silks that he joined Gai’s team, on the other side of the fence, in a management role.
  At first he was cautious about the new direction his life was taking, but since then the partnership has deepened and strengthened to the point where Mark is Gai’s assistant trainer. It is a position Mark, a genial, easy-going character who is no stranger to hard work, has fitted into comfortably over subsequent years. His duties at Tulloch Lodge have encompassed riding stars such as Pierro, Fiorente, Vancouver and others in their workouts, supervising track gallops in Gai’s absence, booking jockeys and handling television interviews on race days.
  “I really enjoy whatever I am doing for the stable,” Mark said. “From the day I asked Gai whether I could ride work for her she has been a huge influence on not just my career but my life. She has a strong work ethic and is able to identify skills in people, which she then nurtures.
  “Once Gai gives you responsibility she expects a certain level of performance, and that makes the stable work so effectively with our core staff of people, who have been with us a long time. She has put together a family at Tulloch Lodge that I love being a part of.”
  Years before, as he was growing up, it had been the influence of the Newnham family that led to Mark directing his working life towards the racing industry. His father John was sporting editor of the Sydney Morning Herald in an era when most senior newspaper administrators and editorial staff had a keen interest in the horses, and John was no exception to that rule. As a result, during his days as a student at Holy Cross Catholic College at Ryde, Mark would often accompany his father and mother Joan to the races.
  John also indulged himself in ownership of pacers in partnership with the late revered racing writer Bill Whittaker. At the time the Tommy Smith-trained Kingston Town was ruling the racing scene with his three W.S. Cox Plate victories being complemented by wins in races such as the AJC Derby, Sydney Cup, Tancred Stakes and George Main Stakes in Sydney.
  “I was introduced into racing very early on,” Mark said. “As a kid I thought Kingston Town was great, and I still think he is the best horse I have ever seen. My mother had a further interest in racing on her side because her father Bert Condon was a trainer and a jockey.
  “Early on I didn’t have any thoughts of being a jockey myself because at around 15 and 16 my weight was 52kg. I think at that stage the minimum weight was 49kg or 50kg so I had no aspirations about becoming a jockey.” However, Mark did have “his heart set on” becoming a trainer, and initially gained some experience on the practical side of the business with harness racing identity John Ponsonby, whose son James is a trainer.
  “I worked in a couple of school holidays with John and then at 15 went to Bobby Thomsen’s at Randwick to work,” Mark said. “While I was there Bobby had a very good mare called Avon Angel, who won what is now the Coolmore. From there I moved to the Bart Cummings stable when I was about 19.”
  Mark remembers one of his first interstate trips representing the stable, was to Brisbane in the middle of 1988. Among the horses he accompanied was Campaign King who scored brilliant wins in the QTC Stradbroke Handicap-Gr.1 and BATC Doomben 10,000-Gr.1.
  “That was exciting as I got to travel all around Australia while I was there and even did a trip to New Zealand. I went to Melbourne in the spring  and autumn when we had horses like Beau Zam, Sky Chase and Tristanagh. The Melbourne foreman was Leon Corstens, before he went out training in his own right. Unfortunately I left just before Kingston Rule won the Melbourne Cup in 1990, but I learned a lot being away with the horses because you are the man in charge and the responsibility stops with you.”
  On leaving Leilani Lodge Mark headed for England where he rode work for Clive Brittain in England and Kevin Prendergast in Ireland. “Wayne Harris was riding for Kevin Prendergast at the time and while I was over there I took the opportunity to go to the Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, won by Saumarez, which was all part of a my valuable learning curve.”
  It had been during a trip to Perth with Cummings-trained horses for the summer carnival, that Mark met his wife Donna who was working with the Western Australian Turf Club. A romance flourished and that changed the direction of his life. “When I returned from overseas Donna moved to Sydney and we were married,” he said. “After having my bachelor lifestyle settled down, my diet improved and my weight dropped from about 60kg to 55kg. With that I thought I might give race riding a try.
  “I went on an even stricter diet and an exercise regime and got my weight down to 52kg. I was 23 when I applied for my licence and as far as I know I was the first mature age apprentice. My first two years as an apprentice were with Grahame Begg and the last two years with Ron Quinton. When Ron retired from race riding I went pretty much straight to him.”
  Mark found the only real disadvantage of being an older apprentice was that he had difficulty claiming his full allowance. “I think the minimum weight had risen to 51kg by then and I was riding at 52kg, so it was hard to get bookings for the lighter weighted horses.” That did not prevent Mark from enjoying successes after he opened his winning account on a Danzatore (CAN) gelding named Good Better Best at Canterbury on February 19, 1992.
  “While I was an apprentice I rode three winners from three rides at a meeting at Canterbury, and one season I finished third behind Corey Brown and Lenny Beasley on the Sydney apprentices’ premiership.”
  It was not long after he completed his indentures that Mark had the three seconds to Gai’s horses at Kembla, which prompted him to ring her. “From then on I rode mainly for her, apart from the times I was overseas,” he said. His first international venture was in 2004 when he accepted a contract to ride in Macau. 
“The racing In Macau at that time was really good. Two other Australian jockeys, Michael Cahill and Noel Callow, were also riding there. I went back a few times after that and it was a good to see how other countries conducted their racing.”
  Late in 2005 he went to Korea on contract, but that was not a particularly enjoyable experience. “Gary Baker, from the Gold Coast, also went to Korea at the same time,” he said. “I beat Gary by one race to become the first Australian jockey to ride a winner in Korea. I rode a winner and he rode the very next winner about 30 minutes later.”
  However, Mark became disillusioned when the temperature dropped dramatically in a harsh winter in Seoul. “It was freezing cold, about minus 10 degrees. That made it very hard going and I only stayed for three months. I came home for Christmas that year and didn’t go back. Donna had come to Macau, mainly during school holidays, but fortunately she didn’t come up to Seoul because there wasn’t much point in her and our son James coming to me.”
  James who has just turned 18, is studying for a degree in political science and economics and the University of Sydney, but like his parents and grandparents has an interest in the races. “He comes down to the track a couple of days a week and takes down the track times and does a little bit of office work, and he enjoys doing that.”
  As 2006 began to unfold Mark’s involvement in the Tulloch Lodge operation increased, and by the following year, after the equine influenza outbreak, he was beginning to wind down his career as a jockey. “Towards the end I was generally only riding Gai’s horses and I was doing more track work for her and becoming more deeply involved in the running of the stable. I started going around the sales, and at the finish had scaled back my race riding to one or two days a week.”
  The curtain came down on his days as a jockey at Kembla on September 10, 2011 when his only mount Power Broker was a winner. “I had planned for Power Broker to be my last ride,” he said. 
“The whole family, Donna, James, Mum and Dad and my sisters, came for lunch . . . and the horse won so it was great.” By then Mark had ridden 642 winners, been champion jockey at Kembla on three occasions and had twice ridden four winners in a day, significantly, on horses prepared by Gai. At that stage his role at Tulloch Lodge had not been clearly defined and Mark admits being apprehensive about his decision, but Gai reassured him that it was the right move.
  “Mark has been working with me for 14 years now and he is one of my most prized assets,” she said at the time. “He has an intimate knowledge of all my horses and is often the rider I use in a crucial gallop to decide whether to run a horse or not. Importantly too, he knows the way I think and 
he will be assisting me at race meetings, will be involved in the gallops and trials, and will be booking the jockeys. I know he is nervous about the decision but I am sure it is the perfect job for him and I am sure he will do it capably.”
  Casting his mind back, Mark agrees he was a “little bit up in the air” about what the future held. “Originally we were going to see how it worked over the first 12 months, but with everything going well my part has grown to the point where I became assistant trainer and it has become a seven-day a week involvement.”
  Not long after Mark stopped race riding, the upward spiral in the relationship gained momentum when the colt by Lonhro from the Daylami mare Miss Right Note (IRE), a winner in France and Australia, began making his presence felt. Purchased by Gai for $230,000 at the Magic Millions Gold Coast Yearling Sale in 2011, the colt named Pierro, developed into a champion.
  Put aside after capturing the ATC Breeders’ Plate-LR he returned to assert his authority in the Sydney Two Year-Old Triple Crown of STC Golden Slipper Stakes-Gr.1, ATC Sires’ Produce Stakes-Gr.1 and Champagne Stakes-Gr.1. At three he added the ATC George Ryder Stakes-Gr.1 and Canterbury Stakes-Gr.1 to his resume as well as producing eminently gallant performances when second in the ATC Doncaster Handicap and MRC Caulfield-Guineas and third in the MVRC Cox Plate on his way to retirement to Coolmore.
  “He was awesome,” Mark said of Pierro. “I rode him nearly every day in his work. Although I had retired I still had my jockey’s licence and I rode him in a couple of trials he had as a three year-old, which was quite a thrill. In fact he gave me the biggest thrill I’ve had since I’ve been working for Gai full-time.”
  According to Mark there are obvious similarities between Pierro and this year’s Golden Slipper winner Vancouver, who was knocked down to Gai for $185,000 at the 2014 Magic Millions Gold Coast yearling sale. Like Pierro, the Medaglia d’Oro (USA) colt was given a break after capturing the Breeders’ Plate before maintaining his unbeaten record in the ATC Canonbury Stakes-Gr.3 and Todman Slipper-Gr.2 on his way to the Slipper.
  “We thought all along he was the best two year-old, and it was terrific to have our opinion verified,” he said. “Vancouver has quite similar characteristics to Pierro. They are both big strong laidback type of colts who don’t expose themselves until they are really under pressure. When I’ve worked Pierro and Vancouver on the track they’d only beat their mates when they had to . . . and each time you asked them for something they’d keep delivering.”
  Another star Mark had a close association with was Fiorente, who won the VRC Melbourne Cup-Gr.1 in 2013 after finishing second to Green Moon the previous year. “I had a lot to do with him before he went to Melbourne for the Cup. I rode him in a lot of work but unfortunately I didn’t go to Melbourne for the Cups.
  “I remember about two minutes after the excitement of watching him win the Cup on television I was saddling up a horse named Vitello for the next race at Randwick. He won, so it was a great day for Gai and everyone connected with the stable, and there have been a lot of them.” n