Life could hardly have been better for James McDonald in Australia until he was hit with an 18-month ban for betting in 2016. His world fell apart and he feared he might never get back to where he was, yet his rehabilitation was rapid. Nature Strip’s stunning King’s Stand Stakes win was his 65th at Group 1 level, and he has been champion jockey in Sydney four successive times. His three winners from only ten rides at Royal Ascot in June also included Dark Shift in the Royal Hunt Cup for Charlie Hills, whose family have embraced him so warmly. Engaged to Katelyn Mallyon, a Group 1-winning rider herself and a presenter on Australia’s Channel 7, he must pinch himself to believe how successfully he has turned things around.
My 18-month ban and the loss of the job with Godolphin in 2016 when things were going so well was a hard pill to swallow, but we all make mistakes in life and mine was a big one. I was found in breach of the rules on betting, but I can honestly say now that good came from bad, and I turned it into a positive. It was difficult not being allowed near horses, or anyone in the yard, so I got away from racing completely. I went travelling in Europe for three months and then went home to the dairy farm. I blew out a little bit, but it wasn’t too difficult to get fit again.
I did wonder if I’d ever get back to where I was, and I was a little nervous about how people would respond to me, but I came back with great determination. I wasn’t going to fail – and I haven’t looked back. Within weeks of getting back in the saddle I was at Royal Ascot, where I won the Jersey Stakes for Sir Michael Stoute on Expert Eye and had two rides for The Queen, which was awesome.
My immediate goal was to win the premiership in Sydney straight away, so it wouldn’t be a talking point any more, and I did that. I’ve won it the last four years, and I was also back riding for Godolphin straight away. I’ve had two Group 1 wins for them this year, including on Anamoe, their champion middle-distance colt.
My dad was a jump jockey-turned-trainer and my mum rode too, but I wasn’t too fond of racing as a child. It wasn’t until I was ten that I hopped on and found a little knack for it, and I did the showjumping circuit for six years. When I started in racing I was apprenticed to my dad. New Zealand was a great place to learn my craft – I won a Group 1 within nine months of my first ride – but you reach your level there and you have to go to Australia if you are going to make a good go of it.
I was lucky enough to get on some good horses and I followed a really good filly over called Scarlett Lady, who won the Queensland Oaks. That was a pretty big deal for a 17-year-old, and it definitely gave me a leg up so far as Australia was concerned, but Dundeel, or It’s A Dundeel as he’s known in Australia, was probably the most significant horse in my rise to prominence there. He came along when I was just breaking into Sydney and won the Triple Crown and six Group 1s in all. He opened a lot of doors for me.
Every winter I’d come to Europe for three months at a time. I was with Fozzy Stack just after I’d ridden that Group 1 winner, then did a little stint with John Oxx, and then spent my first spell with Charlie Hills. I’d had no previous connection with Charlie but I really enjoyed that first time there. Charlie put me up straight away, and the Hills have become like family.
I’ve been very lucky in the UK and I’ve learned plenty, so I went home a bit better rider. My first winners here in 2013 were mainly for Charlie, then by the time I came back again in 2015 I was contracted to Godolphin and I won the Northumberland Plate for them on Antiquarium, which was cool. It was a great time to be involved with them, with James Doyle and William Buick part of the set-up. When I came back again it was even better as I won Group races on Dutch Connection and Big Orange.
Riding the most winners ever at the Melbourne Carnival last year was awesome. I had ten winners and they included four Group 1s, highlighted by Verry Elleegant in the Melbourne Cup and Home Affairs in the Coolmore Cup. Verry Elleegant was already an 11-time Group 1 winner, but she went in as an underdog because it was two miles, and it would require a weight-carrying record.
Chris Waller is an amazing trainer and so astute. It’s mind-blowing how he gets the best out of them. There’s no arrogance about him – he just goes about his business like a typical Kiwi. Nature Strip is obviously a great horse, but he was a problem child. When Chris got him he was very aggressive and he’d probably lost more races than he’d won. Chris taught him to relax, and he’s now become the most consistent galloper at the highest level. The King’s Stand was our eighth Group 1 together, besides which we won last year’s Everest, which is the richest turf race in the world and his target again.
I’m not looking too far ahead; I just hope I can stay injury free and keep chugging along for another 15 years or so. I don’t know if I’d ever want to train. I’ve seen how tough it’s been for my dad in New Zealand, where it’s a bit like in the UK as the prize-money isn’t that good. The difference between Australia and New Zealand is massive, but then so is the difference between Australia and almost everywhere else. Maybe I might have been tempted to try a full season here at one time, but Australia is going great and life there is so good that it’s a little more difficult. But never say never.