Sam Clenton was conscious of a few butterflies as she drove from her Muswellbrook home to the Scone racecourse on March 18th.
She was just a couple of hours away from her first race ride in two and a half years.
Her emotions may have been different had she been going to any other track, but there was no escaping the fact that this was the scene of the horror fall in October 2016, which left her with six crushed vertebrae and a complicated collarbone fracture.
Some weeks later, Sam was horrified to learn that her T6 vertebra had gone perilously close to damaging the spinal cord itself.
Three days after the fall, surgeons at Newcastle’s John Hunter Hospital successfully fused three of the damaged vertebrae and inserted two stabilising rods.
The young jockey has no recollection of the fall, or the days that followed. “I was heavily concussed from the moment of impact and to this day I can’t remember the accident, the surgery or the early days of recovery”, said Sam over the weekend.
Her pre-race nerves had settled down by the time she was legged onto Warset for her comeback ride at Scone. The four year old was having his first Australian start for Kris Lees. “As I took him into the gates it was as though I’d never been away” said Sam.
Warset raced in the second half of the field before working home nicely to finish fifth. Jockey Samantha Clenton was back in business.
The butterflies were not nearly as active four days later, when the twenty six year old arrived at Port Macquarie racecourse. Kris Lees, anxious to reward Sam for her regular input at Newcastle trackwork, gave her the mount on Tessa Burrito in a 1512 metres Maiden.
Sam took the Sebring filly back to the tail from a wide gate and didn’t move until they turned for home. Tessa Burrito powered home to beat Lucky For Some and stablemate Mr. Piquet, giving her jockey an indescribable thrill.
Jockey Clenton spent all day Saturday on cloud nine and was in high spirits when she arrived at her hometown track on Sunday for the Country Championship Qualifier meeting.
Sam wasn’t expecting to ride another winner so quickly, but her confidence soared when she learned her first mount Milseain was a solidly supported $2.00 favourite. The Kris Lees trained mare left the gates quickly and was coasting outside the leader to the turn.
Milseain dashed away in the straight to win the 1750 metres Maiden by almost five lengths. Sam had two unplaced rides later in the day, but was well satisfied.
In the months following her surgery Sam received conflicting opinions from two specialists. One advised her not to ride again, the other suggested she should consider her options after a very lengthy break. “Nature works in funny ways. Under normal circumstances I would have been impatient to get back”, said Sam. “Next thing I found myself pregnant and that very lengthy break became a reality”.
Isaac was born in November 2017, thirteen months after his mother’s accident and is a great favourite with the entire family. The Clenton and McIntosh families live in Muswellbrook and all contribute to the care of their grandson, while Sam and Tim work long hours to earn a livelihood in the racing industry.
Samantha travels ninety minutes each way five days a week to ride work for Kris Lees at Broadmeadow. “He has given me tremendous support since I started riding and actually encouraged me to renew the association when I decided to make the comeback”, explained the jockey.
Tim McIntosh is a former jockey and talented all round horseman who has twenty six horses in his care at Muswellbrook. He trains a small team of racehorses, pre trains some for other trainers, and is a capable yearling breaker.
Sam actually resumed riding trackwork a year ago, but has taken things step by step. She increased her workload gradually until it was time to return to the trials at Newcastle, Gosford and Wyong. “I reckon I rode in forty trials before getting back to the races last week”, said the comeback kid. “I wanted to be sure my rhythm and balance was spot on before getting into the thick of it again”.
Sam’s Scone fall came only a few months after a five horse pile up at Taree when her mount Bazza’s Boy snapped a leg and fell. She was airlifted to hospital with her right collar bone broken and severe bruising.
In the previous season (2014/15) young Sammie was unstoppable. She was champion NSW apprentice (81 wins), and also won the Newcastle junior title, which incorporated best season strike rate for an apprentice rider. This dual achievement brought her the coveted Bill Wade Medal.
Her talents were recognized a few seasons ago by former trainer Greg Bennett, who gave her five race rides on the grand galloper, Clearly Innocent. Sammie won a Maiden and two benchmark races on the gelding, as well as the Listed Luskin Star Quality at Scone.
The young jockey rode Howmuchdoyouloveme on five occasions. She won the Listed Takeover Target Stakes at Gosford on the talented sprinter and a BM 93 at Rosehill.
She’s hoping her 2kg claim will bring some worthwhile city opportunities before her apprenticeship terminates in around eighteen months.
Sam has come a long way from teen years at the tiny township of Herons Creek near Port Macquarie. Tas Morton was the first to put her on at the Port Macquarie trials and this led to a nine month stint with Tracey Bartley at Mudgee. Later the budding jockey returned to Port Macquarie where she became indentured to Marc Quinn.
There was a two year hiatus in young Samantha’s life. “I got sick of the grind and the early starts for a while and just needed a break”, reflected the jockey. “I had no intention of staying away for two years, but a couple of stupid accidents prolonged my absence. Firstly I broke a leg playing touch football and later broke an arm when I fell off a pony”.
Sam’s talents again kick started her career. When Kris Lees heard Samantha Clenton was keen to have another crack at the racing game, he quickly offered to apprentice her. “I gave it my best shot second time around and the rewards came”, she recalled.
Since those heady days, Sam’s career has been twice hindered by very serious accidents. Many expected her to call it quits, following her recent long period of rehabilitation and an unexpected entry into motherhood.
Sam Clenton won’t be calling it quits. Her grit and determination is beyond question, her talent is widely recognized and she doesn’t mind putting in the hours - necessary attributes for anyone hoping to survive in a brutally tough game.
She’s been back only one week and two winners already! This girl is out to make up for lost time.
(Banner image courtesy Trackside Photography - Tessa Burrito and Sam Clenton storm home to win at Port Macquarie.)