How fitting it was that the winner of Saturday’s Hinkler Hcp should be almost “airborne” in the closing stages.
The race is named after one of Queensland’s most famous sons, legendary aviator Bert Hinkler who in 1928 brought great acclaim to his country, to his state, and to his hometown of Bundaberg.
It took the courageous Hinkler just over fifteen days to realise his life’s dream. In completing the first solo flight from England to Australia, he smashed the time record of almost twenty eight days established nine years earlier by Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith.
He landed in Darwin on Feb 22nd, 1928 to a hero’s welcome. A few days later he “hopped” to Longreach and then to Bundaberg before heading to Brisbane where he landed in the home straight at Eagle Farm racecourse. The flimsy little Avro Avian came to a halt at roughly the same spot where Victorem began his amazing sprint.
Had old Bert flown low over Eagle Farm racecourse on Saturday, he would have had a struggle to keep up with the gelding over the closing stages of the race named in his honour.
Jockey Ben Looker and trainer Jenny Graham were concerned when the four year old had only two horses behind him in the middle stages, but they gave up all hope when an opening closed in his face at the top of the straight.
Looker had to switch back behind Noble Boy and then to the inside of that horse before he could press the button. It looked to be mission impossible when he was still five lengths behind the leader Whypeeo at the 100m, but Victorem suddenly accelerated.
There was sufficient room to go between Whypeeo and Divine Dice, but Ben made a split second decision to pull around those horses. When he did, Victorem dropped into another gear. His momentum was such that he turned a five length deficit into a 1.3 len victory over Whypeeo, with South Australian Split Lip zooming home for third - it was an astonishing win.
Connections had hoped Victorem would “sneak” into the Stradbroke field, in which he would have had 6kgs less weight. “Who knows how he would have fared in the Stradbroke”, said Ben over the weekend. “He would have been a mile back in a huge field, but given a clear run he would have made his presence felt with only 51.5kg”.
Victorem is trained at Port Macquarie by Jenny Graham who has skilfully managed the son of I Am Invincible. The rising five year old has had only fifteen starts for seven wins and five placings and is nudging one million in prize money.
The playful gelding cost himself a first up win at Casino two years ago, when he “bucked” coming out of the barriers. He finished fourth three lengths from the winner.
He led and won easily at Kempsey a month later on a Heavy 10. “He won that one because he had a leg on them”, said Ben. “He isn’t a wet tracker”. He followed that up with another easy 2YO win at Grafton and then Jenny Graham put him away.
Victorem had two soft trials on resuming before heading to Randwick for a 3YO+ C3 TABHighway. “He was up to his old tricks again and put in a couple of decent “bucks” soon after the start which is the last thing you want in a 1000 metres race”, recalled Ben. “He got a lovely run through the field which compensated for the early trouble. He just scrambled home but was still pretty unsure of himself”.
He didn’t appear again for two months when he won the Country Championship Qualifier at Port Macquarie after which he was given a “freshen” followed by an easy barrier trial. It was a big moment for all connections when the improving three year old lined up in the $500,000 Final (1400m) at Randwick.
Victorem jumped smoothly and settled mid field on the fence, where he enjoyed a trouble free passage to the hometurn. McEvoy on Don’t Give A Damn held him in a tight pocket coming over the rise, but Ben spotted an opening closer to the fence and quickly changed course. The Port Macquarie galloper dashed through the gap and the race was over in a twinkling.
Jenny decided to give him one more run which resulted in a close second to Sambro in the Group 3 Hawkesbury Guineas. “I was firmly convinced by then that he needed to find his feet, but I found myself further back than intended and they went too slow”, recalled Ben.
Following a spell, the four year old trialled at Taree and Gosford leading up to the much hyped Kosciuszko with its $1.3 million dollar purse. “We struck a Heavy 9 for the big race and he was all at sea”, said Looker. “He did well to finish only 3.3 lengths behind Belflyer, a horse I’d had a lot to do with. I’d won five races on Belflyer for my old boss John Shelton”.
Ben rode Victorem when he finished second in the Listed Keith Noud at the end of last year, but was replaced by Dale Smith for the gelding’s next three runs. Those runs resulted in a Listed win and two Group placings. “I had a few problems at the time, which resulted in my losing the ride”, said Ben. “It was probably the turning point for me because I’ve had a totally different outlook ever since”.
Looker has been back on Victorem through the current preparation for a second in the Ortensia at Scone, a luckless eighth in the Kingsford Smith and Saturday’s spectacular win.
Ben Looker enjoyed great success in the early stages of his apprenticeship to John Shelton at Grafton. “I rode too many winners too quickly and thought I was Lester Piggott by the time I transferred to Gai Waterhouse in 2009”, reflected the young jockey. “It was a combination of things. I was only 18, too big for my boots and desperately homesick. In many ways I wasted the opportunity but had a few big thrills”.
“I won four straight on John Singleton’s good mare Once Were Wild who went on to win the Oaks with Nash Rawiller. It was also a big buzz to ride gallops on horses like Rock Kingdom, Theseo, Manhattan Rain and More Joyous”.
At twenty eight years of age and with 800 winners under his belt, Ben Looker is one of the most experienced country jockeys in NSW. “With the help of my manager Drew Smith I’m getting a lot of rides all over the place”, said Looker. “I’m logging massive mileage to honour commitments, but that’s what bush jockeys have to do”.
Ben gives most of the credit for his new found focus to Priscilla, his wife of seven months. “We had a three week honeymoon in the USA and it’s been all systems go since we got back to work”, explained Ben. “Priscilla keeps me right up to the mark and doesn’t cop any of my nonsense. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me”.
Priscilla accompanies her husband to many meetings in her presentation role with Sky Racing. She co-presents mounting yard mail with long time contributor Gary Kliese at many northern tracks and the pair have built up a strong following.
Priscilla and her sister Cassandra are daughters of Dwayne Schmidt, a former successful jockey who has made a very significant transition to the training ranks. His son in law is the first to pay him a compliment. “He is very hands on and knows his stuff”, said Ben. “If they’re good enough he’ll have them spot on”.
Priscilla Schmidt made her mark in a very short career as a jockey. She was a tremendously talented young rider who put together almost three hundred wins in five years.
She rates a Gold Coast win on top filly Tinto in 2013 as her career highlight. “It was very gratifying that Rex Lipp would put me on such a promising filly in the Sky Racing 2YO Plate”, said Priscilla. “Tinto went on to win the Queensland Oaks the following year, ridden by the late Tim Bell”.
Lady Luck completely deserted the young jockey over the next couple of years. She had a nightmare run with injuries, spending many months on the sideline.
“A broken forearm was the final straw”, said the newlywed. “My Doctors strongly advised me to give it away when complications persisted after that final injury. My last ride was a fourth on Fun With Indy in the Pink Silks Cup at a Coffs Harbour charity race meeting in early 2016. I cried all the way home”.
Cassandra Schmidt has also quit the saddle after a short career which brought her 250 race wins. That’s not to say the popular sisters have terminated all ties with horses.
Priscilla and Ben, Cassandra and her partner jockey Luke Rolls have embarked on a joint venture at Wauchope near Port Macquarie. Together they’ve acquired a 150 acre property which is operating as a spelling and pre training complex.
Racing NSW are also using the property as a base for retired thoroughbreds which are in the rehoming process. “Between horse duties and Sky Racing commitments I’m kept pretty busy”, said Priscilla.
Ben Looker was very quick to respond when I asked him to nominate his chief role model in recent years. “Zac Purton by a country mile”, he said unhesitatingly. “When he was apprenticed to Trevor Hardy at Coffs Harbour he was a regular at Grafton meetings and I got to know him quite well. I’ve followed Zac’s career very closely. What a superstar”.
Ben Looker loathed the big city life during his time with Gai Waterhouse. He’s committed to a life in country racing and is a likely prospect to establish the kind of niche Greg Ryan has enjoyed for many years.
Ben has a tremendous support base going forward. His parents Michael and Debbie have been there from the day he first took an interest in horses. Ben will tell you himself that John and Kay Shelton continue to treat him like a son. We’ve already established that Priscilla is worth ten lengths.
Add Victorem to the mix, and you’ve got one contented jockey!