The 1985 Melbourne Cup was the race that nearly changed Mick Riley's life, as he raced home to place fifth on a mare called Butternut.
The 1985 Melbourne Cup was significant for a few reasons.
It was the first-ever sponsored Melbourne Cup, with Fosters taking the race into a new era. The prize pool hit $1 million for the first time, making it one of the richest in the world. Second, Flemington hosted the most famous couple in the world at the time – Prince Charles and Princess Diana – to watch the famed race; third, it was Lloyd Williams’ second win (of his now record seven) with What a Nuisance; and finally, it was the race that nearly changed Mick Riley’s life, as he raced home to place fifth on a mare called Butternut.
Mick Riley, like so many people in the industry, grew up in racing. The seventh child of eight, he followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a jockey, as did four out the five boys in his family. “I grew up in Tasmania. Mum and dad owned horses, and I had a pony from a young age. From the age of ten, I reckon I went to the track before and after school every day.” His family has been involved in the industry across the board, from riding, to owning to training. His late father (Fred Riley) and his brother (Ron Riley) are both inductees of the Tasmanian Racing Hall of Fame.
Gaining his jockey’s license in Tasmania, Riley moved to Melbourne to pursue a career in the saddle, and was apprenticed to John Meagher, along with another young rider, David Charles. Riley went on to have success, riding professionally for six years, only retiring after a bad fall at Geelong. “I’d had a few falls by then and my body was not holding up well after the last one, so I was advised by doctors to give up riding.” His last ride was in 1991, a winner at Flemington. In his time in the saddle, Riley rode “a lot of nice horses” and did have that Melbourne Cup moment on Butternut, which he describes as “a ride of a lifetime”. Hitting the front with 200m to go, Riley and Butternut looked to be in a great position before What A Nuisance ultimately claimed the win, in what was a tight contest for the top five spots. “I came fifth, but was only beaten by a length,” said Riley.
"A ride of a lifetime...I came fifth, but was only beaten by a length"
Following his riding career, Riley started working with apprentices, helping the likes of a young Steven King perfect their rides. For 12 years, Riley then worked closely with the National Jockeys Trust, where his wife and two children were also involved.
When his fellow apprentice and friend David Charles called with information of an opportunity to work at Flemington five years ago, Riley applied and was thrilled to be offered the position. “To get to work around the horses is just great. If I can’t ride anymore, this is the closest thing to it,” he said. Managing 12 staff, Riley also works closely with Track Manager Liam O’Keeffe and Liam’s assistant, Brendan Jackson. “Liam and I are in touch 24/7.” Collectively, they ensure that everything to do with Flemington trackwork runs smoothly, and each and every safety precaution is taken. It is not a role for those who do not like early mornings, however, with Riley in the car by 2am most mornings, in the office at 2.30 and on the track by 3am. “One of my staff and I open up the trainers’ towers, turning on the lights and heaters. Someone else walks the track and I drive around, checking that everything is safe.” The track is opened to trainers at 4am, “as long as the Wilson medic is there”, and the day begins. With around 300 people and 600 horses to manage, Riley’s phone usually rings non-stop throughout the morning. “My team and I are there to make sure that everything is safe and running smoothly. We have rosters and processes, but of course you can’t plan for everything. COVID-19 has meant there have been more changes but everyone knows what to do and abides by the rules.”
Even when Riley is not on track, such as his day off on Sunday, he still likes to check in with staff. Mondays he works from home, but is also flexible, as is everyone in the team. “For example, Mick Hurry is our starter for jump-outs and takes care of the barrier attendants, but this week he can’t work on Thursday, so I will fill in for him with the starting,” he said. It really is all-hands-on-deck, and Riley stresses that the phrase ‘team effort’ is not just words, it is real. “I work with a great bunch of people, who are also all horse people. They all have some sort of history with horses whether as a track rider or jockey, so we bounce ideas off each other all the time.” With the addition of trainers, track riders, strappers and stablehands, Riley says there is a lot of banter and general air of camaraderie every day.
With such a strong team and a chance to work day-in-day-out with the animals he loves, it is no wonder that Mick Riley is happy to wake before the sun every day, for a day on the famed Flemington track.