Hopping to Get Back into the Saddle
Libby grew up on a farm in Casterton in country Victoria. As a young girl, one of her favourite memories was going on camel treks. “Dad had lots of camels when I was growing up. Every winter we would take them into the desert and do tourist treks and we raced them,” she said. It was there she had her first taste of racing. “When I was 11yo I started riding them in races. I did that for a few years and certainly learnt a lot,” she recalled. It wasn’t only camels that Libby grew up around though. “Because I grew up on a farm, I was always riding. I was given a station pony on one of the camel treks, because I had won a race. It was an unbroken pony, and I had to train and look after him. I just loved that,” she added. While it was a lifestyle that many would have envied, Libby realised that a solid education was a must have. “Schooling was becoming a real challenge to manage, so I stopped being part of the camel treks and racing,” she said. With an increased focus on improving her education, Libby moved to Mount Gambier to finish her schooling, a move that would turn out to be fortuitous for her later on. After finishing school and wanting to spend time earning some money, Libby deferred from University. While most young adults that take that path head on an overseas adventure, Libby went down another road. “I started working at Michael O'leary's racing stable to earn some money before going to University to study an Archaeology degree. I grew up around horses, so I just saw it as a way to start making some money. Then one day the stable was short of a rider, so they put me aboard and I guess the rest is history,” Libby said smiling. Initially Libby still didn’t think riding was going to take her anywhere. “It wasn’t long after that Michael offered me an apprenticeship and I thought I’ll do this for a year and see where it goes,” she thought. Before long, University was off the cards. “The money became a big factor after a while. It was either an apprenticeship or study at University for fours years and end up with a debt,” she continued. Even though money was a key part of her new career choice, Libby is immensely passionate about horses and the industry. “I have always loved horses and enjoyed riding. I love riding fast so it’s great to get paid for that. It’s a great job until something goes wrong of course. There are certainly no 9am – 5pm working hours. There are early starts, but I’m often home by 10am and I get to enjoy the day,” she said. It wasn’t long before Libby had her first race win. “It was great to ride my first winner, such a buzz. It was on a horse called Our Monarchy for Bill Wild in country Victoria,” she remembered. 12 months into her apprenticeship with Michael, Libby decided to try out her luck on the bigger stage and moved to Adelaide, transferring to Richard Jolly. The move paid off in many ways. “Those first few years were great. I had some really good results, like winning one of the National Apprenticeship Series Races at Randwick on a Darley- trained horse in 2008. Wearing those silks was pretty special,” she said. In a highly competitive apprenticeship environment, Libby seemed to thrive. “I won the Dux of Apprenticeship School in Adelaide two years in a row, which was special. I also finished third in a Senior jockeys premiership as an apprentice which I was really proud of,” In 2010, Libby had one of her best days at the track. “I rode four winners at a meeting at Morphettville in November. That was definitely one of the highlights of my career that’s for sure,” she said, again smiling. With University a distant memory now, Libby had achieved what she wanted to get out of taking up riding in the first place. “I came out of my apprenticeship in 2011 with a car, a house, a career and no debt,” Libby said. Libby was also part of one of the more unusual occurrences in racing and became an internet sensation at the same time. At Oakbank in 2014, as the horses jumped during a race, fellow jockey Holly Mckechnie lost her balance and was destined to fall, before Libby lent over and helped her regain her balance and continue her ride. “It wasn’t that big a deal, she was just falling and it was just continuous racing,” Libby said. But to the surprise of many, the stewards didn’t see it that way, reprimanding her for dangerous riding. “You see someone in trouble and instinct kicks in. I didn’t think it would blow up as much as it did. It was hilarious in the steward’s room. They were coming down on me quite hard and Holly lost it.” While Libby has experienced the highlights of being a jockey, she has also experienced the dangers her chosen career presented. “I have had a few falls here and there in my time,” she recalled “I remember my first fall was at Naracoorte on their Cup Day. I had won my first three rides on the day and was a bit too confident when I was riding in the Cup, when I clipped heals and fell,” she said.
IN OCTOBER 2014, 28yo LIBBY HOPWOOD WAS AT THE TOP OF HER GAME. SHE WAS RIDING WINNERS
REGULARLY, HER CONFIDENCE WAS AT AN ALL TIME HIGH AND SHE WAS BECOMING KNOWN AS A VERY STRONG AND COMPETENT RIDER AMONGST
THE INNER SANCTUM.
BUT ON OCTOBER 15TH, A DAY KNOWN UNOFFICIALLY AS ‘BLACK WEDNESDAY’ TO SOME, LIFE AS LIBBY KNEW IT WOULD BE CHANGED
At the top of her game, Libby arrived at Murray Bridge on a sunny Wednesday in Spring, 2014 with a few good rides lined up. Libby arrived at the barriers for Race Eight aboard Barigan Boy. During the race Colla Voce, ridden by Caitlin Forrest, fell heavily whilst leading, bringing down four horses including Libby’s. A fractured collarbone and vertebrae, punctured lung, severe concussion and bleeding on the brain are easily injuries that could be associated with a car crash victim, but that was the outcome for Libby. “I don’t remember anything from that fall. The last thing I remember was actually from the Saturday before that day,” Libby said. Three of the four jockeys who fell suffered injuries including Libby, but the fall claimed the life of Libby’s close friend and colleague, Caitlin. “I’ve never seen the race and I never will. I don’t remember it and I’m going to keep it that way,” Libby said bluntly. Her treating specialists explained the severity of her head knock to her. “They said that I knocked a part of the brain that filters out things that it needs to. So instead of the brain filtering and giving me what I needed, it couldn’t, and it was taking on everything and getting overwhelmed. I had a bleed in the middle, but most of it was around the front, hence why I was getting the headaches,” she remembered. Rehabilitation for Libby has been a very challenging process. “It’s been long and frustrating to be honest I remember doing some basic balance work and had to walk in a straight line. I couldn’t do it and I actually fell over. I had no idea how bad I was until I started the rehab. I couldn’t sign my name and I wasn’t able to think straight at all. I suffered some serious headaches in the early days, but they have subsided thankfully,” Libby said. Throughout her recovery process, Libby still has had to deal with the passing of her close friend. “I visited the mini shrine that was set up by some of the other apprentices a few times, which was helpful. Its hard to describe losing a friend and personality like her,” Libby said sadly. It was during this time that Libby also was reminded of how much she loves the people in the industry. “I started going to the races again over time and it was amazing how much people were reaching out to me and keeping contact. I feel very lucky that the people I work with and the racing fraternity are all good friends who looked out for me,” Libby said smiling.
The downtime was not all bad for Libby, she was able to eat well and travel overseas. “I realised It was the first holiday I had had for five years. I hope that it’s my last one for some time. I just wanted to get back to the job,” she said with a determined look in her eyes. After six intensive months of rehab, Libby got the news she had been waiting for recently, 13 months after the fall. “I finally got the all clear from the neurologist and Work Cover to start riding ponies. I’ve been seeing an exercise physiologist and I was failing a lot of things physically. I started to improve and soon enough I passed everything and was allowed to ride non-racehorses,” she said. Libby said, “It was a nice feeling to say the least. My horse, Zorrin, was my first ride back because I could trust him and he is so quiet.” But it was still gong to be a while before she could return to the rigors of riding a racehorse. “I still need to pass a concussion test before I can return to trackwork. The main concern is that if I fall off again with the damage I’ve done I will be in a worse position,” Libby said. The challenges are still not over for Libby. “While I continue to improve, I’m still not passing the concussion test baseline. Seems the doctors were right that I would be out of the saddle for 12 or so months,” she said. But getting back to riding is never far out of her mind. “I would love to ride a few of my favourite horses again like Umaluka and Justify That. I would love to ride in Singapore and definitely want to win races in Victoria. Moonee Valley at night is amazing,” she said happily. Despite her injuries and ongoing challenges, Libby highlighted that she is feeling great. She said, “I feel fine, that’s the annoying part. I pretty much feel a hundred percent, apart from the fact I get tired at times. But I’m pretty hungry to get back into it. With her determination, all who know Libby would agree and confirm her statement.