Racing

Far from the glamour of Melbourne Cup mounting yards, Stan Tsaikos ekes out a living as a journeyman jockey, travelling the length and breadth of the country to get rides. But despite the gruelling graft, it’s a life he loves. By Peter Hanlon.

Stan Tsaikos’s knack in the saddle

Stan Tsaikos, aboard Koolama Bay, wins the Burrumbeet Cup in regional Victoria on New Year’s Day.
Credit: Brett Holburt / Racing Photos

Stan Tsaikos was freezing his way through a midweek winter meeting at Kilmore last year, feeling every one of the aches that torment a jockey after 20 years in and out of the saddle, when a trainer threw him an appetising bone. “If you fancy getting away from the cold,” Neil Dyer told him, “come up to Darwin for the carnival. There’ll be rides for you.”

Tsaikos packed his bags, and his dog, and off he went. So began the latest chapter in the life of a horseman who plies his trade in racing’s seldom-seen margins just to make ends meet.

“My motto is, ‘Have saddle, will travel,’ ” Tsaikos laughs. “It’s tiring, but as long as I can get by.”

As a younger man, the journeyman jockey made enough to keep the home fires burning without travelling so far that the coals were stone cold when he returned. In his last year as an apprentice in the late 1990s, Tsaikos had 115 rides for 54 winners. He’s proud to say he’s ridden a double (two winners at the same meeting) at every metropolitan track in Melbourne. “If a trainer ums and ahs about putting me on one, I don’t hesitate to say, ‘Mate, I don’t need a compass.’ ”

What he does require is stamina, dedication and belief. His Northern Territory sojourns mean he might ride in country Victoria on a Friday, fly to Darwin Saturday morning to get on a few that afternoon, then be off before dawn to Alice Springs, where he’ll saddle up again on Sunday afternoon. Mondays are spent in transit, often taking in an Adelaide airport stopover.

“People think jockeys make good money,” Tsaikos’s manager Peter Meilak says. “The upper echelon do, but there are a lot of them who are eating the paint off the wall.”

At least they’re eating something. As his parents, siblings and wider family celebrated the recent Greek Easter with a traditional, table-creaking feast, Tsaikos was fasting to get down to 55 kilograms for a Sunday ride in Geelong. His Saturday night dinner was a three-egg omelette, followed the next day by two quarters of a sandwich, three half cups of coffee and an hour in the sauna. He made the weight. The horse finished eighth in a field of eight.

On Anzac Day eve, he had four rides in Launceston at a night meeting that wound up just before 9 o’clock. By 1.13pm the next day he was sitting atop a two-year-old filly at Moe. “What I’m doing is hard work,” he says, the epitome of understatement. “It’s a tough job, [but I] just enjoy it, just enjoying riding these beautiful animals.”

He credits his work ethic to his parents, migrants who know no other way. His parents came to Australia as adults, had two boys and two girls, then decided to move back to Greece. Tsaikos has a vivid memory of his sister crying in despair as they were dropped at kindergarten. “Then Mum turned around and said, ‘I want to go back to Australia.’ ”

His father part-owned taxis, ran restaurants, was and is forever busy. Through his dad’s connections with racehorses, Stan at age 11 found himself on a pony in a Moriac paddock, hanging on to the stablehand in front of him for dear life. By 16 he was an apprentice to Meggs Elkington.

He watched, listened and learnt: how low Simon Marshall sat in the saddle, Darren Beadman’s vigour with feet and arms, his master Elkington’s insistence on toil. “Out on the farm, Carawatha, we did everything. We’d round up cows, put up fences, cart hay. It wasn’t just racing and riding.”

In the early days of his apprenticeship a horse he was riding backed into a barbed-wire fence, then took off. “The last thing I remember is thinking, ‘I’m gunna get cut open here.’ Then I blacked out, woke up in the ambulance.” Staff who saw it said he was dragged close to a kilometre, dangling by a foot from the stirrup.

Meilak recalls Tsaikos and a contemporary, Vlad Duric, “tearing up country tracks”, riding doubles and trebles for fun. Duric would go on to win jockeys’ championships in Singapore. The Damien Olivers of the riding world might have four group 1 rides in a day during the Melbourne Cup carnival. Tsaikos has had two in his life.

One was his happiest day, in 2004, when he placed second in the group 1 VRC Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington on a horse named Big Poppa Pump. He treasures the memory of the great Roy Higgins offering advice before the race; isn’t bitter about getting run down 80 metres from the post. “The horse that beat us ran second to Makybe Diva another day, that says enough.”

He soldiered on, until a horse sidestepped after the finish at Donald one day and a relatively innocent fall left him with spinal damage. He didn’t ride in a race for five years.

Adversity spawned opportunity. He studied for a real estate agent’s representative’s licence, donned a suit and tie and went doorknocking and cold calling. He reckons it was the same principle as a young jockey badgering trainers for rides. “I’d knock on a random guy’s door in Bell Post Hill, ‘Hi, I’m Stan Tsaikos, wondering if you’re interested in selling your house?’ They’d say, ‘Stan! The jockey! Come in, I’ll put the kettle on.’”

He kept his hand in riding work for Danny O’Brien at Barwon Heads, and came to a realisation that without the outrageous demands of race riding he felt well for the first time in memory. “I didn’t know what it was like to be normal – with your body full of food, full of fluid, you don’t get sick.”

Still, in 2016 the itch became unbearable. Eight rides into a comeback, with six booked the next day at Terang and just getting going again, he fell during a barrier trial at Geelong and broke an ankle. Another 11 months on the sidelines, another chance to do something different. “Racing Victoria hooked me up with some work – I’d come to the track on race day and do helmet checks, put the rail up. I watered the flowers at Geelong racecourse.”

Now he’s in a gruelling groove. In Victoria, jockeys receive $211 a ride; in the Northern Territory it’s about to be $260. Tsaikos rides trackwork a couple of mornings a week, for as little as $20 a horse. With his schedule expenses are a killer; last-minute flights to Alice Springs can be $1000 but are subsidised to boost NT racing. Tasmanian trips aren’t; however, accommodation there is covered.

In Launceston recently, he shared digs with another toiler, Anthony Darmanin, who in March won the $1 million Australian Guineas on Mystic Journey. “He’s found a good horse, good on him,” Tsaikos says, happy for Darmanin and confident he can still do the same. “Another one will come along.”

Meilak rates Tsaikos’s hands and the “clock” in his head that can judge a horse’s speed, but knows how flooded the local market is with higher-profile jockeys. The harsh reality is those who don’t get many rides end up on horses with one gear who don’t give them a chance to showcase their talents.

Tsaikos remains upbeat. He says he’s 40, then agrees he’s 41, but insists he feels 26. He’s thought about relocating from Geelong to Cranbourne, where there are more than 40 trainers, some with 100 horses each. Maybe he’ll go further afield, again.

“It could be as lucky as, ‘Righto, rent the house out, let’s go, grab the dog, Sunshine Coast.’ Get up there, two months later, you’re flying. It could be as easy as that…”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 1, 2019 as "Knack in the saddle". Subscribe here.

Peter Hanlon
is a former Age sportswriter turned freelancer and bus driver.