Erin Leighton gets first black-type winner

By Liz Whelan

4 Aug 2021

Erin Leighton gets first black-type winnerErin Leighton urges Ima Roca Bee home at Otaki

Erin Leighton is a star on the rise.
And on Saturday, she capped off her season perfectly, winning the final Listed race of the season aboard Ima Roca Bee. In doing so, she claimed her first black-type victory.
“It was awesome!” Leighton told RaceForm on Tuesday. “I’m basically a baby in the industry in terms of how much riding I’ve done, so it’s come up really quickly for me. I’m over the moon.”
Ima Roca Bee started at $12 in the Listed Courtesy Ford Ryder Stakes at Otaki on Saturday, but despite her outsider status, Leighton was always confident.
“I gave up a big, good book of rides at Rotorua to follow her to the Ryder. I know how speedy she is,” she explains.
“The wet track did worry me a bit because the mud can be a great leveller in racing, but it certainly didn’t scrub the speed off her.
“My speed map and form all stacked up. I knew that Catsacharmer would inject some speed into the race, but the one to beat was Yeaboi.
“I thought I’d be racing as Yeaboi’s pair, but I saw that they’d applied blinkers to him, and I thought he could be sharper earlier, so my Plan B was to get on the back of him, which worked out perfectly.
“Ima Roca Bee has to be ridden cold. We stayed on the heels of Yeaboi and she went to sleep until I needed to use her, and I didn’t ask her for an effort until we got off the back of Yeaboi’s heels.
“As we progressed through the race, she was handling the track an absolute treat, so I was very comfortable to use her acceleration so late in the race.”
Leighton’s grandfather, himself an avid racing enthusiast, lives in Otaki, so she took the opportunity to drive down to Otaki with her mother on Friday and spent the weekend with him, along with her aunt and uncle who also reside in Otaki.
“We made a weekend of it. My family all attended the races; my pop said it’s the best day he’s ever had at the races, even though he probably hadn’t been for 20 years, and my auntie had her first bet, which was on Ima Roca Bee.
“It was a really nice family catch-up. I celebrated the win with a cup of tea with my poppa on Saturday!”
Leighton speaks enthusiastically about speed maps and form, and spends a lot of time on race analysis.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of race I’m riding in. Every ride I have, I do a speed map and the form to the best of my ability, and I’m generally not too far off.
“I always have a Plan B as well. Knowing exactly what I’m going to do and what’s going to happen when the gates open gives me a lot of confidence in what I’m doing and it makes me really relaxed as well.
“When I got on a horse on raceday, my ultimate goal is to look after that horse by being relaxed, talking to them, patting them and giving them a nice experience. That helps to get the best out of the them, too.
“I like to think I give the horse back in just as good a condition as it was in when it was given to me.”
She is full of praise for Karyn and her husband Hamish McQuade, Karyn being the trainer of Ima Roca Bee.
“They started putting me on horses when no one wanted to put me on,” says Leighton.
“You can see by my previous seasons that I’d never really had a lot of support in the past. That all changed when I moved to Wayne Hillis just over three months ago to continue my apprenticeship with him.
“He knew I wanted to be a jockey. He’s encouraged me to go and do it, and he’s allowed me the space to go and spread my wings, and that’s been the change. I’ve ridden a lot of trackwork all over the place, and I’m starting to get the rides from the bigger stables now that I’m up and going, which is unreal.
“But the McQuades were supporters long before that, and have put me on their horses from the start. They’re amazing.
“Ima Roca Bee comes with her quirks and watching the McQuades manage her is such a pleasure. I’m nearly certain she would have slipped through the cracks in a different operation.”
The 29-year-old has three older brothers, and all of them grew up around horses.
“My grandfather on my father’s side, Eric Leighton, was crazy on racehorses – he was on the Avondale Jockey Club committee, plus he trained and rode some amateurs, and owned some horses. Unfortunately, he passed away long before I started in racing.
“My mother did some trackwork and worked for Tommy Smith in Australia for a bit – she is horse mad.
“When us kids were born, we were all put on horses on the farm, we didn’t get a say – my first word was ‘horse’!” she laughs.
Notwithstanding her love for horses, Leighton initially pursued another passion – motocross.
“I was actually a sponsored rider in motocross – I competed at national level here,” says Leighton modestly.
One day, she was riding one her mother’s horses to demonstrate her horse riding prowess to her then boyfriend (who also competed in motocross), and her passion for riding was reinvigorated.
“She was a chestnut thoroughbred and she was actually retired with mum to the broodmare paddock as a chronic rearer, but I never had a problem with her,” remembers Leighton.
“I was about 16 years old and I decided to keep riding her. I showjumped her and then I got good money for her. After that, Mum told me to go down to the Karaka Dispersal Sale to find another thoroughbred and do the same thing with that horse, so I did.
“At the sales, I ran into Natalie Tanner. She looked at me and said, ‘have you ever thought about becoming a jockey?’ I said no, but she went on to tell me that I’d be starting work the next morning.
“Natalie became my first employer. I became hooked and within a month, I handed in all of my motocross commitments.”
Leighton finished the 2020-21 season with 19 winners from 119 rides, giving her an enviable strike-rate of 6.26. This season, she hopes to average one winner a week.
“That would be so cool,” she says. “I’d love to get more black-type rides this season as well – they are such a big thrill, it’s addictive.
“I just want to keep doing my best and make as few mistakes as I can. I like learning – even if I’ve won a race, I still feel like I’ve learnt something. And now that I’m getting regular rides, I can put what I’m learning into practice.”