Modest McDonald takes extraordinary achievements in his stride

By Dennis Ryan

11 Nov 2021

Modest McDonald takes extraordinary achievements in his strideJames McDonald proudly holds aloft the ultimate prize, the Melbourne Cup

“The Melbourne Cup probably stands out to be fair, it’s the holy grail.”
Two things strike you about James McDonald: first and foremost his extraordinary talent, and how unaffected he is by success on a scale that the rest of us can only observe in awe.
The kid from Cambridge has always had a manner that makes him easy to like. That’s not a prerequisite to becoming a champion jockey, but it is a quality that has stood to him on his way to the top.
And even after an unprecedented 10-win week of success at Flemington headed by the Melbourne Cup and three other Group Ones, McDonald comes across as the same down-to-earth young man with the rational outlook.
RaceForm caught up with him via hands-free Bluetooth last Sunday when he was making the nine-hour drive from Melbourne back to Sydney. With time to kill on his long solo drive north, McDonald was in a reflective, happy place.
“I’m enjoying a bit of time to myself actually, it’s been a hectic couple of weeks and good to just chill out,” he admitted. “Last night was the first chance to relax and now it’s home to Sydney, a few easy days and then back into it.”
McDonald refers to the latest landmark period in his career in broader terms than just Flemington. “The past week has been incredible but it all really started three weeks ago with The Everest. Then I was able to get down to Melbourne for Cox Plate day, and even though that didn’t work out when Zaaki was scratched, at least I was there.”
Opening day at Flemington began ominously when McDonald combined with Chris Waller to win the first two races and ended with a bag of four headed by another with the Waller polish, brilliant Gr. 1 Coolmore Stud Stakes winner Home Affairs.
Later that afternoon Waller made the call to pay up with Verry Elleegant in the Melbourne Cup, setting the scene for a momentous victory three days later in the big one. Two wins for McDonald on Cup day were matched by another brace on Oaks Day, then his grand finale, a Group One double on The Everest winner Nature Strip in the Darley Sprint and a resurgent Zaaki in the Mackinnon Stakes.
“That’s got to be the best three weeks of my life,” he says. “The Melbourne Cup probably stands out to be fair, it’s the holy grail. You travel the world and there’s not a person in racing who hasn’t heard of the Melbourne Cup, so now to have won it, for me that’s the pinnacle.”
McDonald refers to the enigma that is Verry Elleegant, who he has partnered in eight of her 10 Group One wins. Her career in Australia began as an untapped three-year-old with Darren Weir before her transfer to Waller when the Victorian trainer was disqualified in early 2019.
“She wasn’t easy and almost got to us a few times, but perseverance and patience, that has been the key,” he says of the Kiwi-bred star. “It’s been four years in the making and for her to execute like that in the Melbourne Cup, it was beautiful the way it panned out, just unreal.”
That execution was due in no small part to a pitch-perfect ride, something that has been acknowledged by colleagues on both sides of the Tasman and others with a well-qualified opinion. McDonald is already the youngest member of the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame, and there are those now hailing him as the best jockey New Zealand has ever produced, a sportsman worthy of a Halberg Award.
The subject of their admiration responds with humility crossed with surprise, underlining the fact that he’s anything but consumed by his own press. “Really? I never saw it like that,” he says when it’s put to him. “I couldn’t have done any of this without so many people. I wouldn’t be here without them.”
While family, partner Katelyn Mallyon, mentor Sir Peter Vela and McDonald’s management team are forever front of mind, the name Waller is pre-eminent in his summation.
“Chris and me, our relationship, our friendship, has grown very quickly. He puts as much faith in me as I do in him. We work so closely, he’s not afraid to ask for an opinion from me and others, and that’s one of the reasons he’s so successful.
“But the main thing is his work ethic, no-one I’ve ever seen works as hard as Chris does.”
The final weeks of the year will be relatively low-key for McDonald, but he does have one enticing target in mind before signing off on a landmark 2021.
“I’m heading up to Hong Kong in December for the big week there, the jockeys’ series at Happy Valley and then the internationals at Sha Tin. There aren’t any horses going up from here for the internationals but I’ll be trying my luck and see what happens.
“As much as I’d like to, there are no plans to come home – that all depends on what happens with the border. But if things change it would be great to maybe get another chance to ride on Karaka Million night and catch up with everyone over there.
“Beyond that there’s Sydney in the autumn and I hope to get up to Europe in the middle of next year – I’d just love to ride a horse like Home Affairs at Royal Ascot. Winning a race there for Peter Vela and the Coolmore boys would be something else again.”