Wingatui graduates celebrating each others’ success

By Dennis Ryan

29 May 2024

Wingatui graduates celebrating each others’ successJaylah Kennedy completes a metropolitan double on Hard To Cross at Sandown

They came from opposite backgrounds in Mosgiel during their teens, however Jaylah Kennedy and Tayla Melvin now have a common bond.
Last Saturday Kennedy, born to racing as a member of two of Otago racing’s most recognised families, continued her rise in Victorian racing with a Saturday metropolitan double at Sandown.
Slightly closer to home at Pukekohe, Melvin, who grew up with no idea of what the racing game was all about, broke through for her first win on Devoted.
The bond between the two early-twenty-year-olds dates back to Mosgiel’s Taieri College, where Melvin was a classmate of Kennedy’s younger brother Jonty. Their friendship led to Melvin being employed at Terry and Debbie Kennedy’s Wingatui stable and eventually moving north to Te Akau Racing in Matamata, from where her apprenticeship with Mark Walker and Sam Bergerson has taken shape.
“I grew up on ponies and then had my own eventing horse, but I knew nothing about racing and when I left school I had aspirations of joining the police force and specialising in forensics,” 21-year-old Melvin recalls.
“Then I ended up working for Terry and Debbie and it’s just gone from there. I learnt the basics with them and then moved north to get more experience riding at trials. Things were going well and I asked Mark if I could take it a stage further and do my apprenticeship with Te Akau.
“That’s basically how it worked out and I’ve got no regrets. Mark and everyone else at Te Akau have really supported me and it was special to get that first win in the tangerine colours.”
Admittedly Melvin’s maternal grandfather was a jockey long before she was born – something she discovered retrospectively – while in contrast Kennedy’s family is steeped in racing history. On her mother’s side she is the great-grand-daughter of Anderton family patriarch Hector, the grand-daughter of Hector junior, who was a successful jockey and trainer, and great-niece of Hall of Fame members Brian Anderton and Bob Skelton.
Most relevantly, her parents were both successful jockeys. Terry, also from a long line of successful horse-people, rode more than 350 winners and Debbie just over 200, while their stable has a current tally of 226 wins. There’s no surprise, therefore, that their daughter has gone in the same direction, but the actual pathway has been quite different.
Apart from one day last year when on a visit home she rode at a Wingatui race meeting, Jaylah Kennedy’s two-year jockey career has played out in Australia. That began with the decision in her late teens to cross the Tasman, not that she had visions of becoming a jockey, even when her job as a stablehand for Ballarat trainer Dan O’Sullivan meant strapping horses at major racedays in Melbourne.
However, the more she thought about it the more she warmed to the idea, and she applied for Racing Victoria’s apprentice jockey training programme. She admits to being surprised when she was one of just 11 aspiring jockeys to be accepted, but there’s no denying she has made the most of her big break.
“I found that once you get on the programme it all happens pretty quickly,” 23-year-old Kennedy told RaceForm earlier this week. “I’ve been given so many opportunities and now riding for those bigger trainers, it’s fantastic, I’m so fortunate.
“It’s very competitive over here, you have to be on your game all the time, keep up your fitness levels and take any chances that come along.”
Just under a year after joining the programme, Kennedy rode her first winner at Stawell in February 2023 and another 46 in provincial Victoria before breaking through for her first city winner at Moonee Valley in late January. Her weekend double took her tally for May alone to 10 and 75 all told.
Already her raceday mounts have earned more than A$2 million in stakes and she has a clear lead on the Victorian country apprentices’ title.
“I’m hoping that things keep going for me. I’m on target for the country championship with a lead of 13 or 14, and I’ve got five wins left before I lose my country claim – that would be something too.”
Kennedy makes the valid observation that from a gender perspective, unlike in previous generations Australian jockey ranks are now very much a level playing field.
“Seeing Jamie Kah, Rachel King up in Sydney and others doing so well; proving that we’re just as good as the boys is such a massive help to people like me.
“Some days we’re tripping over each other in the girls’ room and it’s great to be recognised by the leading trainers when it comes to getting rides.”
Back where it all started for Kennedy and Melvin, their mentors accept the reality of what other racing environments have to offer apprentices.
“Things like the lack trials down this way make it virtually impossible to develop apprentices from the very beginning,” says Terry Kennedy. “That’s how it is unfortunately, but that doesn’t mean we’re not happy for both the girls.
“Tayla has worked very hard and we’re thrilled that she’s now ridden her first winner, and we’re all so proud of what Jaylah has achieved. It’s been great watching her develop and to see how well she’s doing.”
Mum Debbie chips in. “Those Aussies are already claiming her as one of their own, but as long she keeps rolling her r’s, she’ll always be an Otago girl!”