Jake Noonan and Katelyn Mallyon
Despite being teenagers, 19-year-old Jake Noonan and 18-year-old Katelyn Mallyon have shared an extraordinary amount of life experience. Both top apprentice jockeys, they virtually grew up side by side – a friendship as children that has blossomed into something more as they have become older. Both their fathers are racehorse trainers, they both burst into racing with a flurry of winners, having both won the apprentice jockeys premiership – Noonan in 2010-11 and Mallyon in 2011-12 – and they are dedicated and passionate about horse racing and their careers in the industry. They have also both recently survived horror race falls. Even in that unfortunate experience there have been parallels. “We both landed on our heads,” says Mallyon with a wry smile.
It is this last shared experience that has probably brought them closer as Noonan, who fell in a race at Flemington in May last year and was sidelined for six months with a brain injury, helps Mallyon through the pain and anguish she is still experiencing since she was placed into an induced coma after falling at Flemington in May this year.
Now Noonan’s support has become even more important for Mallyon as she has just found out that she must have further surgery, three months in a back brace and another year on the sidelines if she is to return to what she loves.
Noonan was riding in Queensland when Mallyon had her fall and immediately rushed back to Melbourne to be at her side. He has gone every step of the way with her since.
Noonan: “The hardest thing about it is when you go out on such a high note – when I fell, I was flying, I went out on such a high and so did Katelyn, like she was leading apprentice, and you return and it doesn’t kick off where you left off really, it’s pretty hard to cope with mentally,” says Noonan.
“Obviously I can’t see into the future for Kate but it’s a pretty tough time and working through it and trying to stay positive is difficult. I haven’t reached where I was before the fall yet but I’ve got to keep chipping away to get where I was, if not further, but it’s pretty hard mentally because you go from one minute being on top of the world, the next minute back down to the bottom again and just working your way up there is tricky and mentally pretty tough.”
From neck to toe Noonan’s body came through his fall with barely a bruise, but landing on his head put him in a coma for several days and has taken longer to get right.
At the time of the fall he was working with leading trainer Peter Moody, but nothing stands still in the racing game.
“I was kind of replaced pretty quickly – being such a top stable, he can’t wait for me to recover, he’s got horses going around every day,” Noonan says with candour. “I still poke my head in the door and he still throws me a ride every now and then but I’m not as highly involved as I was.
“It’s not easy to find metropolitan winners, especially in Melbourne, the competition we’ve got down here, you’re not riding against the best riders in Australia, you’re riding against the best riders in the world practically.
“Trying to compete against them with an A (for apprentice) next to your name and only three years’ experience – whether you’ve got the same amount of ability – they always look past you because you’re competing against people who have been riding for decades longer than you.
“You need to find a stable, you need to find a horse that can kick you off and get you going, and you need people to start noticing you – it’s tricky but even with my 1.5 kilo claim, with the top weights going up, when they want to claim they want to take three kilos off so all the new kids are getting a good go, whereas I’ve had my time so the 1.5 kilos isn’t doing me many favours, I’m practically looked on as a senior anyway.”
Noonan comes out of his time as an apprentice in March, or after his next 11 city winners, whichever comes first, and he’s determined to succeed.
“I’m not locked into any big stable so I try and poke my head in the door of the smaller types of trainers that have got good horses,” he says. “David Brideoake, for instance, I make sure I put my head in the door there as he’s got that Dance With Her that I won the Golden Mile on and the Pakenham Cup and I know she’s going to be going for a few major races this spring.”
Noonan came relatively late to racing, like his father, Tony, who took up his successful training career after several years as a school teacher.
“I thought I was going to be a footballer or a pro skateboarder,” Jake Noonan says.
“Footy looked a massive chance there for a while. I was playing for South Mornington, I was really good at footy but got to 16 and I hadn’t grown since I was 13. I was starting to get thrown around like a rag doll, it wasn’t working out.
“I’m more frightened of a 100-kilo bloke running at me than sitting on a 500-kilo horse.”
Noonan, unusually for a jockey, has his VCE and could go to university if racing suddenly went pear-shaped but the industry is now his love and he has set his goals.
“The best thing about the job is that it’ll take you all over the world – Europe Asia, would love to ride at both. Hong Kong would be the grand final … that’s where all the money is, that’s where the best of the best are.
“And, definitely, I’d look at training one day – as stupid as it sounds as people have been telling me how hard it is.”
Mallyon: “Having someone close to me who has just been through the same sort of thing has been a huge help,” Mallyon says.
All she knows about her fall was what others have told her and what she has felt (i.e. pain) herself. “I fractured my cheekbone, lacerated my spleen, broke my nose and compress-fractured my T6 vertebrae,” she says. She also suffered a heavy concussion and when she came out of hospital she was wearing a back brace.
Mallyon has been keeping her distance from the horses as she works her way back to fitness but it hasn’t been easy – and that personal version of purgatory has now been extended for 12 months.
“I’m more frightened of a 100-kilo bloke running at me than sitting on a 500-kilo horse.” Jake Noonan
This new bout of surgery will see her back in the brace for another three months. “I’m not likely to be getting dressed up while I’ve got a brace on my back,” she says.
But she already has a plan. “I’ll have to do something, it’s too long not to, I might do something like a vet nurse course, or following a vet around and helping out.”
Whatever happens, Mallyon is determined to stay in the industry – even being picked off the street to do some modelling when she was 15 hasn’t diverted her from her course – but then, racing is in her blood.
Mallyon is the granddaughter of former top jockey Mick Mallyon, who won three Caulfield Cups. Father Brett rode, as did her mother, Mary, who has a metropolitan winner to her name at Moonee Valley, while brother Andrew, 23, is forging his career in the saddle. So she is well aware of the pifalls.
“It’s the only fall I’ve had. I had a few falls off the ponies and in trackwork – I broke my jaw coming off a pony once when I was 10 or 11 years old – but I always thought I’d be a jockey,” she says.
“I’ve only been riding for a year and a quarter, won the premiership, still got a two-kilo claim in town.
“So as long as the surgery goes well and the screws and plate come out good I’ll be trying my best to get back.
“I’ve spoken to Damien Oliver because I was a mess when I first found out. I thought I was going to hear good news then and – I was happy enough to get the surgery done but I couldn’t get my head around it so I had to speak to Brett Scott, Damien Oliver and they talked me through it and made me feel a lot better about doing it.
“The doctors all make it doom and gloom and say you’ll be out for a year, you’ll be in a brace, there’s a chance you’ll come out of surgery and you’ll be a paraplegic and you’re just like – geez! I had to be in the brace for three months when I had the fall but I was out of it in six weeks so they always tell you the worst, but this time I don’t have to have broken bones mend so I’d say I won’t be in it for so long.
“It’ll be just because of the screws and the plate has to set. The screws have to be in for a year but I’ll be back then.”
When Mallyon finally makes that climb back into the saddle, she’ll have Noonan there ready to support. He’s seen how hard it has been for his girlfriend, not only to deal with her injuries, but also to keep her distance from the industry she loves.
“Once she gets on a horse – like when you’re not touching them and that – you can live without them, but first day of trackwork she’ll be that hungry I can tell her just from going through it myself,” he says.
“I’ve been to the races every now and again when dad’s had a runner or when I take ‘J’ there,” Mallyon said. “I’ll always work in the industry. I love riding work and if they say I can’t ride again and if I can’t ride work, well – but I honestly think that’s not the case. The surgery is only minor they tell me, but it’s still surgery and they’re still working very close to your spinal cord, but they are good at what they do.
“I’d like to follow Pop and win a Caulfield Cup. I’d really like to ride a city treble because I haven’t done that – but my goal is to just get back to riding and back to where I was.”
Despite Mallyon’s pending absence, she and Noonan are to be two of the faces of the spring carnival, with their stylish and coiffed images about to appear in advertising all over the city – the pictures might be posed but you can be assured there is nothing of the poser about the couple depicted.
What you’ll see is two delightful young people, flush with the freshness of youth, comfortable, happy and excited in their mutual fondness and what the world has to offer but, at the same time, fully aware and in tune with the magnitude of what they have taken on in one of the toughest games in the world – together it’s a winning combination.
Katelyn Mallyon’s role as the face of the spring carnival puts her at the forefront of Racing Victoria’s marketing campaign. She helped kick off the carnival at the September 26 launch. Racing Victoria was delighted to select a face from its own stable.