By Bernie Pramberg (Images: Leonie Winks)
Dan Ballard is a young man in a hurry.
A proud product of Mount Isa, Ballard is setting the pace in the Queensland country jockeys premiership in addition to steering the local race club in his role as president.
The 32-year old also works fulltime as an electronics repair technician as well as raising a young family.
Those who know Dan’s parents, Keith and Denise, would not be surprised at his commitment to numerous causes … race riding, work, family, community and the industry at large.
The Ballards are one of the best known and respected families in Queensland racing.
Keith, who turns 65 next month, is an accomplished jockey who had notched 1683 winners at the time of going to press while Denise, who was one of the state’s pioneering female riders, trained part-time before taking the plunge into fulltime training in 2009.
When Keith Ballard moved from Longreach to Mt Isa in the 1970s the club hosted 56 meetings a year and there were 15 jockeys in town.
The Mount Isa Race Club currently has 14 meetings with their Cup day (June 9) and August meeting which coincides with the town’s major rodeo the annual features. Mt Isa also hosted a qualifier in the Battle of the Bush series last month.
“We are extremely fortunate Mt Isa is traditionally a racing town and we are lucky to have good support from the general community,’’ said Dan. “I firmly believe this club has a strong on-going role to play in the community and our long-term view is to increase the capacity at Buchanan Park to comfortably cater for large race day attendances.
“Every decision the committee makes is aimed at improving our core product which is racing.’’
Ballard broke new ground for an active jockey when he took on the club presidency in September, 2016. It was a tumultuous time for the Mt Isa Race Club which faced the prospect of being shut down by Racing Queensland because of non-compliance issues which stretching over two years.
When he was approached about taking on the presidency, Ballard was reigning champion Queensland country rider, had a new baby at home and was working during the week in the electronics trade.
“I was light on for time and didn’t really want the job,’’ he said. “At the time the club was non-compliant and in danger of closing down.
“But I thought if I went in with the right mind-set I was a good chance of attracting the right people to become involved. I’ve also been fortunate to have a couple of people whose judgment I respect as sounding boards.”
With a new-look committee and outside support, the club immediately addressed its compliance issues and set about moving forward.
“Racing Queensland has been very co-operative and patient as we brought the compliance up to speed,’’ he said.
“We also made application and were successful in obtaining funding under the Country and Regional Capital Works program. The grant has allowed us to purchase new starting barriers, install a new running rail and build a shed to house the barriers.’’
Ballard hopes the barriers will be in use by Mt Isa Cup day in June but the installation of a new running rail will probably be delayed until the north-west racing summer recess between December and February, 2019.
Ballard, who rode his first winner while still in Year 12, is not afraid to think big.
He envisages a training scheme in Mt Isa to introduce potential licensees to the industry.
“I’ve pitched some big ideas to Maurice Logue (RQ Education and Welfare manager) regarding the provision of training opportunities up here,’’ he said.
“There is real potential in that area and Maurice has been receptive to my ideas.’’
Ballard, who was re-elected as president at the club’s AGM last September, believes the largely untapped potential of naturally gifted indigenous horsemen is an area worthy of investigation.
“I have always had a great belief this club can be a great asset to the broader community,’’ he said.
So far this season Ballard has ridden 42 winners at an imposing strike-rate of 35.6% and is closing on his fourth Queensland country riding title.
Over the past nine seasons he has averaged a winner every three mounts … impressive by any standards. These days he rides around the 58kg mark but admits it is a constant battle.
Ballard served his apprenticeship with Alan Bailey on the Gold Coast from 2002 where he was twice champion junior rider.
He was also leading the Brisbane apprentices title when injuries sustained in a bad fall on a Kelso Wood-trainer horse at Doomben sidelined him for 10 months.
“I was riding the crest of a wave at the time and won in town on gallopers like Star of Florida for Pat Duff and Gumnuts for Bryan Guy,’’ he recalled.
“But the fall stopped my momentum and it was a disappointment to me that I never won a metropolitan apprentices premiership or outrode my allowance in town.’’
Ballard, who has battled weight for most of his career, said his years with highly respected trainer Bailey were invaluable.
“Alan and his staff had so much knowledge and Glen Colless and Chris Whiteley were the stable riders at the time I was apprenticed,’’ he said. “You were learning every day.
“But when I came out of my time I thought I was destined for a life of mediocrity on the Gold Coast so I headed home.’’
No slouch academically, Ballard originally wanted to study chemical engineering but eventually qualified as an auto electrician.
Since returning home to Mt Isa in 2006, Ballard has invariably been in the top-three country jockeys in the state.
“The horse population in the north-west is okay at the moment,’’ he said. “There are currently about 70 horses in work at Buchanan Park and another 30 at Julia Creek which is about 260km away.
“Anyone involved in racing out here understands travel is an integral part of the industry. It costs money and takes a lot of time.”
For many years Keith Ballard has driven the family float to transport horses trained by Denise to meetings as far as Birdsville and Townsville.
But Dan recently obtained his truck licence to relieve his “old man” behind the wheel.
Like most racing people in the north-west the Ballards ply their trade far and wide with meetings at Richmond, Julia Creek, Cloncurry, Gregory Downs, Hughenden, McKinlay, Boulia and Birdsville on the circuit.
Keith, who has kept meticulous records of all his rides, has no immediate plans for retirement.
“I was going to retire at 50 but broke both my legs in a fall and was out for nine months,’’ he said. “Then I thought I might give it away when I got to 1500 winners …
“I’ve always looked up to Robert Thompson and I remember a statement he made one time when he was smashed up. Robert said he would give riding away on his terms and that’s the way I feel about it.
“I have got to know him over the years and he’s a terrific bloke, an absolute gentleman.’’
One of seven children, Keith reckons longevity is a trait that runs strong through the Ballard genes.
“My father is still going strong in Longreach at 93 and loves going into town for a yarn and a hot pie.”
Keith’s most memorable wins include a Darwin Cup on Kerr Street and a Cleveland Bay in Townsville on the giant sprinter Mr Ziesel. He also rates an Alice Springs Cup victory among the many highlights.
Keith started his riding career 49 years ago and his first winner was Howzat at Longreach at 16 years of age. Former jockey and current Toowoomba trainer Barry Squair rode the runner-up and protested unsuccessfully.
Keith has always supplemented his riding as a senior jockey with outside work. For 35 years he was employed by Hastings Deering in Mt Isa and now works for a local electrical retailer.
“He’s like a well-oiled machine,’’ said Denise, who has a string of around a dozen horses in work.
“Keith gets me up with a cup of coffee at 3.30 and he’s done two stables by the time I have the first horse saddled for him to ride work. It’s always been a team effort.’’
The Ballards have enjoyed a wonderful association with Graham and Linda Huddy, successful business people and prominent owners who raced the quality performer Shoot Out.
“Denise and Linda worked together at Lindsay Park and later Linda came to Mt Isa to be bridesmaid at our wedding,’’ said Keith.
“Then Linda married Graham and he’s been a great mate as well ever since.”
The Huddys were great supporters of racing in Mt Isa, racing numerous horses with Denise Ballard, until they moved from the city about four years ago.
“We have some very loyal owners and also some new people who have become involved ,’’ said Denise.
“We have one new syndicate of 10 owners who all work in the mines and really love racing. They are 10 families and all go to the races … they’re coming to Julia Creek and Gregory Downs with their kids and camping for the weekend.
“It gives you a lot of satisfaction to see those people enjoying the industry.’’
Another recent addition to the Mt Isa scene is jockey Jason Barbarovich who also works for the race club as groundsman at Buchanan Park.
“Jason and his wife live on site and to bring a new family to a country town is a bonus,’’ said Dan Ballard.
“Our family believes racing has given us a lot more than we have ever given it. Mum, dad and I have had a great time doing what we love.’’