“You are not allowed to attend race meetings until you are 18 over there but I used to sneak in with Dad. I wasn’t really into it and my father didn’t want me to be involved at the time. He didn’t want to take me on as an apprentice,’’ said McGillivray.
When he finished school at 17, McGillivray went to Perth where his older brothers and sisters lived. One of the siblings owned a pharmacy and the youngster worked in the chemist shop for a year.
John McGillivray retired from training because of ill health when Matt was 19 and also returned to Perth for medical treatment. He had been a successful trainer in West Australia before gaining an opportunity to train in Singapore and later, Malaysia.
“Dad was very knowledgeable and had a lot of success wherever he went,’’ said McGillivray. “Originally he was a butcher in Perth, then he drove taxis before becoming a harness racing trainer-driver licence. After that he got into racing.’’
Matt McGillivray’s first practical venture into racing came in Perth when he linked with the stable of Frank Maynard Jnr who had trained alongside his father in Malaysia.
“I rode work but never rode in trials or a race. I was there for three or four months before Frank gave it away and returned to Malaysia,’’ he recalled. “I didn’t want to transfer to another trainer in West Australia so contacted Len Maund who was looking after the apprentices in Queensland at the time.’’
Respected Queensland country trainer Craig Smith, who is based at Roma, was searching for an apprentice and McGillivray was the man.
“I was pretty much used to the country lifestyle because my father also operated a spelling station in Malaysia which was in a rural area. It was a farm environment and I’d spent a fair bit of time there growing up,’’ said McGillivray.
“Craig (Smith) and his family are lovely people and he looked after me really well. He put me on quiet horses for a while so I could get a feel of what it was all about. Craig kept stressing the importance of keeping a horse balanced.”
McGillivray’s first winner came at his first day of race-riding at Roma in June, 2013.
“The horse was Macdye which never won another race. I took four kilos off and we got the chocolates,’’ he said.
McGillivray outrode his country claim in less than 18 months but the astute Smith held him back from riding at the provincials for a year.
Instead, the young rider campaigned around the Central West and Downs steadily building confidence and experience.
“Places like Longreach and Barcaldine are seven hours from Roma and it made for a long day when I rode there. But you can’t buy that kind of experience,’’ he said.
“I wasn’t allowed to pull the whip on a horse until I’d ridden 20 winners. I covered a lot of territory, more than 80,000kms in one season and went to Birdsville two years in a row. The first trip I rode seven seconds but the second year I landed six winners.’’
McGillivray’s first day riding at the provincials resulted in a winning treble at Rockhampton.
In January, 2015, the apprentice went on loan to Brisbane trainer Barry Baldwin and had ridden 13 metropolitan winners when hit with a four-month disqualification in April after a positive drug test.
McGillivray was remorseful and he committed to work hard during his enforced spell on the sidelines, sweating it out as a roustabout and labourer for a painting contractor.
“It was a tough gig but kept me busy and fit,’’ he said.
“When I came back I still had 18 months left on my apprenticeship and thought I would like to give it a shot in Sydney or Melbourne. I discussed that with Barry (Baldwin) and as it was carnival time in Brisbane we decided it was a good time for me to to go to Sydney.’’
Initially, McGillivray went on loan for three months to John Sargent at Randwick but the apprentice had barely settled in when he received news that his father, John, had died.
“I’d only been in Sydney a week when Dad died,’’ he said. “I knew he was very sick and my sister had come over from Perth to Brisbane to look after him.
“I got a phone call in the middle of the night that he’d passed away. It was really sad for me as he’d been my biggest supporter and moved to Queensland when I started riding here.’’
McGillivray had been engaged for seven mounts at Randwick shortly after his father’s death but was forced to stand himself down after three rides. He underwent counselling to deal with the loss …
“I just couldn’t ride that day. I tried, but after three rides I told the stewards my mind was somewhere else and I had to pull out.’’
McGillivray eventually spent 11 months in Sydney, the second half of his stint spent with trainer Jason Coyle.
“It was a bit rough down there. It takes a while to become known and to get going,’’ he said.
As opportunities dried up McGillivray re-assessed his career and decided he had to commit 100 per cent if he was to resurrect his life as a jockey. He had to cease mucking around, work seven days a week and “grow up”.
“I knew what I wanted and knew I had to give my absolute best to achieve that,’’ he said.
“I knuckled down to ride plenty of trackwork, jumpouts and trials.’’
McGillivray linked with trainer Paul Butterworth who has established a strong rapport with the young rider.
“Paul really supported me and put me on all his runners, especially at the Gold Coast. We started to get winners and it wasn’t long before I wás riding back in town again.”
McGillivray completed his apprenticeship with Butterworth last September and was approached by leading trainer Liam Birchley to do the bulk of the stable riding. It was a gilt-edged opportunity with other top-line trainers such as Tony Gollan, Rob Heathcote and Kelly Schweida also consistently using his services.
A month after becoming a senior rider McGillivray notched four winners in an afternoon at Doomben, a feat he had previously achieved as an apprentice at Mackay and Roma.
Heathcote’s promising 3YO Zofonic Dancer is one of McGillivray’s favourite horses with the jockey predicting a big future for the gelding.
“He’s a horse I really connect with and I’ve told Rob he could develop into a top stayer,’’ said McGillivray. “He gives me a thrill whether it’s on the track or in a race … I’ve a real soft spot for that horse.’’
Aside from his father, McGillivray credits champion jockey Joao Moriera as having an influence on his career.
“I met him when he first came to Singapore when I was only about 14,’’ he said. “I saw how cool, calm and collected he was and it is amazing how good he looks on a horse.
“From the day I started riding I wanted to try to look like he does on a horse … you think you do, but in reality it’s difficult to look like someone like him.
“I love watching Moreira. He’s just spectacular.”
Away from the track McGillivray tries to enjoy a weekly game of golf. Some of his regular partners include fellow riders Luke Dittman, Ron Stewart and Brad Appo.
He and partner Aimee Holland are excited about the impending arrival of their first child in April.
“It is very exciting and probably the best thing that has happened to me,’’ he said. ‘’I’m way more nervous about the baby than riding in races. “Aimee and I have been together 20 months and she’s been great for me, especially during the down times and when I’m stressed.’’