For passionate racing fan Abbie Sweeper, the race that stops the nation has always been in the back of her mind along the journey.
As a child in her backyard riding a grey pony named Kit Kat, Sweeper and her neighbour would pretend they were riding in the Melbourne Cup after school most days, calling the race themselves as commentators.
Later on, the Melbourne Cup trophy itself being taken into Sweeper’s hospital room a couple of years ago sparked the families fundraising efforts through the racing industry.
And now, the Sweeper family want to have their now famous “Riding for Abbie” colours represented on a Saturday metropolitan meeting in Victoria and hopefully complete the journey and attend the 2021 Melbourne Cup in person.
Everything changed for the Sweeper family - daughter Abbie, father Russel and Mother Amanda – in July of 2019 while competing on her horse, Abbie fell and sustained brain and spinal cord damage, leaving her a ventilator dependent tetraplegic.
In a way, Abbie was lucky – there was a paramedic at the scene of the accident, and she was able to receive treatment almost immediately.
Currently being housed in a Brisbane hotel room, Abbie can no longer breathe for herself or move any part of her body below the neck.
Despite the sad incident, at their home away from home, Abbie is still just a cheeky young girl, winding up her parents with jokes and playing with their new bulldog Lulu, who was a gift from a donation.
Since the tragic fall, the entire Queensland racing industry have wrapped their collective arms around Abbie, running fundraisers, winning races in her special colours and doing anything they can to help the family get through the current situation they face.
Amanda estimates of the $200,000 raised for her daughter over the last few years, around 15 per cent of that has come from the racing industry.
“We do not know the cost of things that we will be bombarded with when we eventually get back home,” Amanda said.
“It opens a few doors to make things a little easier.
“And also, it allows Russell and I, as we are unable to work while being in Brisbane, it has helped to take that pressure off, as well.”
Abbie grew up in Laidley, where being around horses was a way of life from a young age.
Both parents competed with horses and Abbie went to her first horse show as a three week old.
A grey pony named Kit Kat came along when Abbie was two years old.
“It was lovely that she had the same interests as us, it became her passion,” Amanda said.
“Every afternoon she would be out there with our neighbour Jake riding the pony in the backyard.
“They used to say the pony was in the Melbourne Cup, bareback, they used to call the races like it was the big one.”
Abbie would go on to represent Queensland at state championships after starting out at pony club, as well as competing in stock horse shows.
Following her sad fall, Abbie’s riding days are over for now.
So, those that can still ride horses stepped in to lend a hand.
Townsville-based trainer-jockey Bonnie Thomson, legendary Australian rider Glen Boss and former hoop and now SKY presenter Bernadette Cooper, among others, have all played their part to raise awareness around Abbie’s circumstances and help raise funds.
When Abbie was first in hospital, Amanda wrote on Facebook that if anyone was riding a horse in the near future, to wear green for her daughter.
“That is what Abbie loved to do,” she said.
“Lots of people got behind that, putting their photos on Facebook in support of Abbie.
“From there, it has just snowballed into a fundraising activity, with one of the first clubs to come on board was the Townsville Turf Club, through the help of Bonnie Thomson.”
Thomson, a mother herself with a daughter a few years younger than Abbie, helped design the “Riding for Abbie” colours that are worn by jockeys on race days from Roma to Cooktown and everywhere in between.
Despite never meeting the Sweeper’s before the fall, Thomson has become integral to their future, driving fundraising efforts, holding a race day in Townsville for the cause and encouraging other north Queensland stables to use the colours.
Thomson first met Abbie in hospital after the incident.
“It really touched me, her story,” Thomson said.
“My daughter rides as well, and I have had so many injuries over my years riding as well.
“My daughter is just six; she is a little champion rider, and Abbie was much like that.
“As jockeys, it is a luck of the fall sometimes.
“I have been told that I won’t ride again before and I am still going.”
The Lockyer Valley Turf Club has run events for the Sweeper’s, as have the Brisbane Racing Club and Sky Racing.
Amanda recalls a horse owner at a Gatton race day walking up to her after a race and just handing her $100 and she burst out in tears as she was so thankful for how generous the community has been.
“There were people we never had met before, but they all came onboard, they wanted to host events, ride in her colours and share it for Abbie to see,” she said.
“It was all really lovely gestures, none of it we asked for, but everyone had a heart of gold and just kept jumping on board.
“We cannot thank the racing community enough; donations keep coming in every day.”
Of all the experiences since the fall, getting to touch the Melbourne Cup trophy is what stands out for the family.
Former jockey Greg Hall brought the famous trophy to her hospital room, the piece of silverware he claimed in 1992 aboard the popular Subzero.
“It was a special moment,” Russell said.
“That was really where it all started at that point of time, when the Melbourne Cup came into the room, that was when the racing industry really started to get behind her.
“Maybe, we can get to the Melbourne Cup one day, that would be great.”
The ‘Riding for Abbie’ colours have been on show at many a track in the Sunshine State and the family would now love to see them on show in Melbourne.
“Greg Hall came up and sat with her, had a chat, took photos and told her all about riding in the race with Subzero,” Amanda said.
“That was really good.
“It would be great to see her colours in Melbourne on a Saturday meeting one day, that would be amazing.”
Looking ahead, the Sweeper family are keen to get back to their Laidley property, to be back around their horses and paddock, which they cannot do confined to a hotel room in Vulture street.
Abbie was quick to point out her pony was not scared of her new wheelchair.