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Apprentice jockey beaming to be a part of racing history

5 December 2023

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By Jordan Gerrans

Mackay apprentice Shae Nielson will always cherish that she played a key role in a unique slice of Queensland racing history.

The 27-year-old on Saturday afternoon became the jockey who brought up the magical 50 victory milestone on bush iron horse Fab’s Cowboy on the sand at Mount Isa.

“I will never forget it,” Nielson said on Monday morning.

“He just grew wings and he knew exactly what he was doing.”

The champion galloper has been knocking on the half-century mark since October of last year at Blackall when he earned his 49th career triumph.

He went 16 starts between victory 49 and 50.

It was by far the longest drought of his storied career on the race track.

The 50th win came at his 147th official race start. 

Bevan Johnson Next Racing
Fab's Cowboy
Tyler Leslight Next Racing

Prepared by the Johnson clan at Barcaldine, Fab’s Cowboy has developed a cult status across his tenure as a race horse for his prolific winning nature on the country and provincial circuits around the Sunshine State.

In contrast, Nielson just has 10 winners to her name, including Saturday’s Cowboy collect.

It was the first time the Central Queensland rider had sat on the 12-year-old warhorse.

The enormity of the achievement is not lost on the apprentice jockey.

“It was an absolute thrill to be a part of such a memorable win for the Johnson family,” Nielson said.

“They have been really good to me, offering me really good rides.

"But, I think Cowboy outdoes all of them.”

Bevan Johnson is listed as the trainer of Fab’s Cowboy but it is an entire team effort to get the revered race horse to the track.

Bevan’s wife Mel is hands-on with the team, as is Mel’s daughter Dakota - who is a jockey. 

Bevan Johnson and Fab’s Cowboy.

Dakota has won on him seven times from 24 attempts.

The Johnsons' apprentice Tyler Leslight also treats the veteran galloper like he is part of the family.

Leslight has won on ‘Cowboy’ three times from a dozen attempts with six other minor placings.

The Johnsons are keen for the bush icon to retire to Living Legends in Victoria when he eventually runs his final race.

“I have spoken to people in different states that know who he is,” Mel said.

“He has that cult following.

'He is a bit special.”

Connections have long had their eyes on another milestone once they get to 50.

A galloper by the name of Walk Cool – who raced at many of the tracks Fab’s Cowboy frequents – has 51 victories to his name.

Mackay apprentice Shae Nielson speaks to Sky Racing's Kiaarn Dickens after riding her maiden winner at Birdsville last year.

Walk Cool ran his last race in August of 1995 and is now the target for the current day bush icon.

Walk Cool is regarded as the record holder for the modern era of racing in Australia.

The Miles-based Paul Currin – who bred and part-owns the gelding - thinks old Fab will be able to get there.

Having ridden across Queensland since her maiden race day engagement last year, Nielson had come across the popular galloper on a number of occasions.

As well as bringing up the 50th win on Saturday, she also joined another rare club.

Nielson won at her first ride on Cowboy.

Leslight won on his first race ride on him. 

Apprentices Minonette Kennedy, Olivia Kendal and Rebecca Wilson also won on their first rides on Cowboy.

As his win total rose over the years, so did the weight he was asked to carry on race day.

He thrives on having claiming apprentices ride him with Nielson’s three-kilogram allowance valuable on Saturday.

“I have crossed paths with him a couple of times and given him a pat when he is in the tie-up stalls,” Nielson said.

Fab's Cowboy at his Barcaldine stable earlier this year.

“That was the first time I have had the pleasure of sitting on him.

“He does seem to really like the apprentices, I am not sure how he goes out about picking out which one is which, he must just know.”

Fab’s Cowboy scored by just over a length on Saturday in an Open Handicap over 1200 metres. 

Nielson – who is indentured to Mackay’s Joshua Manzelmann – says she rode to the plan provided to her by the Johnson family.

“He jumped really well and my instructions were pretty clear – that I needed to make sure they didn’t get too far away from me,” the young hoop said.

“When we jumped, we jumped a length clear of them and I just wanted to stay with them.

“I gave him two smacks at the 600 metre mark – as per instructions – and for a little bit there he started drifting back and the race caller made that observation.

“As soon as he saw daylight around that corner, he just grew wings and he knew exactly what he was doing.

“I am pretty sure everybody in the crowd could hear me absolutely howling down the straight.

“I was instructed that he did not like the whip that much, so I just had to give him a couple to wake him up and scream. It worked out well.”

At 12 years of age, Fab’s Cowboy’s racing journey is set to come to an end in the middle of next year when mandatory retirement strikes when he turns 13.

There is no doubt in Nielson’s mind that the old champion still has the zest and vigour to race on, despite the rules stating that he will need to retire in the middle of 2024.

“The way that he enters the enclosure, he is just a professional and he knows what he is there to do,” the young jockey said.

“He looks absolutely fantastic, the Johnson family have him looking immaculate.”

The Johnson stable have been important to Nielson’s growth as a rider.

She struggles with her weight and recently took a break from race riding to get her weight under control and get in the right mind frame.

The Johnson stable handed the Mackay-based hoop her first victory back in the Moranbah Cup aboard Sole Heir earlier this month, a result she described as a ‘fairytale’.