Our Sporting Stars is the Daily Liberal’s monthly set of feature articles showcasing some of the most outstanding local sporting exports.
In the third edition, we speak to champion jockey and former Dunedoo boy Hugh Bowman.
Our Sporting Stars: Soccer stars Ashleigh Sykes and Grace Maher
Our Sporting Stars: Rugby league legend Dean Pay
Sitting tall and straight-backed in the saddle, a small grin on his face and a hand raised in the trademark she’s apple salute after riding another winner.
That’s the picture most people think of when the name Hugh Bowman is mentioned.
Since his days growing up around horses on the farm at Dunedoo, Bowman has gone on to become one of the standout jockeys in Australia and his name has been up in lights the world over for the best part of two years due to his exploits on the champion that is Winx.
And while he exudes a relaxed attitude, there is a determination to succeed and the man himself states success comes down to taking a leap and taking opportunities when they are presented.
“Despite being very laid back I'm a very competitive individual so to me you're either winning or losing,” Bowman said.
“There's no glory in coming second.”
Bowman, now 36, showed that kind of determination at a young age.
A jockey always big in stature, Bowman got his start when he would ride on the picnic circuit around his home region during school holidays.
He was attending boarding school in Sydney but unlike many of his classmates who pursued academics the boy from Dunedoo longed to be elsewhere.
“It was a big decision at the time as I was 16 so I could finish school or follow my dream and my mum and dad wanted me to stay at school but if I left it much later the chance to ride would pass me by,” Bowman said.
He got his way and in time a teenage Bowman scored his first gig as an apprentice to Leanne Aspros at Bathurst.
Aspros didn’t throw him in the saddle immediately and Bowman said the three or four months he had to wait to compete in a race felt like an eternity.
But after getting his first victory in 1999 the winners began to roll in.
“I always wanted to get to the top,” he said.
“I wanted to be the best I could be. When I was in the country my plan was to go to the city but I was only 18 or 19 so my focus was on finishing my apprenticeship.
“I wanted to be the leading apprentice in the district and then I wanted to win the apprentice championship in Sydney and then win a Group 1. They were my three goals.”
It didn’t take long for Bowman to make his way to Sydney and then he achieved his next goal when being crowned the standout apprentice in the city.
It took Bowman until he was 23 to achieve all three goals, with Defier giving him his first Group 1 with victory in the Doomben Cup.
Since then Bowman has gone from strength to strength and the mark of his quality is exemplified by the fact he has rode at least one Group 1 winner every season since Defier’s one-and-one-third of a length victory in the Queensland feature 13 years ago.
Despite all that success Bowman said he still wants to learn and still wants to improve, something needed in a sport which can change so quickly.
And while he has gone a long way since his days riding around dusty picnic tracks, country racing still remains something special to Bowman.
“It’s very real,” he said.
“It’s more of a hobby than a business compared to the metro side of things and people do it ultimately because they want to.
“There’s a lot of pressure, expectation and overhead in the city while in the country side people do it for the love of the horse and there’s more heart.”
Bowman’s affinity with his hometown and the western area was on show recently when he returned to Dunedoo following the horrific fires which ravaged the region.
The Dunedoo area was one of the worst hit during what many called the worst bushfire conditions in the state’s history.
As well as returning home, Bowman also wrote a number of pieces for the media on the fact his thoughts were on his hometown, where his own father was fighting the fires.
“I went home, I was suspended at the time, and I looked around and it was quite confronting, to be honest,” he said.
“I guess people were just at the stage where shock was just starting to settle and the reality was hitting.
“But it wasn’t until I saw it that I got a reality of the devastation.”
For all that he has done, his home and the place he started his journey to the top is never far from Bowman’s mind.
His parents, Jim and Mandy, are genuine horse people.
Jim was who Hugh rode for when he was going around the picnic circuit and both still have connections to racing and own shares in a number of gallopers.
“My parents have been an absolute backbone of support through thick and thin,” Bowman said, knowing hard times himself.
As well as lean spells in the saddle when wins have been hard to come by, Bowman has had to deal with suspensions, like most jockeys, for incidents in the saddle and out of it.
The most notable of those was a ban for cocaine use when he was just 21 and at a key point in his career.
“That’s in my whole life, not just racing,” Bowman continued when speaking of his parents’ support.
“I’ve been blessed by their constant support and it gives you great security when you’ve got that support and I’m truly in debt to them and their constant being there.”
There is also his wife Christine and he has two young daughters as well and that “different path” away from racing has given him great joy.
There is of course another woman in Bowman’s life as well. A fairly well-known horse by the name of Winx.
Bowman has been in the saddle for all but two of Winx’s 16 consecutive wins.
He has ridden the past 13 straight victories, and seen first hand the way Chris Waller’s champion mare has defeated some of the country’s other best gallopers with ease.
Bowman and Waller were also in attendance at London last year when she was named the greatest turf galloper in the world and the second best horse overall.
She has truly become the darling of Australian racing and is someone Bowman feels is on par with many of the world’s great sporting icons.
“She's just a supreme athlete,” he said.
“Anyone who has an interest in sport gets the most appreciation from watching supreme athletes.
“From Ian Thorpe swimming, to Usain Bolt running or Roger Federer playing tennis, when it comes to those crunch moment they get it done and they make it look comfortable and that is the difference between the best of the best and the real champions.”
When Bowman first came across Winx he knew she was talented but never had any idea she would go on to reach the lofty heights she has.
Cox Plates, Doncasters and the Apollo Stakes, Winx has won them all and captured the hearts of racing fans all over.
Her greatness shows no sign of coming to an end any time soon and being part of a journey like this is the kind of thing Bowman had dreamed of.
“Obviously you grow up and want to win a Melbourne Cup, I still do, but the difference is I can't ride the light weight horses so that eliminates half the field in the Caulfield Cup, Melbourne Cup and Doncaster (Mile), so the opportunities are limited,” he said.
“But as I got more experienced what I started to want has been to ride a champion, more than I've wanted to win any race and it’s ironic when I started to think that she came along.
“No race, Melbourne Cup included, would be better than being part of her career.
“It's a real highlight and I'll be very surprised if I ever come across another like her.”
While enjoying every moment, there is responsibility and pressure when in the saddle of a horse like Winx.
Bowman added the journey with Winx is made even the more special due to the fact he is now old enough and has been around the scene long enough to appreciate just how special it is.
The journey to the top and arguably becoming the most recognisable jockey in the world at the moment has taken the best part of three decades.
It’s taken him from the country racing scene, all around Australia and overseas with Bowman having ridden in the likes of England, Ireland, Japan and Hong Kong.
It was the trip to the United Kingdom in particular which had a profound affect on Bowman’s career.
It came about in 2004 when he and his then girlfriend Christine, herself from Ireland, made the trip to the UK.
Prior to that he had been riding for legendary trainer Gai Waterhouse, but she was going through a rebuilding phase at the time and the racing scene was being dominated by the trainer-rider combination of John Hawkes and Darren Beadman.
“It was a real turning point in my career, to take that opportunity to go to the UK and ride," Bowman said.
"I was a long way from being at the top here so it was the right time."
Riding for the likes of Mick Channon, Bowman spent the bulk of the English summer in the saddle before returning home, determined and more experienced.
“I had the opportunity to go back but was happy at home so made the move to Melbourne and rode in the spring carnival and my opportunities were pretty thin but I rode two or three winners in Cup week,” he said, of what happened after his time in Europe.
“I went back in 2006 and rode Samantha Miss in the Oaks and I'd been there before so I felt confident then, more than I did prior to that.
“And then the next two years I won the (Victoria) Derby.
“I was feeling comfortable but there was never a moment where I said 'I've made it'.
“I felt comfortable but there was never any moment or day I got up and felt I had made it when I hadn't the day before.”
That feeling drove Bowman to want to achieve more and more. Determination is something needed in his line of work as something who becomes complacent can lose a race in the blink of an eye.
“There’s so many variables. No race is the same,” he said.
“So you've got to be focused on the situation and with maturity you learn to switch on and off when you need to but it has been pleasing to ride the calibre of horses I have got to ride.”
From some of the greatest horses Australia and the world has seen, to taking part in all of this country’s major races it is clear Bowman’s attitude has served him well.
And when speaking about what it takes to get to the top, Bowman speaks in that genuine and thoughtful manner that has been as much of a trademark as his “she’s apples” salute.
“I think ultimately you have got to have the drive yourself, whether you are a jockey or whatever field you are in,” he said,
“Have a dream and don’t be afraid to follow it because ultimately the dream is not about the pot of gold at the end, it’s about the journey.
“If you love it then you will do really well because you’ll give it everything and put in the hard work.
“Society tends to take shortcuts but there is no substitute for hard work.”
And Hugh Bowman is living proof of that.