Where are they now: Mark Sweeney
Two-time winner of the prestigious Auckland Cup and a jockey for more than 25 years, we caught up with Mark Sweeney to see what he’s been up to since hanging up his riding boots …
What are you doing now?
I am in the construction industry working as a Human Resources and Safety manager for a medium-sized company in Te Awamutu. Around 60% of the work we do is for rural purposes, 20% is residential and the remaining 20% is commercial. We’ve got a crew of around 20 guys at the moment and are currently in the process of expanding.
I didn’t have a lot of training outside of racing so many of the skills I use in my role today are self-taught. I had some downtime as a jock following a few nasty falls and used that time on the sidelines to upskill myself. You’ve got to make the most of life’s opportunities like that.
I’ve been in my role for two years and am very grateful for my position. Funnily enough, the two directors of the company both have shares in racehorses!
What teachings from your time as a jockey have you taken forward into this next chapter?
People skills. You deal with a lot of owners and trainers as a jockey. We didn’t have jockey agents when I started riding and you’d have to ring up and sell yourself for rides. Having good people skills and being a strong communicator is a big part of my job today.
Racing also takes real discipline - early starts, watching your weight - it all takes commitment. The discipline racing taught me has definitely made me one of the more organised guys at my work.
Is there one moment in your career that stands out as being the pinnacle?
I struggle to narrow it down to just one but my second Auckland Cup win on Prize Lady was very special. The win came after a bad accident, which put me out for two and a quarter years. I broke my leg and neck and the injuries I sustained would have ended a lot of careers but from the moment it happened, I was determined to get back to the track.
There was a lot of hard work that came with getting back. I was attending rehab sessions and at times the recovery was very frustrating. The fact that the horse was trained by Grae (Graeme) and Mark Sanders made the win all the more special. Debbie was pregnant at the time with our second child, Connor. It was a great moment for the family and I really felt like I had achieved against the odds.
Are there any aspects of being a jockey that you miss?
I don’t miss being a jockey but I definitely miss the people and horses.
Debbie still drags me down to the stables from time to time and I can’t help but have a cuddle and give the horses a pat. The love of the horse never leaves you.
I have only gone to the races once since my retirement but I catch up with a few of the boys - Opie and the likes - and other people in the industry still.
I can’t say I’ll never get back into racing - it never really leaves your blood. While I don’t attend the races, I still enjoy watching them on tele but after 25 years, I’d had enough. At the time of my retirement, my children were starting to play Saturday sports and I didn’t want to miss out on those moments.
Can you break down your nickname, ‘Boots’?
It’s a funny story. When I was young we lived on a farm up north, about half an hour south of Kaitaia. We ordered a pack of drench for the farm and received a free pair of red band gumboots with it. The boots I received were a size 8 and I'm only a size 4 so they were a tad large! I wore them to my first day of work at Colin Jillings and when I arrived he said ‘Jesus, those aren’t your boots. They’re the box they arrived in!’ From that day on I was known as ‘boots’ or ‘bootsie’.
For my 21st birthday, my parents got me a number plate with Boots1 on it.
What advice would you give to someone looking to become a jockey?
The first thing ‘Jillo’ (Colin Jillings) said to me when I arrived at his stable was that, to be involved in racing, you’ve got to love horses. As a child, I had no experience with horses but I quickly fell in love with them and was hooked from there on out. I also believe that if you treat a horse kind, it will treat you kind.
Jillo also used to tell me ‘the only time success comes before work is in the dictionary’. Most days I think about what was instilled into me during my apprenticeship. Racing taught me a lot and it has helped get me where I am today.