Jasen Watkins is set to return to the track earlier than expected.
Jasen Watkins is set to return to the track earlier than expected. Coffs Coast Advocate

Watkins is back in saddle

JASEN WATKINS has drawn a big red circle on the calendar around Monday, June 8.

It's the day the Coffs Harbour's premier jockey will make a long-awaited comeback to race riding and begin the quest for another victory in his home city's top race.

Watkins has saluted in two of the last three runnings of the Coffs Harbour VB Gold Cup and winning a third is firmly in sight.

“The TAB meeting at Ballina on Monday week is the target for the first ride back but I've still got a little fitness work to do to get my weight down,” he said.

“Just the same it should be fine to get the sit on a few of the heavier-weighted horses once I get back, just to get the name out there again and come under notice of the trainers.

“While I was out and able to eat normal and have a couple of extra beers, I got up to 65kg but the training goes up a notch from now and things will soon settle down.”

What looked like a harmless tumble from Ace Arena at Kempsey's Warwick Park racecourse on February 2 soon shaped up as something more troublesome.

Dislodged from the horse as the gates snapped back, Watkins' shoulder hit the ground awkwardly and while there was little initial pain, an overnight stay in hospital revealed the need for surgery.

“Originally, the doctor said to look at a six month break but I always thought once I could get my arm above the shoulder without pain, I could start working in my own way on getting back early,” the rider said.

“The target always was returning before the carnivals, somewhere around the start of June, and it's fantastic how everything's worked out.”

Knowing that a jockey's rigid lifestyle could wait until he was fit again, as soon as the surgery had been done, Watkins threw the surfboards onto the back seat of the car and took off seeking waves on the Far North Coast beaches.

“On the trip I managed to find a couple of out-of-the-way places that nobody knew about and spent the days enjoying the waves,” he said.

“But you can't keep doing that forever so as soon as the strength came back into my arm, it was back to riding track work, something I've been doing for the last month or so.”

He also spent time on the Northern Rivers, catching up with his father, former top rider Brian Watkins.

During the enforced break, several important changes to racing regulations were introduced - including the switch to padded whips - and Watkins took part in the workshops organised by stewards.

“Like anything, the new rules may take time to get used to, especially the number of times the whip can be used on a horse and I believe we'll get a little bit of leeway at first,” he said.

“I guess the hardest thing will be for the punters to adapt as they're used to seeing a few of the boys get stuck in with the whip and won't understand it's now hands and heels, bone and muscle that gets them home.

“Also interesting is how horses will react to the new rules as a few won't respond unless you get stuck in, so it may mean the end of a career for a few slow ones.

“In time it will sort itself out.”

Already, Watkins has been in touch with trainer Jim Jarvis at Cranbourne, making enquiries as to the progress of his 2006 Cup winner, Mr Gold Fire.

“Actually, Jim's one of the few blokes whose got my new mobile number so it shows I'm keen to get started again,” he laughed.

His 2008 Coffs Cup winner Belmonte is back on the track and likely to again venture north as travelling companion to trainer Bernie Howlett's latest staying sensation, Macknuckle.

And that's without looking at what other likely prospects bob up before the big race in Coffs is run on August 6.

“Gotta be in it to win it,” Watkins laughed happily.

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