WA horse racing’s man of the moment, jockey Shaun O’Donnell, is high on life.
But it was a more sinister drug of choice, methamphetamines, that once pushed him down to the point of purgatory.
As the gun hoop prepares today to guide his “old mate” Luckygray to a fourth Group 1 win when he starts a clear favourite in the $500,000 Tabtouch Kingston Town Classic (1800m) at Ascot, he has also detailed his grim fight with drug addiction that once all but ruined his life.
His turnaround is an inspirational tale that he hopes others will heed when they sit on the verge of bad choices.
“I could be in the gutter still, that’s where I was heading,” a candid O’Donnell told The Weekend West.
“It got that bad I was going to have no family. Mum and dad were going to disown me, I was all alone and it was my own fault.
“I don’t know why I got depressed at the time, but like a lot of people do, they go out and ‘the drugs help ya’.
“I remember sitting there one day, (wife) Alex and I having a big chat about it all. She said: ‘We’re going, that’s it’. I felt something just literally snap in my brain. Bang, that was it. Cold turkey, no more.”
That was the end to a daily drug habit that spiralled out of control in a period of the established turf star’s life when his close friend Jason Oliver was killed in a 2002 riding fall and he was banned for a positive sample after a drug test on Kalgoorlie Cup day in 2001.
The nine-month penalty kicked in on the day his third child was born, with Alex lying in hospital oblivious to the depth of her husband’s problems.
“I sat in the car park for about two hours, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” O’Donnell recalled about trying to build up the courage to tell his wife of their plight.
“I had no money and pawned my wedding ring. I just pawned a lot of things. My kids’ PlayStation … I thought ‘they don’t need it, do they’. Of course they did, and I took it for myself.
“I hated myself and I always used to listen to a song Robbie Williams sung, I want to be a better man. But I couldn’t snap out of it.
“I reckon I got big-headed after all that success early. I wasn’t going to the track and obviously you start losing rides and then you start hating everyone because they’re not putting you on. We moved away to Kal and I got worse and worse.
“Then I was introduced to it (drugs) and I thought I’d try it. It made me feel good, like it does, and it just got more often and often.”
Pivotal, then, to O’Donnell’s rehabilitation was the confronting message from Alex, a former jockey, that she and their three children were leaving home.
She had suspected he was still visiting his drug supplier and had had enough. He stormed out of the house and over the back fence to an adjoining park where a night of deep thought finally forced him to restructure his life’s priorities for the better.
“I bolted like a horse over the fence because I could,” O’Donnell said.
“I sat in the park all night just thinking. It was freezing cold, but I just thought, ‘I can’t go home until I’m ready’. It wasn’t good, we had three children and she’s home looking after them while I’m out playing up and not with it.
“She’s a strong girl, very tough and you’ve got to have that behind you. She’s been in racing and rode in races so she knows exactly what happens. She’s been a great mother and a great wife. She could have bolted, but I think she threw it at me to say: ‘This is your last chance’.”
O’Donnell used his suspension to reconnect with life’s basics, working in a car yard owned by his father-in-law and at a Jandakot bottling plant for $300 a week. He called it his “healing process”.
Having turned 43 in October, he now sees no imminent end to his riding career. He is not embarrassed by the sordid parts of his past and even this week spoke to WA Racing’s apprentices’ school, offering his open door to any young rider feeling the strain.
“It sounds strange, but I love it because it made me who I am today,” O’Donnell said of his drugs ordeal.
“Not being big-headed or anything, but I can ride and I’ve got a talent. I love people loving me and I love to know that people respect me like I respect them. I’ve earned a lot of respect being back.
“I love life and I love riding. I just love waking up every day and coming home from the races. I feel great, I’m fit and healthy and I’m still getting the rides … the phone still rings.
“But if you’re feeling emotionally down, you need to talk to someone, your family or even if they want to come to me – it’s not a problem. I’ve always said I’m willing to tell my story if they need help and to give them guidance. Now it’s good because we’ve got people you can go and talk to through the jockeys’ association.”
O’Donnell’s son Shaun Jr, who turned 17 on Thursday, is now apprenticed to Bunbury trainer and former jockey Raquel Mills and is likely to start riding in trials early next year.
The move has turned back the clock to memories of his own start in the industry, which put an end to his dreams of becoming an elite footballer.
Staying on a runaway horse through the beach dunes of Kalbarri on his first ride during a family holiday exposed a raw talent too natural to ignore.
A horse named Aegean Gold later gave O’Donnell an early snapshot of the racing industry rollercoaster. The mare delivered him his first victory when they combined to win a Moora maiden in 1987, but the next time he rode her at Pinjarra, they fell. She never raced again and he was left with plenty of pain and sadness.
“It was pretty average, but I got up and went back to work a couple of weeks later,” he said.
“You never forget your first winner and I don’t think I rode a winner for another 50 rides. It’s a great leveller, this racing.”
O’Donnell admitted to feeling plenty of redemption in his latest Railway Stakes triumph a fortnight ago aboard Luckygray, not only to silence the doubters after the pair won the 2011 edition via a protest, but also because injury to Kasabian on the eve of the 2009 race robbed the favourite of the chance to run.
Luckygray’s giant-killing run has not only helped put O’Donnell’s life back on track, it also allowed him to reward Alex for her patience with their dream Bullsbrook property.
They named their ranch after former galloper He’s Hercules, who O’Donnell rode to victory three times in 1994, before his wife had success with the gelding in eventing. The horse’s boxed ashes are the centrepiece of a shrine in their lounge room.
“Unfortunately, he had a paddock accident and passed away so we got him cremated and he’s living in this box right here with us in our home,” O’Donnell said.
“We couldn’t bear to part with him, there’s a special place for him in our heart. I knew him as a yearling, rode him as a two and three-year-old and won races on him. He was with us for 15 years and all the kids could jump on his back and stand on him. He was just one of those horses that didn’t care, he just loved people.
“Our place is named in honour of him … but it’s sponsored by Luckygray.”
O’Donnell’s mate and fellow jockey, Lucas Camilleri, rode Luckygray to victory in his first three race starts. But when Camilleri moved to Melbourne, O’Donnell got the call and responded with wins in his first four rides on the gelding, culminating in the 2011 Railway Stakes. There were three more consecutive Group 3 wins in his next campaign and a Kingston Town Classic victory sandwiched between two failed Melbourne stints.
But his “freak” of a run to win his second Railway a fortnight ago sealed a relationship for life between horse and rider.
“No one can take that away from me, it’s like we’re in this bubble, me and him. It doesn’t matter who else is around, we’ve done it,” O’Donnell said.
“It’s hard for someone like you, or people who don’t ride in races or who have never won a Group 1. This kind of feeling just comes from in you and they just take you to this place.
“It’s just wonderful and to be on one of your best horses you’ve ever ridden … he’s a mate of mine, I relate to him.
“When he’s on song, this bloke, which he nearly always is, he’s just a powerhouse. He’s always in rhythm, he just wants to win.
“He means a lot to me and a lot to the family. As a sportsman, you just want to be at the top of your game and when you’ve got a horse that can be at the top of his game at Group 1 level wherever you race, it’s just a fantastic bond.
“A lot of people go through their career without reaching these heights. It’s an honour.”
O’Donnell described the hand-sign “L” fans were now making with their thumb and forefinger as he returned to scale victorious as “that something special the horse deserves”.
So life is now good on the Bullsbrook property which has become something of a menagerie with former galloper and now eventing horse Alsarosh, a chihuahua called Stuart, towering great danes Emily and Lucy and a pair of cats known as Connie and Chairman Meow.
“It’s like ‘Shaun O’Donnell had a farm – E-I-E-I-O’,” he laughs.
The West Australian
STEVE BUTLER The West AustralianDecember 7, 2013, 2:50 am