J-Mac and the Reverend: how McDonald and Warner got each other through

Who am I?

I am a sportsperson at the top of my game. Maybe the best in the world, and in a sport as fickle as mine that is quite something.

I came from humble beginnings, but through a combination of hard work and natural ability I climbed to the top of the mountain, collecting victories and records and awards along the way.

James McDonald is in rare form.Credit:

Then, at the peak of my powers, I made a grave error of judgement. I broke the golden rule of my sport, and while many others have committed the same mistake, I was caught out, made an example of, and thrown out in the cold.

But there was a silver lining. I stopped. Paused. Breathed. Reset. I got back to the basics, back to my family. I got my body right. Got my head right. I also found out in a hurry who my friends are.

And then I came back with renewed vigour and purpose and became the best in my chosen sport again, better and happier than ever.

So, who am I?

I am James McDonald. And I am David Warner.

They are unlikely mates, in command of entirely different sports, but the paths of the crack jockey and gun opening batsman are beautifully entwined.

When McDonald was suspended from racing for 18 months for being party to a $1000 bet on a winning horse he was riding, one of the first people to reach out was Warner, who he knew because they were neighbours.

That was December 2016. As McDonald was preparing for his return to the saddle in May 2018, Warner was still coming to terms with his 12-month ban for his role in "Sandpaper-gate" from March earlier that year.

Back on top: David Warner.Credit:AP

"James was one of the first people to offer the same help and guidance that I offered him," Warner tells the Herald. "That's what mates do. You get to understand who your real friends are in those situations. I've fallen on that plenty of times in my career.

"Your mental health is paramount in those situations, especially the first couple of months after things get taken away from you. It's important from a male's perspective to talk. We hold things in and never speak out.

"It was quite ironic how it all happened. I got banned as he came back."

McDonald says he was simply returning the favour.

"When I got time, Dave was the first person texting me and making sure I was OK," he recalls. "Then he went through the same thing. He's a champion: he takes interest in other people and cares for them. It was a shame what he had to go through but he came through with flying colours, if not better. When you're as gifted as Dave Warner, you are always going to come out the other side."

'When I got time, Dave was the first person texting me and making sure I was OK.'

The same can be said of James McDonald, who has always been a special rider but is in rare form as the autumn carnival presses ahead in uncertain times because of the COVID-19 crisis — including the first day of The Championships, featuring the $1.5 million Doncaster Mile, on Saturday.

The grandstands might be empty, and you could swing a cat in the usually bustling mounting yard as trainer, jockey and handler observe strict social distancing protocols, but punters are erupting in their lounge rooms each Saturday as McDonald boots home winner after winner.

"It's not as much fun without the crowd obviously, but we know everyone is watching at home so it's still a buzz," McDonald, 28, says. "I'm getting legged up on beautiful horses and they give you an aura of excitement and confidence, even without the crowd there, just being on these animals."

That's typical self-effacement from the New Zealander, who leads the Sydney premiership from Nash Rawiller by eight-and-a-half winners, having amassed $9.8 million in prizemoney.

Last week, he notched four winners at Rosehill, including Verry Elleegant's Winx-like victory in the group one Tancred. A fortnight earlier, on Coolmore Classic Day, it was five winners.

On Saturday, he has a book of rides surely envied by the rest of the jockey room, including favourites Castelvecchio in the Australian Derby (2400m) and Nature Strip in the TJ Smith (1200m).

He will pilot leading trainer Chris Waller's Mister Sea Wolf ($13) in the Doncaster.

"Which is probably one of my worst rides if you could put it that way," McDonald says. "In saying that, if there's more rain, he's a great chance. I've got a massive soft spot for him. He's been a star for me in the past."

When McDonald was suspended, the all-powerful Godolphin stable tore up his lucrative contract.

James McDonald is in the form of his life.Credit:AAP

In his second coming, though, he's earned the trust of many trainers and owners, including Godolphin, once more. So much success as a freelance jockey speaks to just how well he is riding.

What also stands out is that he never runs away in interviews from talking about his 18-month layoff, during which time he went home to his uncle's dairy farm in New Zealand; spent time travelling and working with partner and retired jockey Katelyn Mallyon; as well as watching the 2017 Melbourne Cup from outside the fence at Flemington.

"The thing is, you can't hide it," he says of his suspension for the bet on Astern. "It's there for everyone to see so there's no point making excuses for yourself. You just cop it and move on.

"Ever since I've been back, things have gone better. I don't want to say it, but it helped me. It showed me you're not bigger than the game and there are no shortcuts. Racing will still carry on whether you are there or not. I had to learn that the hard way; that I'm not invincible. You just have to do the right thing and things will come your way."

Warner, who destroyed every bowler that came his way last summer before being named the Allan Border Medallist, knows what McDonald is talking about.

"One of the best things he did was go back home," Warner says. "It was like me: that break becomes a massive thing because it's so hard for you to normally take one. When you look at how he was riding, he was everywhere for Godolphin. With a jockey's regime, that time in the sauna, then up at 3am, then riding … It takes its toll.

"As athletes, we will never say we want three months off — and they won't give it to you anyway. But these misdemeanours can sometimes be worth their weight in gold.

"You get time to do the little things. Neither of us have a pre-season like other sports. Your natural riding ability, or cricket skills, they take care of themselves. But the strength and power areas of your game are a necessity. NRL players get a pre-season to work on them. When you're playing cricket or riding horses for the whole year, you don't get that.

"That was the beauty of having time off for me, because I don't get it too often. It was the same for James."

Warner doesn't know when he will play cricket again because of the coronavirus pandemic, but McDonald is more than happy to drive into the racecourse alone, have his temperature taken, sit in a quiet jockey room (one of several now positioned all over the track), say a few words to the trainer from a distance in the enclosure, win several headline races, and then return home and celebrate with Mallyon.

As he says: "It's still game on".

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