There are not many senior jockeys anywhere in Australia in this day and age who can ride at 51 kg without having to waste to reach the weight. When you can also offer 40 years of riding experience and more than 8000 rides, you become a valuable asset at metropolitan and country meetings.
David “Tiger” Tootell ticks all those boxes and continues to ride winners right across the state. The 55-year-old veteran doesn’t get as many metropolitan rides as he did in his heyday but his commitment to present at the provincials and far off courses in the north, the West Coast and the South-East are a tribute to his professionalism.
Tootell’s career has been a remarkable one – involving legendary stables, champion gallopers, Group 1 successes and a few missed opportunities as well. He was apprenticed to Bart Cummings in 1976 and later transferred to Colin Hayes at Lindsay Park. He had the distinction of winning at his first ride in a race, when he piloted Berengere to win at Victoria Park.
“Five days before my first race, I hadn’t even had a trial ride,” he recalls. “The rule was that I had to have 10 trials rides before I was allowed to ride in a race so I had my 10 rides in the week leading up to it. I loved Victoria Park, I just knew how to ride that course but, in the case of Berengere, I just had to sit on it to win.”
It was an auspicious way to start, riding such a quality galloper on debut, but it was nothing compared the horses he would later ride. Tootell went on to win three races on champion galloper Rubiton, another three on prolific winner Durbridge and he was also aboard AJC Derby winner Prolific when he won his first two races. All outstanding gallopers but he also rode a horse that would go on to become an Australian racing legend back in the 1980s.
“What most people don’t know is that I rode Vo Rogue at his first start in Victoria and ran second on him,” Tootell recalls. “I went out with his usual good lead and they caught him on the bend but he fought back hard and it took the very good galloper Raveneux to beat him. I was on Rubiton against him next start and Vo Rogue ran last so I assumed the second was just a fluke. I had a chance to ride him again but passed, not knowing at the time that he was hopeless on a wet track and an out and out champion on a dry surface, so I missed my opportunity. But I’ve been on some good ones. We know how good Rubiton was and Prolific would have been a superstar but he was injury prone and had a bad back.
“I was on Durbridge when he raced in Queensland and in Melbourne but I got suspended one day and they replaced me and I couldn’t get back on him. I won on Rubiton at Morphettville, Sandown and Moonee Valley but the next prep I got beaten on him in the William Reid and then at Sandown and they took me off. The rest is history.”
Tootell may wonder what might have been with Vo Rogue and what almost was when he rode the other champions but he has had his share of big race success in a remarkable career – including two Group 1 wins and 114 Black Type events. He had the ride on the outsider of Hayes’ four runners, Casey Belle, in the South Australian Oaks in 1983 but defied the odds to win and repeated the effort four years later when he piloted Marmalitre to victory. Tootell says many of his biggest wins have come on chance rides and outsiders but he’s seized the opportunities as they’ve come along.
“One of my biggest drawbacks, I think, has been my honesty,” he says. “It’s cost me a lot of rides. If a horse is slow, I will tell the connections and sometimes they don’t like that. I’m not as brutal as I used to be, I’ve tried to tone it down.
“I think in many ways it’s been a wasted career. I’ve had a lot of success at different times but I never pushed myself. I’m not one who can play the game; I just do my job and go home.”
For someone who thinks they could have done better, Tootell has done okay. He rode for two of Australia’s all-time great stables as an apprentice and then was a regular rider for Joe Lockyer and Pat Barns.
In addition to the two Group 1 wins, he claimed a string of features including four Port Adelaide Cups, four Balaklava Cups, two Broken Hill Cups and seven Wylie Handicaps.
These days, Tootell rides trackwork at Gawler for trainer Gary Searle and picks up rides where he can across the state. No doubt, age is playing against him – not in his ability or his fitness but in the false belief that a young rider might offer more than a man of his experience.
“This has been my life, I just have to ride,” he says. “I thought about giving it up this year but then I got rejuvenated and I hope to ride for at least another five years. There are older jockeys interstate and they ride successfully, Jeff Lloyd in Queensland is the same age as me and Thompson in New South Wales is older than me. There are older riders than me going around and making a living.”
The one thing that remains certain is that any trainer who puts Tootell on their horse, whether he’s 55 or 60 in a few years’ time, will benefit from skills developed in one of the great riding careers.