Top jockey Vinnie Colgan is feeling frustrated counting down the weeks until his return to raceday competition, but that’s a far cry from his outlook on his riding future earlier this year.
A couple of months after his last raceday ride at Tauranga last March, Colgan underwent an operation on an old neck injury he suffered in a race fall 10 years ago and he is delighted with the result, which has seen him back regularly riding trackwork and at the trials for his former boss, Roger James, and Cambridge training partner, Robert Wellwood.
But turn the clock back six months or more and Colgan was struggling with the pain so much he was seriously considering retiring. The 45-year-old has won 1160 New Zealand races, including 121 black type events, and has become the Group 1 New Zealand Derby (2400m) king with six wins in the Ellerslie classic.
“I had a fall 10 years ago and smashed four vertebrae (C3, C4, C5 and C6) and that’s where it’s all come from,” Colgan said. “The pain got so bad I was thinking ‘I’m not going to ride anymore.’ For about 18 months I was living on Panadol to keep going. I’d take two before every ride just to help with the pain. “My riding wasn’t bad, but the pain was affecting it by restricting me looking forward. “I was alright getting on the horse, but when I got into the usual jockey’s position and pulled my neck up the nerves in the back of my neck caused so much pain.”
Colgan tried various forms of treatment with no success. “I went to different masseuses and chiropractors and I tried everything, but I’d only get 48-hour relief,” he said. “In the end I went to my GP and asked to get a cortisone injection and that’s when I was sent for x-rays and on to my specialist Dr Deverall.
“I had a CT scan and other tests and they found one vertebrae was touching another and the nerves in between were being completely squeezed. “That was about a year ago, but as the season was running I couldn’t afford to take time off coming into the big races. Then Two Illicit came along and I wanted to keep riding her so I had to try and put up with it.”
Colgan then had a further hold-up with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Alert Level 4 lockdown period before he could eventually get the much-needed surgery. “I finally got the operation on May 31,” Colgan said. “It was about four to five hours and they fused C3 and C4 with bone grafts between each one. “The operation has been so successful. The level of my pain has gone from 10 to zero.”
Colgan began riding trackwork eight weeks ago and has ridden at a few sets of trials, including climbing aboard Two Illicit at the Taupo trials last month. Colgan became Two Illicit’s regular rider last season when Donavan Mansour was seriously injured after riding her in her first two starts, for a third and a win. Colgan won first-up on Two Illicit in the Listed Trevor Eagle Memorial (1500m) then, after an unlucky second to subsequent New Zealand Filly of the Year Jennifer Eccles in the Group 2 Eight Carat Classic (1600m), the combination was unbeatable in the Group 2 Royal Stakes (2000m) and Group 2 Waikato Guineas (2000m) before ending with a second to Sherwood Forest in the Group 1 New Zealand Derby (2400m).
Colgan’s deep admiration for Two Illicit had him with high hopes of getting a doctor’s clearance to ride her when she resumed at Ellerslie earlier this month and he was shocked to be knocked back. “I was feeling so good I expected to walk in and be told I can ride,” he said. “But the x-rays showed it needs a bit more time so I have to go back to Dr Deverall on October 15. Hopefully I’ll be back riding by November. “I was gutted when I was told. I so wanted to ride Two Illicit at Ellerslie. “I have been riding her in work every day. She’s amazing and I can’t wait to get back on her on raceday. I’ve never felt better.”
Leith Innes picked up the mount on Two Illicit at Ellerslie and, super impressed by her winning performance, he has been confirmed to ride her in the Group 1 Windsor Park Plate (1600m) at Hastings on October 3, but there’s an anxious wait to see if she gets into the field. “She’s on the fringe and needs a bit of luck to get in,” James said. “We do have a Plan B, to go to Te Rapa the day before, but we’re really after the Group 1. “She’s really well and she deserves a crack at Hastings.
“I’ve made no secret how highly I rated her and she’s never been out of the first three. She’s only had the eight starts for five wins, two seconds and a third and she’s raced in the top three-year-old company.”
James is keen to see Colgan, his former top apprentice, back in action on raceday. “He’s been riding a minimum of six horses a morning in work for us and he’s so keen to get back riding raceday,” James said. “He was so gutted he couldn’t get the clearance to ride Two Illicit at Ellerslie.”