IT is 13 years since Johnny Cairns sat on a racehorse. Every day his heart aches to climb back on but his head won’t allow him. Nor will the doctors after the record-breaking jockey from Mackay had a fall – not from a horse mind you – and landed head first on concrete.
That ended Johnny Cairns career as a jockey and the irony is that today as he drives trucks around Mackay he weighs only 56kg.
For 10 years he battled, starved and spent hours and hours in saunas and steam baths in a never-ending torturous struggle to fulfil riding commitments.
He says it really sickened him in the end.
“Now I eat like an elephant and can’t put any weight on”.
John Cairns’ life has been a roller coaster of contrasts. Of brilliant bright sunshine and deep, dark shadows.
No one ever doubted his ability to ride.
From the first day in 1976 to the end, he had the respect and admiration of all trainers and rival jockeys for his uncanny
judgment and unique style.
Horses simply ran for him and he knew exactly where the winning post was. When he was on song, that is, before the demons circled.
Johnny Cairns hails from family that is steeped in history and horses.
His great-grandfather Jim, originally from Clermont, was a saddler for the famous Light Horse Brigade before the turn of the 20th century. He saw action in Gallipoli and was hailed as the complete horseman. John’s father – also Jim – was Mackay’s saddler of great repute for many years and also trained a horse or two at Ooralea.
A horse named Street Dancer – brother to the champion Blockbuster – trained by Jim gave young John, then 16, his first Ooralea winner in January 1977. It was the first of
many. No one knows for sure – but John reckons “well over 1300”.
His indentures were transferred to trainer Colin Cox at the end of 1977 so he could have a better chance in a bigger stable. He snatched the opportunity and they became a formidable duo. They ruled racing in the late ’70s, the boom years.
Cox was leading trainer at Mackay at the time with a strong
stable, mainly ex-Victorian horses that were selected for him by his great mate Ron Maund.
“I remember one day I walked into the stable and there were 12 horses lined up – six on each side; they were all last start winners; it was incredible,” recalled the jockey Johnny Cairns who rode them all.
There were many stars in a stable that was renowned for betting coups.
John recalls one ferocious punter.
“It was nothing for him to give $2000 slings to the jockey, trainer and strapper when he had a big win – and
they were fairly often,” Cairns said as he remembered the highs and admitted to the many lows in his short but quite spectacular career.
He says the biggest mistake was leaving Mackay for the big smoke in early ’80s. His wife, at the time, was anxious to further her career in fashion and John went to Brisbane with her and for a while joined the Bruce McLachlan stable.
City life presented temptations that the Mackay kid was not prepared for, nor could cope with. He gave riding away after a serious shoulder injury.
It was then a life of “comebacks".
One day he was riding the crest of high winning waves then suddenly he was at rock bottom.
He blamed the mental pressure, injuries and ‘wasting’ to lose weight.
“I would get to a stage that I just hated going to the races. ”
But he had many memorable wins and reckons the win on the John and George Moore-owned Cautious Spirit in the
Townsville Amateur Cup ranks as his best.
“Midnight Flute was a champion sprinter and Whomsoever was pretty handy too,” said the jockey who outgunned the senior riders to win the Mackay and North Queensland premierships as a baby-faced apprentice and was freely hailed as the best jockey out of Mackay since the immortal George Moore.
Today John Cairns, after years of toil in the mines, is back home. He drives a truck and is carer for his dad, who at 76 does not enjoy the best health.
“Of course, but I don’t dwell on what might or could have
been. Life goes on and most of all, I am enjoying it.”