Back from the brink
BACK home in Taranaki, where the rest of his heart and the children he has vowed to make proud of their father reside, Michael Walker was once told his life had been so full it was worthy of three books. And that was before he went to heaven and back.
Walker is sure the netherworld he visited two years ago, during a freezing night spent slipping in and out of consciousness after falling 70 metres down a forest ravine, wasn't hell. He's been there, too, and knows which place he wants to call home.
This week has sent a heartbreaking reminder of how fragile a jockey's world can be. Sometimes, piloting a 500-kilogram thoroughbred through an invisible gap at 60km/h is the easy part. For some, it's only after correct weight has been called that the biggest, darkest threats start nipping at their heels.
Walker was 20 when he first moved to Melbourne in 2004, fresh out of a storied apprenticeship in which he broke records with a child's abandon. Granted dispensation to start riding early, his 131 wins in 1999-2000 earned him New Zealand's jockeys' premiership in his first season. He was just 15. Soon after, he was aboard winners in Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
Suddenly, a kid from ''a poor but very grateful upbringing'' found himself living in a fantasy world. ''I was a 15-year-old nobody and then, it felt like overnight, I was a movie star. Simple as that. [But] I was young and dumb. I was somebody, and I couldn't handle it.'' His dream was to conquer racing's holy grail, and he crossed the Tasman with raps to rival the legion of great New Zealand jockeys who had gone before him. Immediately, he booted home a 30-1 Warrnambool Cup winner, adding the Brisbane Cup to his kitty soon after. The buzz around him grew to a deafening din. ''I came here and got mixed up with the wrong crowd,'' Walker says. ''Things happened …''
A work ethic he'd been religious about since he started riding aged 11 dropped off. He yearned to be left alone to do his job, and found himself wishing he wasn't who he was. ''But everyone was at me, and my head got bigger and bigger.''
The picture became clearer when he returned home within a year, his flame extinguished. In a TVNZ interview, Walker said his months in Melbourne had been marked by cocaine and alcohol abuse, and heavy gambling. He claimed to have first taken drugs when he was 11, said he'd been addicted when he started his apprenticeship, stopped completely, then ran off the rails after moving to Australia. Racing Victoria's response was swift, hauling him back to explain how he had escaped detection despite regular drug-testing. In today's sober light, he understands their fury, but says the wrong conclusions were drawn. ''I came over and had a meeting with the RVL and [chief steward] Des Gleeson, just to reassure them and make it a fact that I didn't ride on it,'' Walker says of the cocaine. ''It was only when I was going out, but I never turned up to a race day under the influence of drugs.''
Yet he knows it was impacting on his life. ''Anyone who does drugs, it affects you - sometimes in a small way, sometimes in a big way.''
He was carrying greater demons in his saddle bag, which surfaced after a drunken car crash in which he thanks God he hurt only himself. People started telling him he needed help, ''but I was too pig-headed, too ignorant'' to listen. Drained and lost after several breakdowns, he finally sought relief and was diagnosed with severe depression. ''It was a lonely, lonely place,'' he says, recalling the comedown from that blind belief in his own invincibility. ''I just thought, 'I'm Michael Walker, I'll be sweet, I'll be fine'.''
Even with treatment the anger wouldn't subside. His father was 14 when he was born, his mother just 15; Walker treasures his Nan for bringing him up, but has railed against other aspects of his childhood. He told TVNZ the drink and drugs had been an outlet from a home life in which his stepfather beat him regularly. His redemption began on May 19, 2008. Out hunting with his then-partner's brother and another racing mate, he ran to save one of his pups from being mauled by a pig, and tried to leap a two-metre gap in the rocks. ''It wasn't until I was in the air that I realised I had a pig on my back,'' Walker says. ''I slipped 70 metres from a cliff.''
He remembers waking and vomiting as they tried to piggy-back him out of the bush, but nothing of the hours that followed. Wearing only shorts and singlet, and bleeding from multiple parts of his brain, doctors have since told him the cold of that long night might have saved his life.
Helicopter-lifted to hospital the next morning, he spent three days on life support. Death's retreat was followed by a prognosis of near-certain brain damage. ''They said to Candace [Smith, the mother of his children], he won't be the same person, he won't know you or anyone'. Every professional I've spoken to since has said I should be dead.''
Perversely, he found something in the endless tedium of rehabilitation that he'd craved for close to a decade: peace. ''All those months, it was just me in a room on a bed, getting up for breakfast, lunch, dinner, doing my speech language therapy, physical therapy. I had time out.''
He saluted with his second ride back, yet knows now that he came back too soon. Still, the doctors were right on one count - he is a different person, with a new sense of purpose.
''It's given me the chance to do something with my life. God's told me, 'There's more for you to achieve, go out there and make your kids proud'. I might have been lost to the world, and there would have been bad memories people would have given them about me. Now I've got the chance to right myself.''
Separation is his new pain. Having craved the familial stability he missed out on, he left Candace 18 months ago, still struggling with his head injury, with learning how to be the father he never had. ''I just couldn't cope.''
Now, he sees every horse he sits on as a chance to make his children's life better. ''I feel like I'm letting them down already by being here, by not being with their mother because I never had that,'' Walker says. ''It's hard mate, it's f---ing hard being here in Melbourne away from my kids. I can't drop my guard here.''
He knows, too, that every ride must be for him as much as it is for them. And he knows he can do it without the crutch of drugs, that his greatest asset is the maturity to make his own decisions. ''You put your mind to it, you can do anything.''
Walker shared his brethren's devastation this week at the news of Stathi Katsidis's passing. The two bonded when he rode in the Brisbane carnival, and Walker says he looked up to him as a jockey and a man. Katsidis had spoken of his trials with the sort of temptation Walker knows well, but he says it is not his place to comment on whether the tragedy resonated even more as a result. ''To lose Stathi - not Stathi Katsidis the jockey - to lose Stathi is a tragedy. In that jockeys' room we're all like brothers. All I can say from me and all the boys is we send our love and our heart to Stathi's family, and his partner Melissa's family. My heart, my prayers and my wishes go out to them.''
Walker says looking in the past can give you a sore neck, and he needs only to glance over his shoulder to be reminded how many people he should have listened to in that younger, more reckless life. It makes him all the more grateful to Anthony Cummings, Ross and Clinton McDonald, and all the trainers and owners who have been prepared to give him a leg-up second time around.
Now 26, one thing hasn't changed - he still wants to be the best jockey in the world. He has a point to prove, that while he might still be cocky - ''you've gotta have a bit of that'' - he's no longer ''the ignorant, immature, arrogant young man that I was''.
In form after a Caulfield Cup day double, he says anything can happen in the next fortnight. ''The recipe now seems to be hard work, and staying humble. That seems to be working; I think I've found the recipe.
''I've been to heaven and back. People were told, 'He's staying there'. But I'm back, and I'm going to make the most of it. I'm going to make my kids proud.''
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