There is no doubting Zara Lewis was born to be a jockey.
The 18-year-old is the daughter of former NSW country jockey Virginia Heron, and is the younger sister of the popular NSW country apprentice, Yvette Lewis.
Still, the product of Tingha, who is now based in Gilgandra with trainer Bryan Dixon, has taken a unique pathway to the races, kicking off her career as an amateur hoop on the NSW picnic racing scene.
“It was something I always wanted to do but I didn’t think I would be able to with my weight, but with the picnics, it’s a good opportunity to have a go without the pressure of the weights,” Lewis said.
“Mum was a jockey and she trained horses when we were growing up and it was always part of our lives and it’s something I always wanted to be around.”
Lewis had her first taste of success at Forbes on Saturday too, which was only her second race meeting and fifth start as a jockey; with Lewis guiding the Bryan Dixon trained Baby Merlin to victory in the 1100m Open Picnic Trophy.
“It was really good, I was so happy to ride my first winner on him,” Lewis said.
“I was definitely nervous but I think because I was riding Baby (Merlin), it helped a fair bit; I ride him at track work, and I know and love the horse.”
In what may be a surprise to many, Lewis has seen a massive turnaround in the last six months, after moving from Luke Berger’s stables in Inverell to take up the opportunity to work in Gilgandra.
“I was in Inverell originally and we lived at Tingha but now I’m with Bryan in Gilgandra,” Lewis said.
“It’s huge difference; they have a lot more horses here and I am able to ride more and practice more, whereas the team Luke (Berger) had was quite small and there weren’t as many opportunities.”
Bryan Dixon’s son, also named Bryan Dixon, has worked with Lewis and watched her develop as a rider in such a short amount of time.
“She has come a very long way in a very short period of time,” Dixon said.
“She has probably only been riding for six months, before that she was with Luke Berger but she was only trotting and cantering two or three a morning.”
Funnily enough, it was the stable’s connection with her 20-year-old sister Yvette that essentially gave the younger sibling her big break.
“She wanted to be a picnic rider and we obviously put her sister on a lot of our horses, so her mum brought her out for a trial and she has been here ever since,” Dixon laughed.
Dixon credited Lewis’s quick development to her natural abilities.
“She has really good hands, she is still trying to work on getting down lower and everything an apprentice needs to learn, but she just gets a horse to jump and run,” Dixon said.
“She still has a fair way to go, but I think she can make it. She has the ability.”
The Gilgandra owner and trainer said it was remarkable to see the young hoop winning races, and highlighted that her weight was already getting down so she could one day start an apprenticeship.
“A lot of people will take two or more years to get their first ride, let alone their first winner and she has done it all in six months; it’s incredible,” Dixon said.
“When she first came along, she was around the 62kg mark, and realistically she has only been trying to do something with her weight in the last little bit and she is already down to 55kg to 55.5kg.”
The young jockey will be kept busy in the meantime, while the ever-growing Dixon stable utilised her talents for track work.
“She does all of our track, all up we have about 27 in work. Plus, she also rides work for Kieren Hazleton, she doesn’t stop,” Dixon said.
“She is there early in the morning and doesn’t leave until she is done.”