It is unlikely there was anyone more nervous than Paula Heath at Gunnedah Picnic races last Saturday.
The 40-year-old, who boasts more than 20 years riding experience, hadn’t ridden a winner since August 2018 and was jumping aboard two live chances for boss, Gavin Groth.
Despite it being nearly two years between drinks for the former professional hoop, Heath showed her class when booting home Epic Decision in the 1000m Picnic Trophy.
Heath then went close to a second winner on the day, with About Time only beaten 0.29 of a length in the 1600mm Picnic Trophy.
“To tell you the truth, I was nervous going out on Epic (Decision). I ride him at work and he is probably the classiest horse I have ridden at the picnics,” Heath said.
“He was full poof though. He got out and got the win and it made me feel really good about myself.”
Based in Gunnedah, Heath rides track work for Groth, but really she is more of a stable foreman, helping run things when Groth is away.
It was actually this work with Groth that had Heath back working and riding in the racing industry.
“I was done with racing but going back to August last year, Gavin convinced me that he needed help because he was going to have a knee replacement,” Heath said.
“I strictly told him I wasn’t riding anymore, I was only going to to ground work and he had a rider at the time but he needed a responsible and experienced horse person.
“Two weeks later his rider had left and the next day he asked me if I had my riding gear and well, I was back on and loving it.”
Prior to working in Gunnedah, Heath was a former professional, starting in Cairns and working her way down south between 1998 and 2008, before becoming disillusioned with the racing industry.
“I pretty much got jack of it all, there was no loyalty and I was sick of being used. I had my nose out of joint a little bit,” Heath said.
Following this, Heath focused on her family and her passion for barrel racing, evening winning a National Title in 2015.
“I was silly enough to get married and I wanted to focus on other things like my own horses and barrel racing,” Heath laughed.
“Mainly my focus is barrel racing. I won the national finals back in 2015 and I’ve won many little titles in jackpot clubs on my 19-year-old, Epona.
“She doesn’t owe me anything, we have won two saddles and 11 buckles (and) we rode in the State of Origin at the Sydney Royal and we won in 2010.”
Fast forward to 2017, and Heath had found the racing bug again after a chance meeting with a long time friend at Gunnedah races.
“Alex Martin ran into me one day at Gunnedah races and asked me what I was doing, and if I was still riding, and he pretty much roped me into riding work for him,” Heath said.
“So instead of getting a work rider’s licence, I got an approved rider’s licence to help him out with barrier trials just in case he couldn’t get a jockey.”
Heath explained that an opportunity to ride at Geurie later that year kick started a run of rides.
“Not long after that, I saw Guerie was racing and the last time I had ridden there was as a professional, so I thought I would have a go,” Heath said.
Heath said she would love to kick on and compete at more picnic meetings, but suggested she wouldn’t be easily taken advantage of this time around.
“I would love to get back into it but I think what is holding me back is the loyalty of some people,” Heath said.
“I remember I would only travel for one or two rides, and you might have a bit of a bad ride or the horse might go no good and suddenly you’re jocked off.
“If I can manage to get the odd full book, or at least more than two rides, I would consider going but we will wait and see if that happens.”