James McDonald ended the 2010-11 season as a record-breaker; he finished 2012 as one of the hottest properties in world racing.
That the Cambridge jockey was able to build on his ground-breaking previous season, when he set a New Zealand record of 207 wins for a season, wasn't unexpected.
But his rapid rise to international posterboy, especially with his dazzling autumn success in New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong, saw international media hail McDonald as "the Kiwi superstar", acknowledgment of widespread acceptance that he possessed all the necessary skills to make him one of the world's best.
The highlights were numerous.
A phenomenal Auckland Cup week. Gr I success in Sydney and Hong Kong.
And a second placing in the Melbourne Cup in his first ride in the world's greatest race.
McDonald's season began with one of his most satisfying wins, aboard the Steven Ramsay and Julia Ritchie-trained Guiseppina in the Gr I Telegraph Handicap at Trentham.
Owners Peter and Philip Vela had been key supporters of McDonald, backing him for a European riding trip earlier in his apprenticeship and giving him first choice of any of their runners, and the Cambridge jockey took much pleasure out of landing a Gr I payday for the brothers.
Two weeks later McDonald combined with Shez Sinsational to win the Gr I Darci Brahma International Stakes at Te Rapa by 3 1/2 lengths, afterwards telling reporters: "She's a pretty special mare to me. I've won two Gr I races on her and hopefully there's still more to come."
There was, with Shez Sinsational and McDonald again united for an outstanding win in the Gr I Auckland Cup, part of a week that the 20-year-old jockey will never forget.
His masterclass was his first win in the Gr I New Zealand Derby, aboard the Roger James-trained Silent Achiever, a filly the jockey had combined with for February wins in the Gr III Waikato Guineas at Te Rapa and the Gr II Avondale Guineas at Ellerslie en route to her Derby triumph.
McDonald didn't try to hide his delight. He had just secured his first Derby win with a no-frills ride aimed at keeping Silent Achiever out of trouble and he was positively bouncy afterwards.
"It's amazing. It's hard to describe. She's just the best filly with an amazing attitude," he said.
"The Telegraph was special, but a Derby on Ellerslie, my favourite track, this is an amazing feeling."
As well as Silent Achiever's Derby win and Shez Sinsational's Cup win, McDonald added to his Auckland Cup week haul when claimed the Gr I New Zealand Stakes on Scarlett Lady and he was first past the post on Rollout The Carpet in the Gr I Diamond Stakes, but lost that race in a predictable outcome in the inquiry room, after the filly veered out uncontrollably in the closing stages, inconveniencing Warhorse, who was promoted to first.
But of the four Gr I races on offer during Auckland Cup week, McDonald won three of them and was first over the line in the other. Over the three days of the carnival, he won eight races, also among them the Gr III Darley Plate on Durham Town, to secure the Grenville Hughes Trophy as the carnival's leading rider.
Despite all his international success, McDonald regards that week as the highlight of his year.
"It was a shame the filly [Rollout The Carpet] didn't get to keep the Diamond Stakes because then I would have won all four Gr I races in Cup week and I don't know if that would have ever been done before. It wasn't a bad week - it's been incredible really."
McDonald spent most of the rest of the season abroad.
But the winners - and other firsts - continued to flow.
He secured his first ride in a Golden Slipper, aboard the O'Shea-trained Ashokan, who finished 12th.
Then came a landmark day in Sydney - four wins, among them his first Gr I at Randwick aboard Temple Of Boom in the Galaxy.
He had already won the respect of Sydney's top trainers, now he won the adoration of the Sydney racing fans and his photograph was splashed all over the pages of Australia's major newspapers.
"It's the pinnacle of racing, the best of the best," McDonald said.
"I can't believe I've won a Gr I race in Sydney. It's a place I've always wanted to ride and what a day it has been. It's pretty special.
Especially to get four winners on a great day like this." His ride prompted leading Sydney trainer Gai Waterhouse to described McDonald as "the best rider to come out of New Zealand since Shane Dye".
But the best was still yet to come - victory in the Gr I Champions Mile win on the John Moore-trained Xtension at Sha Tin in Hong Kong.
McDonald rode a tactically brilliant race against the world's best and earned the highest praise from Moore, regarded as one of the most astute trainers in world racing.
"The way James rode him was the best ride you've ever seen," he said.
McDonald was jubilant.
"As a kid I've always dreamed of riding in a country like this and with the calibre of jockeys and horses here, it's a real privilege," he said.
McDonald's next highlight was again abroad but came through his partnership with a talented three-year-old from his home town of Cambridge, Dundeel.
Dundeel won two races leading up to his Gr III Gloaming Stakes success in Sydney before McDonald produced another gem of a ride to land the Gr I Spring Champion Stakes, beating hot favourite Proisir.
"We've knocked off the hot shot and it is a bloody good feeling," McDonald said afterwards.
McDonald reunited with Silent Achiever for a win in the Gr II Crystal MIle at Moonee Valley before heading to Flemington where he had his first ride in the Melbourne Cup, aboard the Gai Waterhouse-trained Fiorente.
Under a polished McDonald ride, Fiorente finished a mighty second in a race sure to always have fond memories for the young jockey, though his immediate reaction was one of disappointment, typical of the competitor he is.
"I'm gutted to be honest," he said.
"I've prepared for this race as much as for any race I've ever ridden in. Mentally I've given it my all and I'm just drained at the moment.
It might be a bit different if I'd won. But first ride in the Melbourne Cup and I've run second so I can't be too disappointed." In reflecting on his year, McDonald said: "It's a year I'll never forget. Someone said to me 'how are you going to improve on a year like that?' It's going to be hard to but I always think can. Maybe the future looks even further on, like Dubai or Europe or somewere like that. It's been a wonderful year and its really put me on the map.
"I'd love to be a jockey that travels the world. I'd love to get a job for Godolphin or Darley and that takes you around the world and you ride in many different countries over the year."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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