Stathi Katsidis's riding life a fight all the way

Monday, 25 October 2010

Stathi Katsidis
Stathi Katsidis with his partner Melissa Jackson and son Brooklyn near their Eagle Farm home earlier this year Picture: Joy Gadian Manille Source: The Courier-Mail


STATHI Katsidis seemed to have put his troubles behind him and thanked his boxing star brother Michael for helping him.

He had a ride on Shoot Out, the third equal favourite, in Saturday's Cox Plate. It was his top priority as he sought to put his life into a better place.

Two years ago his body was broken, his reputation in tatters. But this Spring Carnival Katsidis seemed to be on top of the world.

The brothers have each had their troubles but always seemed to be able to support each other. When one had problems, the other would get him back on track.

At one point Michael Katsidis - now a world boxing champion - served an eight-month stint in jail.

But Stathi always waited for him and Michael had returned the favour.

It was Michael, now 30 and a world boxing champion living in Las Vegas, who got one of Australia's leading jockeys back on track after he was busted for booze and drugs and broken by half a tonne of falling horse two years ago.

At the rented house near Brisbane's Eagle Farm racecourse, last week Sthai showed how far he thought he had come back .

With his partner Melissa Jackson, her four-year-old son Brooklyn and border collie Rosie, Stathi, 31, raised the leg of his shorts to reveal a wizened thigh crazed with scarring, the legacy of the day in November 2008 when he was breaking in a big three-year-old bay at Pinnacle Park in Beaudesert.

"Most horses, when you jab'em with the spurs they go forward," he says, "but this one fell over backwards and landed on my left leg.

"The leg just shattered. The bone popped out there ... I really didn't know if I could ever use the leg again. But the whole time I was laid up Michael sent me $500 a week from America to help me out and he constantly encouraged me to fight back."

And fight back he did. With a steel rod in his leg, Stathi rode more winners for the racing season that ended on July 31 than any other jockey in Australia (171.5, to be precise - the 0.5 is a dead heat).

He was scheduled to chase the Cox Plate next Saturday and the Melbourne Cup on November 2 aboard the four-year-old gelding Shoot Out. It's an extraordinary recovery from a horrific accident, but also from a life of excess that by 2008 was spiralling out of control.

In February that year, Stathi finished a surprisingly poor fourth on favourite Gold Edition behind Apache Cat at Flemington.

He drowned his sorrows with wine all the way home on the flight from Melbourne to Brisbane and then sank three cans of vodka mixer. That night a frightened motorist reported a car speeding and weaving on the road near Toowoomba.

Stathi, who'd been at a function honouring Michael as Toowoomba's sportsman of the year, was pulled over with a blood alcohol level more than three times the legal limit.

Police found ecstasy tablets and the drug clenbuterol - which he used to control his weight but is banned in racing - in the car.

He was fined $1000 for drink driving and disqualified from driving for six months. A friend took the rap for the ecstasy, but Stathi was fined $500 for possessing clenbuterol without a prescription.

Then on April 30, 2008, after a random drug test at the Ipswich races, he tested positive to ecstasy.

He told a southern newspaper reporter earlier this year that he took the drug when he wasn't riding "about three or four times a year ... When you take things like that it was good for your weight, because instead of drinking piss you drink water."

"I did dabble in drugs occasionally," Katsidis tells Qweekend. "Obviously I was out of control and I needed reeling in."

He says he took ecstasy at a Gold Coast party on a Sunday night and thought traces would be out of his system before the races on the Wednesday. He was wrong.

Racing stewards suspended him for nine months but agreed to reduce it to seven if he completed a rehabilitation program.

Stathi says getting busted for booze and drugs was a blessing - he'd been riding for a fall for a long time.

The heavy drinking had started when he was an apprentice, closely followed by recreational drug use.

"All the bad things I've done wrong, I put my hands up to it all," he says.

"The DUI, the positive drug test ... it was all my fault. I wasn't crazy then but I was flying close to the line. I didn't realise the terrible effect it was having on my mum and my dad, my nan and pop."

And on his little brother.

The news of the Toowoomba arrest came as a blow to the ferocious lightweight, then undefeated as a professional and training for a world title defence against Cuban Olympic gold medallist Joel Casamayor in Cabazon, California.

"Stathi's problems really shook me up," Michael says from Las Vegas, where he is preparing to face Mexican great Juan Manuel Marquez on November 27.

"Boxing is such a fine-cut sport, even the smallest things in training can make a big impact on the outcome.
If your mind isn't focused 100 per cent you make those tiny mistakes that cost dearly."

The Australian was decked twice in the opening round against Casamayor but fought back to drive the Cuban through the ropes in the sixth.

Then, seemingly on the verge of victory, he had a suicidal rush of blood to the head and charged forward onto a vicious left hook in round 10 that left him defenceless. He lost his world title and his undefeated status.

And so began Stathi's rehab. He attended Brisbane Private Hospital every day for two weeks, completing the Damascus course for people with drug and alcohol problems.

"Most of the people in there were only in their forties but in a pretty bad way," he says.

"A lot of them had serious life problems caused by drinking and drugs. I remember thinking, 'Jeez, I'm not too bad now but I don't want to finish like that.'

"Doing that Damascus course turned my life around," he adds.

"You learn how to deal with life - with the success and the problems. Before, if I had a bad day at the races I'd get on the drink to wipe it out ... but anything that comes up in life, you have to deal with it and not just drink it away.
That only makes things worse."

Just as Stathi was about to resume trackwork as the first step to ending his seven-month ban, his leg was smashed.

Again his brother shared his pain, having broken his hand in losing a close decision to Texan Juan Diaz in Houston, his first fight after Casamayor.

Both men's careers had been tumultuous but could now have fatally stalled, if not for an inner drive that has propelled them since they were toddlers scooting across their Greek grandfather's Sydney backyard.

Horses were in Stahti Katsidis' family all his life.

His mother Robyn is the daughter of Moree horse trainer Alan Turner; she and his father Harry, who came to Australia from Greece with his parents Con and Maria at 15, ran the Continental Cafe in Moree.

After Stathi was born they moved to Scone, then Toowoomba, where Michael was born in 1980, then western Sydney as Harry started a concreting business.

"I'm so proud of both my boys," says Harry, now working on a building site at the Kapooka military base in Wagga Wagga, south-west NSW.

"They have always been so determined, playing every sport they could. Michael even played soccer in a carnival for a few days with a broken leg before anyone realised how bad it was."

When Stathi was nine, the family returned to Toowoomba, where Harry's concreting business eventually made enough money to send the boys to private schools. But the eldest wanted to be with horses, not books.

"Stathi used to make me piggyback him everywhere - on the way to school he'd ride me like a horse," says Michael, the younger by 18 months. "It would get to the point where we'd fight over it and he always got the better of me.


"It wasn't until I started boxing when I was 11 and learned to throw a straight jab that I could keep him at bay.

But carrying him around all the time made me very strong."

On weekends Harry renovated gravestones at Toowoomba cemetery for free to help people who struggled financially.

"While he was doing that, me and Stathi would muck around with the brumbies that run around out there," Michael says. "Stathi could jump on the brumbies and just hang on and hang on as they took off.

"Nothing could scare him. At school he'd be the littlest guy there but he was the best crosscountry runner just because he wouldn't give up.

"He'd go through so much pain in order to win." Boxing trainer/manager Brendon Smith, who has guided Michael to worldwide pay-per-view telecasts and purses approaching seven figures, remembers both boys starting out in the boxing gym.

"Right from his first day at age 11, Michael showed that incredible hunger, the ability to focus completely and train incredibly hard," Smith says.

"Both boys were exceptional soccer players and Stathi could have been a top boxer, too. But he always wanted to be a jockey. They chose two of the toughest sports anyone can."

By 13, Stathi was rising at 2am to clean stables for Toowoomba trainer Graham Banks before school.

The next year he quit St Mary's College to concentrate on his chosen career.

At 15 he won his first race on his first ride at Bell, north-west of Toowoomba, on Boneset, a horse trained by his grandfather Alan.

"The whole family was there to see me ride," he says. "Pop just told me to stay on the fence the whole way, and it worked."

Throughout his apprenticeship he was good at following instructions, but at 19 the shackles were off and it was party time. He decided to make up for all the things he'd missed out on as a teenager.

But despite a growing reputation as a wild child, the successes kept coming in big Queensland races - Toowoomba's Weetwood, the Gold Coast's Silk Stocking and in June 2000 at Eagle Farm his first Group 1 winner on Show a Heart in the T. J. Smith.

There was another reason to celebrate: Michael was named Australia's lightweight boxer for the Sydney Olympics.

But jockeys ride a rollercoaster, and the following year Stathi was badly shaken when he cracked his skull cap in a spectacular fall at Eagle Farm. A year later he needed surgery on his jaw after being thrown at Doomben.

Then things really hit the wall. In November 2002, Michael - already on a good behaviour bond for assault - was sentenced to two years' jail for assault causing grievous bodily harm.

He had pleaded not guilty, saying it was self-defence when he broke the jaw of a man he said was urinating on a mate's car in Toowoomba.

But Michael Betros, who coached Katsidis through his amateur career and at the Sydney Olympics, reckons the time inside was a long time coming.

"I stuck my neck out for Michael all his life," says Betros, now a Toowoomba bank manger.

"I made myself unpopular with a lot of people [by] defending him all the time. We had a parting of the ways. He was a constant headache and finally I realised his lifestyle was not commensurate with the values I was trying to teach him."

Michael's first six months were spent in maximum security at Woodford Correctional Centre.

He spent 14 hours a day confined to a small cell and says he had to constantly fight for survival amid some of the worst criminals in the country - bigger men who wanted to test out the 60kg boxing champ. Stathi took it badly.

"It just felt very unfair ... I got very disillusioned with life," he says.

"I felt so helpless because I couldn't do anything for him. We were struggling to pay barristers. At the time I was also going through a divorce - I got married at 20 [to childhood sweetheart Lisa]; all that, plus my brother going to jail ... well, I let everything get on top of me."

He announced he was finished with riding, only to return three months later and suffer another serious fall at Eagle Farm on the ominously named Wedding Band in the Anger Management Handicap.

Michael was paroled after eight months, in July 2003, and began a long fight for a visa to box in the United States.

Meanwhile Stathi was battling with the scales and racing officials, often pulling out of rides at the last minute because he couldn't meet weight requirements.

In the 14 months from February 2005 he missed 58 race meetings because of suspensions for careless riding, failing to ride his mount to the finish line and failing to take all measures to attain the best possible placing.

He was also twice caught using Duromine, a banned appetite suppressant, and closed out 2006 with a $5000 fine and another three-month suspension after calling Queensland Racing chief steward Reid Sanders a "grub".

Stathi puts some of his behaviour down to extreme dieting.

"Jockeys lead a tough life," he says.

"The thing with losing weight all the time is that it plays tricks with your mind and I probably said a lot of things and did a lot of things when I wasn't thinking straight. It makes you behave strangely.

"I'd get sick a lot and fatigued. Before it was banned I also used to take [the diuretic] Lasix and you feel so sick on it."

Jockeys undergo random tests for banned substances including illegal drugs, painkillers such as morphine and codeine, performanceenhancing substances, and chemical appetite suppressants and diuretics.

Queensland's chief steward, Wade Birch, says it would be "near impossible" for a jockey to use drugs and not get caught.

"We employ a very sophisticated [random] drug-testing program," he says.

"Stathi would be tested at least monthly, if not more."

As for party drugs, some athletes prefer them to alcohol because while they have many dangers, weight gain is not one of them.

Earlier this year a Sydney newspaper quoted Katsidis saying "probably about half" of jockeys might use ecstasy.

Under pressure from Racing NSW stewards to name names, the next day he backtracked, saying it was just a throwaway line.

And Birch totally rejects the idea of a recreational drug culture among jockeys.

"If some have used drugs in the past it's just a reflection of the wider society," he says.

"If any jockey uses banned substances they are not going to get away with it for very long."

While usspended and breaking horses at Pinnacle Park, Stathi renewed an old friendship.

"I'd just broken up with a girl I'd been with for two or three years and Melissa and I got talking ... she'd visit on the weekends and eventually we decided to have a go at a relationship, so she moved out to Beaudesert with Brooklyn.

"We had some of the greatest times of my life in that six months we spent at Beaudesert," he says. "It was a simple life out of the limelight.

You find so many more interesting things to do if you're not drinking ... before I broke my leg we'd go to the park, play games or go swimming.

It was a lot more enjoyable than sitting in a pub."

He attributes much of his remarkable success over the past 18 months to a quieter lifestyle and low sodium diet.

"If I wasn't riding I'd probably walk around at 62kg. But thanks to Melissa's help with my diet I can ride at 53kg consistently and that opens up a lot more opportunities.’’

He returned to the track in mid-2009, still limping badly and with the muscles of his left leg wasted. At least it was easier to make weight.

Just a week into his comeback he won the Toowoomba Cup on Jussemi and a week later the Grafton Cup on Castle Heights.

Across the Pacific, Michael was making his own comeback. In Las Vegas that September he outpointed US Olympian Vicente Escobedo to win another world lightweight crown, and three months later was celebrating the birth of his first child, Kalia Rose, with Japanese-born wife Kumi.

For both brothers, 2010 had been quite a year.

In January, Stathi guided Military Rose to victory in the Magic Millions on the Gold Coast. He won another million-dollar race on Sister Havana in Auckland, took the Randwick Guineas on Queensland horse Shoot Out and scored the most important win of his career on the same horse in the AJC Derby at Randwick.

In May, underdog Michael knocked out undefeated British sensation Kevin Mitchell before 20,000 of the Londoner’s fans at Upton Park. In August Shoot Out gunned down all before it at

Caulfield, winning the Bletchingly Stakes and Liston Stakes. Two weeks ago it finished third behind Zipping in the Turnbull Stakes, though Stathi was fined $500 for over-use of the whip.

'It’s just such an adrenaline rush riding a horse like Shoot Out,’’ he says. 'He’s got a great cruising speed and can win from an impossible position. He’s got stamina and the sprinting ability and the will to win. The Cox Plate (run over 2040m) is my primary goal and it’s just a matter of how he relaxes over the longer distance for the Melbourne Cup (3200m).’’

Despite the serious accidents, Stathi still brings a remarkable fearlessness to the saddle.

"I leave a lot of the running to the horse,’’ he says. "If a bit of fear enters in, that’s when accidents happen - if you let the horse see where it’s running and then start pulling on its head so it can’t see its legs, it’s likely to fall.’’

Shoot Out’s trainer, John Wallace, says part of Stathi’s secret is that he’s relaxed in the saddle.

"You have to have natural talent,' he says, "and Stathi’s a good tactician, but he’s a laidback kind of bloke - horses sense that he’s in control all the way without having to force it.’’

The jockey is also remarkably nonchalant about his career.

He was riding one of the stars in the Spring Carnival this year but struggles to remember the name of the horse he rode in his biggest race to date, the 2007 Caulfield Cup - 'Aww Jeez, Scrivo [Shane Scriven] won the Mackinnon on it last year, what was its name?

"Scenic Shot, was it? No, Scenic Blast? No, no - Scenic Shot."

He also says he had no idea the Magic Millions was worth more than a million dollars to the winning owners until he earned $1.14m for Gillian and Hoss Heinrich with a single ride on Military Rose.

Some racing pundits put his earnings for last season at more than a million but he says it’s more like $400,000-$500,000 - double what he normally makes in a good year.

Yet parked next to Melissa’s red Monaro at the front of his house is his daily ride, a battered Ford Festiva that Michael bought him and that, like the Katsidis boys, is still despite many scrapes over the years.

Michael says he and his brother have taken their share of knocks, but have grown stronger for it. 'It’s the mark of champions like Stathi,’’ says the champion boxer, 'that if they get knocked down they get back up again.’’

[Source]

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