You won’t find Jack Pilkington University on a map. You won’t find it on any registry. Courses are taught in Ireland, Great Britain, South Africa, Australia, the United States and Canada. Yes, Canada.
In fact one of the seminars is taught right here in Edmonton. But you’ve still never heard of it. And yet, its professors are some of the finest in the world: Richard Mandella, Todd Pletcher, Chris Waller, Charlie Hills, Justin Snaith and David Hayes.
Jack Pilkington University is so exclusive that it has only one student: Jack Pilkington.
“Yes, just me. It’s one of a kind,” said Pilkington, 24, who is travelling the world while he goes to ‘school’ to earn his ‘degree’ as a thoroughbred trainer and who is currently being mentored these days by veteran trainer, Rod Cone at Northlands Park.
In an endeavour to be the best thoroughbred trainer he can be, Pilkington has been working and exercising horses for some of the world’s best trainers across the globe as he learns his craft. “I know what I want to be. I knew what I wanted to learn, who I wanted to learn from and where I wanted to learn,” said Pilkington, who is originally from Ireland and has already been to six countries working for a total of 33 different trainers. “I’m trying to get all the best ideas from all the best trainers.
In addition to Mandella, one of California’s top trainers and a member of the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame, Pletcher, a seven-time Eclipse Award winner as the United State’s trainer of the year, Waller, who has seven consecutive Sydney, Australia’s trainers premierships and Hayes,
the youngest member to be admitted into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame in 2008 and the trainer of over 2,800 winners, Pilkington has also worked for the likes of Ireland’s Tony Martin and Patrick Preddergast, the United Kingdom’s Charlie Mann and Brendan Powell, and Linda Rice in New York.
Moreover, Pilkington was a Pupil Assistant to Charlie Hills, the multiple Group 1 winning trainer, in the United Kingdom for two years and a season in South Africa as assistant to Justin Snaith.
“Both of them gave me great opportunities and responsibilities and are a huge part of their respected racing dynasties,” said Pilkington. “It’s all in the name of what I call the Jack Pilkington University of being a race horse trainer. It won’t be an official degree but it will be an awesome degree."
“I’m learning on the job; every day is a school day,” said Pilkington, polite, well-manicured, intelligent and, needless to say, self-driven. “I had a plan and I’m sticking to it. It’s not something anyone else has done but it’s all about making myself the best trainer possible,” said Pilkington.
“I’m gaining a lot of experience. The more people you work for the quicker you are to analyze the next people and the next places you work. I’ve sold my life to the industry. It will be my life as well as my career. Flying by the seat of my pants and moving very few months, it’s been a bit hectic. But, it’s working out well so far.”
Starting his journey in Ireland, Pilkington booked essentially an around-the-world airline ticket which took him to Melbourne and Perth, Australia, to Cape Town, South Africa and then on to Los Angeles, Calif. and New York, N.Y. before returning to London for Royal Ascot 2017. And it’s far from over. His next ‘classes’ will be in Germany, France and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Canada is the sixth country Pilkington has visited.
“I’ve learned a great deal from Rod Cone and the way he does things. He’s an accomplished trainer and farrier. He sits on the board of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. He’s quite a person to learn from.”
Pilkington was on his own ‘hook,’ for his trips to Australia, South Africa, Los Angeles, New York and England. To make the latter work he even also worked evenings in several London pubs. But he is here in Canada because of a scholarship he was awarded by HH Sheikh Mansoor Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the United Arab Emirates Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs.
The scholarship is through the International Federation of Horse Racing Academies of which Canada, through the unique Olds College, is a founding member. Developed in conjunction with Horse Racing Alberta, Olds College offers both a grooms program and an exercise rider and jockey program.
Graduates have included jockeys Omar Moreno, who started his riding career in Alberta and went on to win a Sovereign Award as Canada’s leading apprentice and an Eclipse Award winner as the leading apprentice in North America. Moreno currently rides at Woodbine in Ontario.
Other graduates of Olds College include Brendon Duchaine who rode and won in Poland representing Canada in a world apprentice invitational race; Janine Smith, who rode in Amsterdam representing Canada in the same race; Scott Williams; Corrine Andros, who now rides at Hastings Park in Vancouver, B.C.; and Sheena Ryan, who also rides at Woodbine.
As well, Hannah Twomey, who is a graduate of the Groom and the Exercise Rider/Jockey programs in Olds, is now working on becoming an apprentice jockey in Australia through the through the same International Federation of Horse Racing Academies scholarship Pilkington is on.
“It’s a great program,” said Pilkington, who posts a weekly blog on Facebook. “There should be more like it.”
Theresa Sealy, the Race Track Programs coordinator from Olds College - as well as a backstretch coordinator for the HBPA and HRA - organized Pilkington’s visit to Alberta. “Theresa has been great,” said Pilkington. “She organized my arrival and set up my schedule here. She’s a great, great organizer.”
Growing up, Pilkington wanted to be a jockey. “From as far back as the age of eight, when I rode ponies, I wanted to be a jockey. Other kids wanted to grow up to be Superman or fire fighters. I wanted to be a race horse rider,” said Pilkington, whose grandfather owned a few race horses and whose family liked going to the races.
Riding his first race horse when he was 11 - “The horse ran away with me completely” - Pilkington - now 6’ tall and 150 pounds - soon outgrew those aspirations. “When I was 15 and even 16 years-old I only weighed 110 pounds. But by the time I was 19 I was already too heavy even though half a cup of tea in the morning was my main consumption.”
One time Pilkington lost 13 pounds in a matter of days for a race. “I worked, sweated or slept. That’s all I did. By race day I cramped up badly after sweating out the last couple of pounds in a sauna. It was crazy to do things like that. Never mind certainly not healthy.”
As a result, Pilkington, who did manage to ride in some races as both amateur steeplechase and amateur flat races, put aside his jockey plans and now focuses entirely on being a trainer. Not just any trainer either. “My goal is to be the first trainer to have horses in four continents - North America, Europe, Africa and Australia - at the same time. That’s the ultimate dream,” said Pilkington, who left his home in Ireland to pursue his racing career when he was 17.
“I dropped out of school a year early. My mother told me if I was leaving school then I would also have to leave the country. She said if I was really serious I couldn’t just sit at home. “So, I did. I went to Lambourn, England,” Pilkington said of the large village in West Berkshire, which, after Newmarket is the largest centre of racehorse training in England. “It was the best thing I ever did. I learned loads.”
Pilkington is still learning but Cone has full faith in him.
“He’s a very good lad, very knowledgeable, a talented exercise rider and a good horseman,” said Cone, who has training horses since 1972 and shoeing horses since 1981.
As well as Edmonton, where he was born and raised, Cone has trained and shod horses across North America: California, Floridia, Louisiana, Nebraska, New York, Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It hasn’t all been work.
In Edmonton Pilkington went to the Calgary Stampede and the rodeo which was part of the recent K-Days, to local breeding farms and an Edmonton Eskimo football game. He still has plans to visit the mountains before he moves on.
In California he got to see Arrogate, the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup champion. In Australia he worked with the great Winx, who has won 17 consecutive stakes. “I took a selfie of myself and Arrogate with my Winx hat on,” said Pilkington. “That was pretty cool.
“Jack shadows me every day,” said Cone, who had his first horse when he was 15. “As well, of course, as the track, I’ve taken him to HBPA meetings and meetings with Northlands. “I’m very impressed. He has all the makings of a good trainer.”
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