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Jockey Harry Coffey resented being known as “the sick kid who rides”.
Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (a genetic disease impacting one in 2500 births in Australia that clogs up the lungs and makes sufferers more susceptible to illness) at just six weeks old, Coffey has had to defy the odds his entire career just to prove he is capable of riding at the elite level.
Harry Coffey wins on board Belthil on Caulfield Guineas day.Credit: Getty Images
Coffey, from Swan Hill, knows he’ll never be as fit as his rivals, but that’s never stopped him from competing. On Saturday, he’ll ride in three races during Champions Day at Flemington, having already placed on the podium once during this week’s Melbourne Cup carnival.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Victoria, Coffey was leading the state’s jockey premiership, amassing wins, and thousands of kilometres in his ute, across country Victoria.
Jockey Harry Coffey has three rides on Champions Day at Flemington.Credit: Getty Images
But the risk of contracting COVID-19 forced him into isolation on the farm.
“I was unaware of what COVID was, and we were advised, if you had a chronic health condition, not to put yourself in high-risk situations,” Coffey said.
“Going to the races in a jockeys’ room full of people coming from all over the countryside to one area was considered a high-risk place.
“Up until then, I was leading the premierships in Victoria and riding at a really high strike rate. That was a little bit frustrating because I was a fair way in front in the premiership at the time I stopped riding. Now I’m starting to fully hit straps again. I thought I was doing the right thing by not riding, but it turned out racing was one of the safest places because it was the only thing that kept going and our protocols were so strict that not many actually did get COVID.
“I actually could have continued to ride, but [the break] was something I needed.”
From an early age, Coffey wanted to be a jockey. He grew up in a racing family – his father Austy is a racehorse trainer – and after doing a school-based apprenticeship as a jockey, he stepped into the riding ranks.
But Coffey didn’t want his condition to be made a big deal of.
“Before I started riding, I just went along quietly and when I started riding, I didn’t really like ‘the sick kid’, ‘he does it tough’, ‘amazing story’ [narrative]. I was really against it,” Coffey said.
“But as I’ve matured, I’ve become to understand it’s not about me.”
Now married to wife Tayla and father to five-and-a-half-month-old Thomas, Coffey is aware his story provides inspiration to many other families who have children with cystic fibrosis.
“I think there’s a lot of people with CF, especially families with CF, that follow my story and like to see me do well,” said Coffey.
“It’s a funny thing because, looking at someone, you don’t know they’ve got it, but actually, when it’s all torn away, and you actually understand it and get to know the person, they’re doing an amazing job to get up and be able to be considered living a normal life.”
For the past few years, a new drug called Trifakta – which tricks his body into thinking it has a gene that he is missing – has changed Coffey’s life.
“It’s two tablets in the morning and a tablet at night, and it’s an absolute game-changer,” Coffey said.
“I wouldn’t be able to do the workload that I am currently doing if I was not as healthy as what I am now.
“After most races, I would need to clear my airways with a cough and I would come back in quite fatigued and short of breath, whereas now I’m feeling a lot better, not short in breath.
“You would have noticed in a lot of my interviews, say two or three years ago, I would have been heaving and quite red in the face and fatigued, whereas now my recovery instantly after a race is a lot better. That’s been the biggest difference.
“Also, my quality of life is a lot better at home too. You’d wake up in the middle of the night coughing, needing to clear your airways, where now you get a better sleep and just getting up and doing things has become a lot easier with being healthy because I’ve got more energy to do normal people stuff.”
Now, Coffey is looking to continue where he left off before the pandemic, on target to amass 100-plus winners for the fifth straight season.
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