Only four months ago, Aaron Bullock was nearing the end of a six-month suspension issued by Racing NSW in regards to a positive swab for a banned substance.
It was a steep fall from grace for the Singleton-based jockey who was coming off a breakout 107-win season in 2017/18.
Bullock had also just celebrated his first major race win on Jonker, who greeted the judge first in the two-year-old listed Magic Millions prelude at Wyong in December 2017.
Fast-forward those four months and the Tumut born jockey is in equal first in the NSW-wide jockey challenge for 2019/20, having ridden 15 winners in only 22-days.
The 28-year-old attributes his phenomenal turnaround to his newfound appreciation of life and work.
“It’s a mistake that I won’t make again, I can tell you that right now,” he said.
“The break from racing did me wonders – obviously being out for what I did was not good but everything has just come together for me after that tough period.”
The Singleton hoop is widely regarded as one of the biggest talents on the NSW racing scene and boasts an incredible record for someone who has spent extended periods out of the racing game.
Bullock was born and raised in Tumut before his family made the change and moved north.
“Dad and mum moved to Singleton when I was six-years-old,” he said.
“Dad worked the roads and was always away and mum worked at the Tumut and Adelong Times.
“It just made more sense for dad to move us up with him for work and that’s how we ended up here.”
Funnily enough, the Tumut product never had an interest in racing horses but was drawn to the industry by his love of animals instead.
“I had no interest in being a jockey but loved animals,” he said.
“As soon as I left school, I started my apprenticeship with Todd Howlett – I grew up across the road from him and just wanted to be around his horses.
“I went over there to get a weekend job and one thing led to another and I started to get on a horse and next minute I’m a jockey.”
Bullock didn’t shy away from the challenge of being a jockey with no prior horse riding experience.
“It was probably the hardest thing I’ve had to learn,” he said
“It certainly shaped me as a person.”
NSW’s current leading rider spent some time with his master Howlett before a three-year-spell away from racing.
“I apprenticed with Todd (Howlett) for three years but struggled for a little bit,” he said.
“I wasn’t mentally prepared to be a professional jockey and took the following three years off working on the Hunter Expressway – following in dad’s footsteps I guess.”
The allure of the breakneck racing scene had Bullock back in the saddle in no time, finishing off his apprenticeship with Howlett before an opportunity of a lifetime presented itself.
“I came back and did another year with Todd to finish my apprenticeship,” he said.
“After a broken leg playing touch football, I finished my apprenticeship and somehow I ended up with Kris Lees.
“I’ve been there for fives years and haven’t looked back – I couldn’t ask for a better boss.”
Bullock’s association with NSW’s leading country trainer has reaped rewards for the much-maligned jockey.
The 28-year-old has since ridden over 300 winners and finished with his first 100-plus season and a feature racing winner after teaming up with the Newcastle-based trainer.
“Aaron is a tremendous talent,” Lees said.
“He is probably the most dedicated jockey that I have ever seen in regards to preparation and keeping the weight off.”
The Newcastle-based trainer believes Bullock’s all round ability makes him an asset for his large team on the country and provincial racing circuit.
“He’s aggressive out of the gates and puts horses in the right position early,” he said.
“He is also very strong at the finish and these skills make him great for us in the country.”
Lees believes Bullock’s recent stint away from racing has done him wonders and is confident that he will continue to be a riding force in the future.
“Aaron has knuckled down and works really hard,” he said.
“He knows this industry doesn’t give many second chances and he has really grown from the experience and has a newfound appreciation for riding.”
Despite Bullock’s battle with past indiscretions, a new challenge will keep the jockey working hard in the near future.
“My weight has always been a battle and I usually have a month off every year,” he said.
“I’ve been riding 56kg-56.5kg.”
Bullock is hoping he has found his racing weight equilibrium.
“I can ride lower if I need to but I ride better at 56kg, when I ride lower I get myself in trouble,” he said.
“Since riding at a comfortable weight, I have only been in trouble with my riding once in the past two years.”
When Bullock was quizzed on his future goals, his local upbringing came to the fore.
“To tell you the truth I don’t set many goals but I have always dreamed of winning the Tumut Cup,” he said.
Tumut locals might even get a chance to see Bullock greet the judge first in person when he attends Tumut Turf Club’s January TAB meeting.
“I’ll definitely be there and I cannot wait to ride around my local track,” he said
“I might have left as a pup but I still call Tumut home and there would be nothing better than to win on my home track.”