James Herbertson on the unusual wake-up call that made him a better driver

James Herbertson on the unusual wake-up call that made him a better driver

August 9, 2022

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by Adam Hamilton

A good old-fashioned spray from a fellow driver was the turning point in young Aussie driving sensation James Herbertson’s career.

Such sprays are rare in today’s “PC” world and Herbertson was rocked at the time when leading driver Nathan Jack gave him a real “gob-full” at a Bendigo meeting about three years ago.

In the now 22-year-old Herbertson’s mind he was already a success. He had been driving for three years and established himself as one of most exciting and successful junior drivers in Australia.

“I guess you’d say I was doing it all on ability back then, but that spray from Nathan really woke me. It came out of nowhere and from a guy I really looked up to. He’s one of the best and smartest tactical drivers in the land.

“I still don’t really know what set Nathan off that night, but I guess he saw me cruising a bit, not doing those extra things to make the most of myself.

“It worked. It really stung me. It sort of got me out of childish ways. Instead of just turning up and driving, I started to use my brain a bit more.

“I’d been lucky to have a great upbringing. Dad (Ashleigh)has been a trainer for over 30 years and Mum (Jody) was a steward in Queensland before we moved down Victoria when I was six months old.

“They had done so much for me and been so supportive, but weren’t the sort of people to put a rocket up me… that’s where the night with Nathan hit home.”

So, what did Herbertson, now a clear leader in the very strong Victorian statewide driver’s premiership over the likes of Chris Alford, Greg Sugars, Kate Gath, Kerryn Manning and others, do to change things?

“Homework. I made sure I knew my opposition, the horses and the drivers. Understanding their strengths and weaknesses has been such a help,” he said.

“People ask if that means I go out there with a plan now and the answer is no, but because I know who I’m against, I can read a race better while it’s unfolding.”

Herbertson grew-up in a harness family, but it took a while for him to catch the bug.

“I always loved the farm, but was more into the machinery and stuff rather than the horses,” he said.

“It wasn’t until Matty Craven (Victorian driver) started driving dad’s horses when I got interested. Matthew is a charismatic person, I wanted to be him so that’s when I got keen. I was probably 10 or 11

“I started pestering dad to drive in the pony trots all over the place. I did that for 18 months or two years until I was about 14.”

Victoria’s rules say you can’t drive in official races until you are 16, but a quirk saw Herbertson start when he “was about a month shy” of being 16.

And his first drive was a winner aboard Tearitup for his father at Terang in 2016.

“I thought, ‘How easy is this?’ But it was all downhill from there. I struggled for a while after that,” Herbertson said.

Not long after that “spray” from Jack, Herbertson snared his first Group 1 win when Savannah Jay Jay upstaged a strong field of trotters in the 2019 Australian Trotting Grand Prix.

“That’s the most special win so far, my first Group 1 and on a horse I really clicked with,” he said.

“The Cranbourne Cup (last December) is another special one. It was only a Group 1, but Supreme Dominator beat Group 1 horses that night (Amazing Dream and Copy That were in the race) and lots of people were watching because it was such a big race.

“It’s also my biggest win on a pacer. Most of my major wins have come on trotters and Greg (Sugars, leading driver and a mentor to Herbertson), jokingly tells me Group 1 trotting wins are only half Group 1’s.”

Herbertson credits Matty Craven, his brother Glen and cousin Jason Lee as his biggest earlier influences.

“I wouldn’t be driving if it wasn’t for them,” he said. “Then, once I got started, how could you go past (the late) Gavin Lang as someone to look up to and want to be.

“In more recent times, Greg Sugars has taken me under his wing. It’s pretty cool, he treats me like a son. He mightn’t see it that way, but it means the world to me.”

While so many emerging young drivers rely on the support of leading stables to reach the top, Herbertson has never had that luxury.

“And I’m sort of glad in some ways,” he said. “Sure, it makes it harder, but it makes it more rewarding, too. I’ve got a lot of little trainers behind me and big wins mean a lot more for them. You almost feel part of the family if you can share a big win with them.”

And that’s just what Herbertson is hoping to do in the closing months of 2022.

“I’ve had a fantastic year so, I think it’s gone unnoticed a bit to be honest,” he said. “I won the (Group 1) NSW Trotters’ Derby in Sydney, my first big win away from home and my first win, full stop at Menangle.

“But, yes, the next six months do shape as being very exciting.”

Herbertson has already booked a spot in the Victorian Inter Dominion series with the much-improved Ross Graham-trained trotter Nephew Of Sonoko.

And the best pacer he drives, Supreme Dominator, is shaping as a serious player in the Group 1 Victoria Cup (October 8) and Inter Dominion pacing series after that.

“He went from a country-class horse to running in our biggest races in the space of eight or nine races last campaign,” Herbertson said. “He had a long spell after that and feels like he’s come back and improved that little bit more again.”

Supreme Dominator won narrowly but impressive win in the Our Maestro free-for-all at Melton last Saturday night.

Meanwhile, Herbertson will continue the grind that goes with being Victoria’s leading freelance driver.

“I drive about 2,500 kilometres (1,550 miles) per week. Most weeks I’m driving in races seven days a week. It averages out that I would get a day off every three weeks or so,” he said.

“I used to get a bit dozy driving, but I found a way through that. These days you’ll hear me singing along to music.”

Herbertson’s schedule also means he no longer has time to help out on the family farm, which has almost 5,000 head of sheep, at Lexton, almost two hours outside of Melbourne in Victoria.

“It’s a big property with plenty to do, but dad takes care of most of that these days,” he said.

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