T ullamarine Airport, like all international airports, has often been the stage for an emotional family reunion. And so it was in 2005. Former outstanding jockey Greg Hall waited nervously for his young son, Nicholas, who was flying to Melbourne to see his father for the first time in three years.
A bitter separation and divorce had taken their toll on the Hall family but, by contacting a Christian Brothers boarding school in Brisbane, Greg Hall took the first steps towards seeing his now grown-up son.
"The Christian Brothers organised for Nick to come to Melbourne on one week's holiday and I felt a new man," he said. "To be away from someone that you love so dearly is hard and sometimes it's even harder making up the time missed. To show you how keen I was to have him back I put L-plates on my new Mercedes and let him drive around town with me. I nearly put a blindfold on after the first few lessons."
Nicholas Hall had been educated in some of the finest schools around the world. From the ages of 13 to 17 he had lost contact with his father but was always eager to be reunited.
"When I told dad that I wanted to be a jockey he nearly fell over," Nicholas said. "I think he joked, 'What have I been wasting all that money on private schools for when you want to be throwing it all in to go through the pain of being a jockey?"'
But after discussions with his mother Kim in Dubai, it was decided that the boy be given his chance at becoming a jockey. Nicholas Hall, who earned good marks at school, didn't hide the fact his horse appreciation would be low on the scale. He was under no illusions that he would be legged on and everything would fall into place.
"When Nick convinced me he was serious, Kim and I gave him the big tick," Hall sr said. "I looked around at a few trainers and settled on Gerald Egan, who's not only a fantastic horseman but also great with kids.
"I said to Gerald, 'Would you take this kid on?' And he replied, 'I'll give him three weeks
"I went with Nick up there because I knew even though he's 17, they're just kids. They can still have the odd cry, everything's brand new. So I slept on the couch of Egan's place for three months. Watching from afar and just giving the odd hint. Not being a pest, just hoping he's enjoying it.
"It was strange the other day I was watching TV and they were describing Nick as one of the best jockeys in Australia. Four years ago at his first morning at the track he put the saddle on the wrong way round."
Young Hall was prepared to make mistakes but keen to make something of the apprenticeship. "Dad was around horses from the time he could walk, that was the way the world was," he said. "In all the countries I lived there was no interaction with the horse. Until I was 12 I hated racing anyway."
But Nicholas Hall has made a deafening statement in the past 12 months. He's gone from a middle-of-the-road apprentice to being in high demand.
He is loyal to both his parents and knows that nobody is perfect. "I probably only have a few drinks when I go out - I've seen that dad has a drinking problem, I've watched it since I was young, but I've got lots of help and I think dad needed help at times but never got it," he said.
"I have had the luxury of private schools ramming the ill-effects of drinking down your throat from an early age so I knew to be wary of it. That's OK for me. I think at the same [age that] I was going to a very exclusive school in Dubai my father was selling papers at Flinders Street Station after leaving school at grade five.
"And after he'd sell papers he'd go and beg to ride the stable pony. He's done it the hard way but he hasn't got in my way, I think he's just very proud from a distance."
Hall jr has homed in on what he believes is the most important feature of being a jockey today. "I study every tape of every ride that I have," he revealed. "I use [form analyst] Deane Lester on a daily basis to talk things through. Of a Saturday I talk to him about speed, about where I'll be in the run then by the time I walk into the jockeys' room I'm armed with every piece of information.
"My boss [Egan] told me preparation is potential and that's why I build up a mental picture of every horse I'm about to ride and I'll flick back and have another look even if I've ridden it at every start."
Hall is now in constant demand from major stables across Victoria. Those who use him are taken by the depth and by the considered opinion he comes out with on horses.
His father could be six lengths behind with 200 metres to go and win by a nose and tell the media afterwards there was never a problem. But Hall jr would rather watch the replay before making any statements about a ride. At 20, Hall believes that the shadow of his father and what he achieved on the racecourse is no longer a hindrance.
Hall sr has deliberately distanced himself from making any public comment. "The marriage break-up is a long time ago," he said. "Kim, his mother, was a good mother and I think he's inherited her intelligence and a little bit of my horsemanship.
"Thank God he didn't want to ride until he was 17, until he'd seen the world and until he'd focused on the future. But as a parent you can't begin to know how proud I am of him."
Nick Hall is certain to make an impact on this year's autumn carnival. He left his signature on Flemington racecourse last Saturday with a double that earned him rave reviews throughout Australia.
But that family reunion all those years ago was best summed up by Greg Hall when he said: "I've made plenty of mistakes that I am so sorry for, but do you know that when Nick wants to have a cry I'm the first bloke he comes to and that's why I love him to death." THE FORM ONLINE
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