ANDREW Gibbons remembers it like yesterday.
The concourse was a sea of people as the then second-year apprentice came back to scale after winning aboard 100-1 pop Grecian Gold on Newcastle Cup day.
Gibbons was 17 and riding in his first race for Rosehill trainer Brian Guy.
"I have a photo of me coming back into the enclosure, you couldn't see anything for people. It was massive," Gibbons recalled.
From that moment "Cup Day" has always been a special occasion.
Now 42 and fresh from winning the NSW jockey's premiership, Gibbons has his best chance of winning the iconic Group 3 feature.
The in-form Hunter hoop will ride the Kris Lees-trained Attention Run in the Newcastle Gold Cup (2300m) at Broadmeadow on Friday.
Attention Run, which is owned by Hunter-based syndicators Australian Bloodstock finished second last year behind Hush Writer.
"She has drawn horribly in gate 16 but is going terrific," Gibbons said. "Last year she didn't get beaten far and did all the donkey work in front.
"Any feature race over the Newcastle carnival would be great to win. I nearly won a Cameron Handicap as an apprentice. If I could only win one of them, the cup is the one I want to win. It would be a massive box to tick. This is probably the first time I am going into it with a genuine hope."
The wait for Newcastle Cup success has been even longer for the Lees family.
The legendary Max Lees dominated racing in Newcastle for more than three decades before his death in 2003. He won some of the nation's biggest races - Golden Slipper, AJC Sires' Produce Stakes, Spring Champion Stakes - but his home cup eluded the master horseman.
Son Kris now operates the empire, has had multiple group success and trained more winners than anyone in NSW last season.
But he too is yet to lead in a Newcastle Cup winner.
Attention Run and Our Candidate filled the second and third place stalls last year.
"I know it is a race Kris desperately wants to win," Gibbons said. "It looked like his year last year with Our Candidate. He loomed up on straightening but faded.
"It would be great if I could be the first one to win it for him. The boys at Australian Bloodstock, Luke Murrell and Jamie Lovett, have also been fantastic to me. It would be great to pay them back."
Lees also has $2.10 favourite Mugatoo, Big Duke and Aliferous in the cup.
Kerrin McEvoy rode Attention Run in the Newcastle Cup last year and Gibbon's only ride on the mare was when seventh in the 1 group Metropolitan (2400m).
"I rode her next start after the cup and she only got beat a length and a half in a group 1," he said. "She has come back a different horse this preparation. She used to go a bit keen before and now she is racing back in the field. Her first-up run was unreal when she won over 1800m at Rosehill. Then Kris took his time with her.
"She was a bit stiff at Wyong last start. The track didn't suit and she had no luck coming to the corner. She had no momentum and still finished fifth. It was really good trial for Newcastle. If she gets luck from the bad draw she is definitely a lightweight hope."
Victory in the cup would continue a golden run for Gibbons, who has turned his career around.
"I looked at a bloke like [master Cessnock jockey] Robert Thompson," Gibbons said. "He has an unbelievable knack of staying out of trouble and making the right decisions. Everyone makes mistakes, but I have gotten them down to as few as possible. From there consistent good results will come."
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