Home, for Chris Symons, is where Hamish the shaggy highlander steer is. It’s where the joeys need a bottle feed every four hours and where the crocodiles Crikey and Fluffy have settled in - at a safe distance – among more than 100 creatures including dogs, dingoes, horses, snakes, a macaw and a blue-tongued lizard named Bob.
When 36-year-old Symons, a jockey with more than a thousand wins to his name, gets home from an afternoon race meeting in country Victoria, he has his hands full … of wildlife. His family runs a zoo on their four-hectare property and he’s definitely not joking when he describes his life as crazy!
"It’s a pretty cool life, though,” Symons laughs.
The Funky Farm is a passion project and career move that’s been years in the making for Symons, his wife Sam and their 9-year-old daughter, Ziva. They hope to open their zoo to visitors – especially people with a disability - before year’s end.
Symons had his first professional ride in 1999 and worked in Adelaide and the US before basing his family on the Mornington Peninsula, outside Melbourne. Ambitious and hardworking – with an eye out for future prospects - he suffered a well-publicised and potentially career-ending injury in 2012 when his foot was crushed by a car. He used his compulsory downtime to expand his horizons, try new projects and develop his media career, including an ongoing association with Channel Seven.
As The Funky Farm’s opening approached this year, the team hit a big but very welcome delay: the property was closed for three months to become a major location for Ride Like a Girl, the movie that tells the story of Michelle Payne’s Melbourne Cup win. Symons loved every minute of his time as a consultant to the production, doing everything from helping find and train horses to appearing in front of the camera.
For a man with 150 or so mouths to feed and a dangerous day job, Symons is grateful for the security the National Jockey’s Trust, in partnership with LUCRF Super, brings to the industry.
“Today, for example, I’m going to Kilmore to race and I could fall off and break an arm or worse,”’ he reflects. “That the Jockeys Trust is there to assist me and my family at a time in need is very reassuring, and it makes me more comfortable. I’ve seen it do so many great things for people.”
Symons is pretty sure his unorthodox career has raised eyebrows in the racing industry. But while his heart’s still in it, he’ll continue to juggle riding, zoo and media commitments.
“I’m just trying to establish my life after racing. All jockeys need something else to do – you can’t do this forever.”