If you’re like me, a non-racing person, you’ve always wondered how those “small” guys handle and control those huge race horses in an extremely competitive – and even hostile – environment, with thousands of Rands “riding” on each race.
After spending a day in the company of three of South Africa’s top working jockeys at Avontuur Wine and Thoroughbred Estate recently, I now know that dynamite definitely comes in small packages.
The visitors were Greg Cheyne and MJ Byleveld who have been riding for years and are based in the Western Cape, with recently crowned champion apprentice jockey Callan Murray who is based in Johannesburg.
Greg explained that in summer his day starts at 04h30 and in winter at 07h30. “As a freelancer I make sure that I get in at least 3 training sessions per week at Philippi and Milnerton training centres and in that way you condition the horses as well as yourself.” MJ added that as he has built up a relationship with trainer Vaughn Marshall, he mostly rides for him at his training yard or centres.
Callan is in a bit of a different situation as he is still based at the Jockey’s Academy in Randjiesfontein, Midrand from where he often goes to ride at Turffontein in the mornings. “We have six apprentices living in boarding conditions at the Academy until we are fully trained, and it’s incredibly convenient as all your basic needs are looked after. Once the training is done, we have to look after ourselves,” Callan explains.
The South African Jockey Academy is where all three of these pro’s got their training. Greg finished in 1991, MJ in 1997 and if all goes well Callan will be done in 2017. The main campus is in Summerveld KZN, with satellite campuses in Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg. All three jocks are full of praise for the years they spent at the Academy. The only suggestion made was that jockeys could get more life skills assistance and financial advice as they start out with their professional careers, as the bright lights could distract you if you’re not aware.
“Most apprentices come into the business because they love sport and competing and are then recommended to the Academy by a contact. Many have had absolutely no horse riding backgrounds and the whole industry is completely new to them and their families,” says Greg.
WEIGHT CONTROL AND FITNESS
Although physically small, these guys are strong and competitive and all three spend time exercising. Callan and MJ are regulars at their local gym and Greg is a keen golfer. They all agree that fitness is key as injuries happen easily like in most intense sports. Greg explains that weight requirements must be met. “I have four saddles ranging from 4kg to 300 g which gives you more flexibility regarding weight on race day, but it’s still up to you to ensure that you meet the weight requirements.”
FAMILY AND RELATIONSHIPS
According to MJ it’s quite tough finding a partner who can handle the stress of the lifestyle, which includes travelling a lot, early morning starts, late night return flights, the possibility of injury and the rehab period which follows if you are hurt.
Callan says his mom initially couldn’t even watch him racing as it scared her and she worried constantly that he would get hurt. “Now she’s better at it, but still it’s stressful,” he says.
Greg’s wife Claire comes from a horsey family and she is an equine therapist, which does help their relationship as they share many of the highs and lows of their respective careers. Greg has spent time riding in the East and Claire travelled with him, but when the ride is in South Africa she stays at home in Cape Town.
“I really cannot comment,” laughs Callan. “All I am waiting for is to start my professional career next year, and then it’s a case of keeping going and achieving enough for my trainers and owners, so that I can build a viable career.”
“Everyone who knows me know I love farm life, and one day I’d like to be a cattle farmer,” says MJ. “But for now I’m recovering from an operation, and it’s going to take a bit of time to get fully fit and into riding again.”
Greg feels that as long as one’s weight can be controlled and the body holds, a jockey’s career can stretch into his 50’s which is quite long for a professional sportsperson. “However once the riding is over, I’d like to go into TV hosting and would love to share my passion and experience with the industry and public,” he says.
By Cobie van Oort, for Avontuur Estate