“I will stay in Hong Kong as long as I am doing well but, if I find myself in a position where I have to fight for rides and winners, I will probably come back to South Africa or try somewhere else.”
Grant van Niekerk has found himself in both positions during his first season out there, starting off with a bang and then having to make the best of 20-1 shots for weeks before really motoring in the last couple of months. “I got a few chances and got the winners home. I then started to get more support and better rides and by the end of the season I was doing really well.”
He found it something of a culture shock to begin with, starting with the way the morning work is organised. “There the trainers book you to ride work and they can book you from 4.35am to around 7.30am.” Not the easiest for man who has long since admitted to not being much of a morning person!
And there was more. “Everything there is precise and has to be done according to the clock. The trainer will give you a distance and time for the work and you have to go the speed to do it in that. I found this difficult but you get used to it and it makes you a good judge of pace.”
That’s an important attribute in any country but particularly so there. “The pressure is on from the jump and you need to be quick out of the pens – South African racing is very laid back by comparison – and riding over there has made me a lot sharper.”
But homesickness, never far away, really hit home on the day of the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate. “I was stable jockey to Drakenstein so I felt I was missing something, and it all looked really good.
“You do get homesick out there – you miss your family and your friends – but you tell yourself you are there to work. Also you are in a racing jurisdiction where it is the best in the world so you want to be out there.
“My family (the couple have two small children, Kiara and Aidan) were with me but Nicole and I are not married so the visa was a bit of an issue and we had to travel (backwards and forwards) all the time which is tricky.”
The money he earns is huge. His 422 rides produced 31 winners and stakes of just over HK$45 million. If you work on the same percentage as jockeys get here (9%), he would have made the equivalent of R7.7 million plus riding fees.
But he is adamant that it’s not money that drives him. “It’s the racing and the environment you race in, the sort of environment you want to be in as a jockey. You get 50,000 people at the course and that makes it all so much more fun. Also I enjoy Hong Kong – it’s vibrant and a great place – but,” he pauses and breaks into a grin, “home will always be best.”
By Michael Clower