By Robyn Louw

Charles Darwin opined that it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change. With the absence of Joao Moreira from the Hong Kong jockey roster, the winds of change are blowing and carrying with them the tantalising whiff of opportunity for those willing and able to grab it. Two young riders hoping to do just that are the newly arrived South African duo of Grant van Niekerk and Callan Murray.

The Hong Kong honour roll stands testament to the fact that South African riders thrive on the tough international stage, so Steve Railton’s move to cherry pick Murray and van Niekerk from South Africa’s top ten roster looks a shrewd one. However, names like Bartie Leisher, Basil Marcus and Felix Coetzee, not to mention thirteen time Hong Kong champion, Douglas Whyte and the popular ‘Mauritian Magician’ Karis Teetan beating a path before them are both a blessing and curse, as the weight bag of expectation will sit heavily when the season opens in a few weeks’ time.

Of course the joy of racing is that when those gates open, just about anything can happen and what any South African will tell you is that we know a little more than most about beating the odds.

Callan Murray (photo: Pauline Herman Photography)

It is Callan’s second call up to Hong Kong after a productive two month stint at the end of last season. The career of the young Johannesburg native, who turns 22 later this month, has been on a steady upward trajectory from the moment he first swung into the saddle.

With his clean cut looks, big blue eyes and megawatt smile, Callan has instant poster boy appeal, and not only is he exceptionally media friendly, he’s friendly full stop. His likeability, coupled with his steadily increasing strike rate, opened doors for him with top yards across the country and saw him singled out for an unprecedented early sponsorship by the prestigious Avontuur Stud Farm.

Of course hype is one thing, making good on it is another, but the affable young man is clear-minded about where he wants his career to go and he delivers. He started with simultaneous champion apprentice titles in South Africa and Zimbabwe at the close of the 2016 season. Racing Victoria riding master, Matt Pumpa, was sufficiently impressed by the young man to facilitate a 6 week stint with David Hayes’ Lindsay Park Stables and Callan saw out the final stretch of his apprenticeship in Australia, posting four winners and a number of places from his 14 rides. Returning to South Africa in January 2017, Callan hit the ground running, ensuring his first ride as a senior rider was a winning one.

His first Gr1 win arrived shortly afterwards, courtesy of the Mike de Kock trained Heavenly Blue in the Gr1 SA Classic in April 2017. But it was his Gr1 treble on South Africa’s Champions Day on 6 May that earned him a quantum leap up the international rankings and the label of an emerging talent by the Thoroughbred Racing Commentary. It also caught the eye of Steve Railton, who extended Callan his debut two month contract to Hong Kong.

It was a huge step for the 20 year old, but he went with realistic expectations – to learn what he could, lay some foundations for the future and hope for a bit of luck and he came home with two G3 wins and a lot of life lessons.

“Travelling teaches you a lot, although I don’t think you realise how much until you get home again,” he explains. “Hong Kong is an experience on its own and the racing is different to anywhere else in the world. It was really nice to be part of it. Riding with the world’s best jockeys and working for some of the best trainers and having the opportunity to gain some knowledge from them, made me into a better rider, without a doubt. It also helped me in dealing with trainers. In Hong Kong it’s very competitive in terms of getting rides and when I got back, I kept that mind-set and was able to be more competitive back home.”

But there were lessons beyond the saddle too. “After the Academy, I went to Australia and I was only home for a few months before Hong Kong came along. When I got home, I came to realise I had to start getting things done the right way, handling certain situations better. Adulting, I suppose,” he laughs. “I think I needed to come back and sort of ground myself and learn more about living on my own and handling responsibilities the right way. Going back to Hong Kong this time, I think I’ll be able to handle things better not just professionally, but with life in general.”

Callan was centre stage for the 2018 Triple Tiara hoopla (photo: JC Photographics)

This time round he comes armed with the benefit of an extra year’s experience as well as the hoopla of the 2018 Champions Season, which saw him partnering Triple Tiara hopeful, Takingthepeace and securing two of the coveted three legs of the challenge in the process. By the end of the season, he had achieved a 12.8% win strike rate and earned a 6th place ranking on the SA Jockey Log.

Although he is sad about leaving home, he is also looking forward to the fresh challenges ahead.

“I have to say thanks, particularly to the De Kock stable – they trusted me with big horses in big races and without them I wouldn’t be where I am today. I must also mention Geoff Woodruff who has always stuck by me, but I’ve had support from so many people and I want to thank everyone who were good friends to me and helped me achieve what I have so far – without support and backing you don’t have the confidence to achieve what you are capable of.”

“Obviously it was an honour to be sponsored by Avontuur at an early age and to be part of the team. It was far more than just wearing their name on my breeches – Pippa was a friend, helped me through tough times and was always there when I needed. I just want to say thanks to the whole team – it was a pleasure to be part of for the last two years.”

The Hong Kong he’s arrived at is significantly different from the one he left – from the opening of Conghua to some radical changes on the jockey roster, but Callan is keeping it simple. “It’s great to come off the back of a successful season at home and with confidence in my riding – I think it’s important to have a positive frame of mind. I’ll probably just keep things as normal, keep focusing on the big races, trying to win and keeping my momentum going. With Joao, Olivier and Brett leaving, it opens doors with other stables that were hard for me to get into during my last stint, so I’m going there very open minded and trying wherever I can to get the best rides. Being in Hong Kong is what I wanted my whole career, I’ve worked hard to get here and I just need to make sure I work hard to achieve. I’m excited about the challenge that lies ahead.”

Grant van Niekerk (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

Balancing Callan’s youth and enthusiasm, is twenty-seven year old Grant van Niekerk, who incidentally graduated from the SA Jockey Academy the same year Callan Murray enrolled.

Although Grant may not be all that familiar to Hong Kong racing fans, he has earned his reputation as a big race rider in South Africa fairly and squarely. He also joins the Hong Kong roster fresh from the most successful season of his career, including a Gr1 double on Sun Met day and a confidence-boosting 19.4% win strike rate for the season.

With most of training’s senior rank and file having seen more jockeys come and go than most of us have had hot dinners, it was interesting that the late Alan Higgins, an ex-jockey and one of the longest-serving of the Cape trainers, singled Grant out as a future star right from day one. When asked why, he summed up in two words: ‘Honest jock.’

Reflecting on those early days Grant acknowledges, “Mr Sheehan and the late Mr Higgins taught me things I would never have learned anywhere else. They were old school, but they always believed in me and had faith in me. I’m glad I can make them proud by having winners, staying humble and on the right road.”

Grant’s first major break arrived in the form of a horse named Smanjemanje, who was plagued with breathing issues and found himself stranded without a rider ahead of the 2011 Gr2 Victory Moon Stakes. Tyrone Zackey offered the young rider the opportunity as an emergency replacement, the horse appreciated his sympathetic riding style and promptly posted an upset result, earning him the title of ‘The Giant Killer’.

A mere six months later, thanks to his breathing-impaired friend, Grant got his first call up for the Vodacom Durban July and they sensationally matched Piere Strydom and Pomodoro stride for stride in a nerve-sapping stretch run duel, going down by a head in a fight.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Grant’s tendency to follow his instincts in a race is both his greatest asset as well as his greatest Achilles heel as his creativity isn’t appreciated in every quarter, but his commitment in the saddle is unquestionable and has earned him a reputation for giving his all on every ride.

His burgeoning credentials were underlined when he became first call rider to the powerhouse Mike Bass string, partnering the top class filly Inara to two Gr1 wins in the space of three weeks in January 2015.

While Grant is perhaps less polished at the politicking side of wooing owners for rides, it is something he has had more practice at as a freelance rider, after splitting from Bass Racing in February 2017. However, he prefers to do his talking on the track and converted the would-be setback into a positive, bumping up his strike rate to 19.4% and adding another four Gr1 wins to his tally last season.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” he admits, “but everything happens for a reason and I’m very glad it did. It taught me a lot and it opened a lot of other doors for me,” he says referring to his association with newly crowned SA Champion Trainer Justin Snaith and his endorsement from Drakenstein Stud Farm (breeders of Hong Kong Classic Cup hero, Singapore Sling), who signed him on as their retained rider. “I believed I could do it and just kept working hard. And if you work hard and produce the results, opportunities are going to come your way.”

And come his way they did, particularly on Met day 2018, when Grant rode four winners on the Cape’s biggest race day. His haul included the Gr1 Majorca Stakes as well as the card feature, the Gr1 Sun Met, aboard Snaith Racing’s star 3yo filly Oh Susanna carrying the silks of his sponsor, Drakenstein Stud Farm.

Grant hugs Justin Snaith after their 2018 Met victory (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

And so to Hong Kong. It’s a big wrench as Grant has recently become a father for the second time and is riding the crest of his professional wave, but the opportunity is one he cannot pass up. “I am going to miss South Africa a lot, but I’ve been trying to get in for the last 2 years. When Joao Moreira left, I had a chance and got the call up.”

“I’m leaving a lot of good horses behind, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I’m looking forward to riding over there. It’s going to be a great experience for me and obviously Hong Kong is big, so I’ll be taking on very good jockeys, but I’m looking forward to the competition, the experience and meeting new people. It still feels surreal, but obviously the hard work begins now and I’ve got to make it work.”

“I have to thank my family for making this possible, for always praying for me, making sure I’m doing well and keeping me on the right track. I also have to thank Mrs Rupert and the Drakenstein Stud Farm team for really being behind me and for all the support they’ve given me. It’s been overwhelming and I’m forever in their debt. And the horses. I can’t point out just one or two – every horse has helped me become a better rider and I’ve been very blessed to ride some very good horses. Hopefully that continues.”

Asked what he hopes to offer Hong Kong racing this season, he says, “I’m a very competitive guy, so I’m always going to give my best. When it comes to riding in races, I’m a very honest person – I don’t know what else to say. Those are my main qualities – I’m competitive, I always give my best and I’m honest. I don’t know what the new adventure holds, I don’t know how well I’m going to do, but I’m going with a positive mind-set.”

Here’s to 2 September.