After watching him ride the last winner of the card on the last Happy Wednesday of 2019, one couldn’t help wondering if we hadn’t seen a future champion jockey of Hong Kong.

There’s something special about South African rider Grant van Niekerk. There’s an X Factor which some of us heard about before he arrived in Hong Kong last season with quite a few asking, “Grant WHO?”

Asking those who had seen him ride back in his home country- experienced and knowledgeable horse people- all they could say was how horses just seem to run for him. How it’s something that comes naturally.

Well, last season was a baptism of fire along with a steep learning curve and doing everything possible to make it known that he was here to ride winners- and which he did- perhaps not as quickly as Richard Fourie and Karis Teetan- but quick enough to have possible important support systems in place.

This season, and with his license renewed for the entire season, means having a very important security blanket. There’s a self-confidence that’s easy to see- a cheeky self-confidence that never comes close to cockiness or arrogance.

He rode a treble on Thursday- a special Boxing Day Happy Wednesday- and won the Jockey Challenge including riding a double for trainer Danny Shum. It was his win in the last race of the night that was the most revealing- an all-the-way win aboard Shum’s Winning Method. It was confidence on a night when a talent like Joao Moreira failed on something like seven favourites.

Whereas it’s no secret that the Brazilian magic man blows hot and cold when riding the city track, Grant van Niekerk seems to savour the opportunity as he’s conquered what is a tight, idiosyncratic track. Happy Valley Racecourse has been the ruin of many good jockeys. Masters in handling it have been the great Tony Cruz who grew up riding the track when an apprentice, Douglas Whyte and, more recently, Zac Purton. Van Niekerk is getting there. He could even already be there.

In these changing times where the likability factor comes into play and there’s another kind of winning involved- winning over that new generation of racing fans who wouldn’t know good rides from bad. They just know if they like a rider or not. It’s not unlike being a fan of a pop star. With a resemblance to Bruno Mars, Grant van Niekerk has this appeal- at a racecourse like Happy Valley with its younger group of regulars.

As he brought Winning Method past all those merry makers lined up by the Beer Garden and interacted with them by throwing his goggles into the crowd and played to the choir without resorting to any phoniness, it was obvious that here’s a young rider who’s won over this audience along with a very strong support group of trainers- yes, Danny Shum, but also Frankie Lor, Jimmy Ting and others with owners having the purchasing power to create Hong Kong’s next group of champion gallopers.

Grant van Nierkerk has a lot going for him. Much of this comes naturally. And with already eighteen wins for the season, it’s all about managing this success as the long run is whatever he wants it to be.

As with anything in life, it comes down to how one plays the game- and keeping it real.

For this writer, Grant van Niekerk is the real deal. The HKJC has someone here in its objective to attract those new to horse racing, and needing personalities to hold their interest in what will always be a pastime. And horse racing as a pastime in this social media driven world and so many leisure activities after the same consumer dollar could lead to other areas of business that don’t even exist today- but could tomorrow.

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