By Hans Ebert

It was (racing writer) Andrew Hawkins who first introduced the then up-and-coming teenage apprentice to Hong Kong racing fans following an interview with fellow young gun Callan Murray. After that, it was friend and South Africa-based writer Robyn Louw who forwarded me articles she had written about both riders- Callan Murray and Lyle Hewitson.

Callan Murray had received a license to ride in Hong Kong and it was good to have some background as to what made him tick. Friends in Australia had mentioned how his stint down under had its ebbs and flows. The personable young South African had what was a successful introduction to Hong Kong racing. He knew that it wasn’t exactly going to be a walk in a dim sum park and had prepared for it.

When granted another license to ride in Hong Kong the next season, for whatever reason, Callan Murray didn’t fare as well as expected. He had returned to the city with a name unknown to us- Grant van Niekerk- who stole his thunder and the headlines by hitting the ground running and very quickly gaining a strong support system.

Aldo Domeyer came and went with his fair share of winners whereas in the midst of all these new names was that of Lyle Hewitson. He came with a great track record- two time champion apprentice plus being South Africa’s champion jockey and 219 winners during his record breaking 2018-19 season.

Much was expected of him- and at 21, the youngest in the Hong Kong riding ranks. Perhaps too much was expected. These great expectations lost the momentum needed when Lyle had to face a stop-start hurdle before even getting warm and allowed to pass Old Kent Road.

What happened was that after two weeks of riding at the start of the 2019-20 Hong Kong racing season, he was suddenly forced to serve out a suspension carried over from South Africa. This was to prove costly.

Few will understand just how much this impacted the rest of the likeable rider’s stint in Hong Kong. Likability doesn’t generate winners. And two weeks on the sidelines, especially in Hong Kong, and when owners and trainers are deciding on who’s on first and what’s on second, can find Opportunity Knocks making a muted sound with no one home.

When Lyle Hewitson was finally allowed to show what he was about, the opportunities received were hardly the pick of the crop. These had already gone to other riders. He was forced to make the best of a bad situation, something he did with all the positivity he could muster. He didn’t throw his toys out of the pram and leave. He stuck it out. It’s something for which he should be applauded.

It wasn’t until the legendary South African rider Douglas Whyte, and Hong Kong’s newest trainer offered him the ride on Last Kingdom that Lyle Hewitson got off the mark after going winless on 140 rides.

His time in Hong Kong and the three winners he rode here have been well documented so there’s no point regurgitating what happened and also what never happened.

From the first time I met him, I liked the young rider. He was open, he was polite and he was a realist. When he mentioned going to ride in Japan for three months and how he was looking forward to this new experience, I might have wished him the best, but didn’t hold much hope for him.

There had been quite a few foreign riders who expected to make a, well, deep impact in Japan and be accepted by the millions of Japanese racing fans by riding “idol” horses.

Only Damien Lane and Oisin Murphy come to mind as success stories along with Joao Moreira whose plans to ride in Japan on a full-term basis never passed the test- quite literally- the test to be able to read and speak fluent Japanese like the only two foreign riders in the country- Mirco Demuro and Christophe Lemaire.

When Lyle Hewitson rode a winner at his first meeting in Nakayama at an all-dirt meeting, a loud cheer went off inside. It augured well for the rest of his three month license in Japan.

Still, no one could have predicted everything that was to follow- winners through doubles, trebles, becoming a media darling and very quickly being seen as an “idol” jockey.

Having worked the Japanese market during my time in the music industry, the infatuation with “idol” singers like Utada and “idol” bands was always something fascinating and intrinsically Japanese. It still is.

Over the past year especially, young French female jockey Mikaelle Michel has captured the hearts and minds of Japanese racing fans. With her Instagram cuteness and marketability plus her ability to ride winners, like Japan’s very own Nanako Fujita, she’s become an “idol” jockey following her various stints in Japan. The odds of her making Japan her new home? In time, possibly very high.

Lyle Hewitson has this same marketability and ready-made Instagram popularity. We’re seeing it already. Where to next for him? He knows.

During these coronavirus days when horse racing in Japan continues, but behind locked doors, how this pastime is marketed and where and to whom and how is something that should be thought through.

To kinda paraphrase the Verve, the old ways don’t work anymore- not if one is to change with these changing times without tripping over the past and force-feeding consumers with more warmed over porridge.

What’s needed is some snap, crackle and J-Pop and K-Pop new racing product to market.

And before I forget: Well done, Lyle.

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