Van Niekerk goes from ground zero to Hong Kong star
SA rider reaping the rewards for his hard work in tough Asian racing centre
When Grant van Niekerk walked into the SA Jockeys Academy in 2007, he had never sat on a horse. Now the Cape Town-born rider’s career is on an upward curve with his emergence as a jockey with a burgeoning reputation in Hong Kong.
Last Wednesday 28-year-old Van Niekerk rode a treble at Happy Valley racecourse to take him into fifth place on the jockeys’ log. While he has no chance of overtaking top riders Joao Moriera, who rode five winners at Sha-Tin on Sunday, or Zac Purton, he could fill third place in the championship if his winning vein continues.
Reflecting on his early days, Van Niekerk said: “I knew nothing about racing so I just went to the academy open-minded just to see how I would do.”
He has blossomed into one of the country's top riders with his services in demand from a number of top Cape stables. He can now boast 10 grade 1 winners on his CV, including the 2018 Sun Met on Aussie-bred filly Oh Susanna.
Many South Africans — notably Basil Marcus and Dougie Whyte — have made their mark in Hong Kong. One could say both took the former British colony by storm. So it was no great surprise that Van Niekerk decided to follow in their footsteps
He found the first six months daunting with little support.
“You can arrive with all the accolades, credentials, championships and grade 1 winners from your home country, but that means sweet nothing when you step off the plane and into the pressure cooker of racing in Hong Kong,” he said.
Sage advice from legendary jockey Marcus — a household name in SA winning two Mets and three Queen's Plates before moving to Hong Kong — was welcome. Marcus’s son, Adam, who won the 2020 L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate with Vardy, won the Hong Kong championship seven times.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club is generous in inviting the world's media to their big races and on one visit this writer inquired how rich the Durban-born jockey had become as a result of his success primarily for top trainers, Ivan Allan and David Hayes. “Oh, I’d say he just about owns Kowloon [a tourist area of Hong Kong],” came the reply.
Marcus, who also finished second on Game Plan in the grade 1 Oaks in the UK in 1990, hung up his boots in 2002 and took out his trainer’s licence two years later. He now helps his son, who is enjoying his best season.
Van Niekerk wisely turned to Marcus for help. “He told me that it gets tough in Hong Kong and I’ve realised that since I stepped into Hong Kong and you feel the competitiveness among the jockeys. He said you just have to keep working hard, keep pushing and eventually things will turn, so that’s what I do. I keep working hard.”
Last Wednesday’s Happy Valley meeting was a roller-coaster ride as he rode his first winner for Dougie Whyte when taking the Tin Wan Handicap on Best Alliance. Unfortunately, that ride also saw him fall foul of the stipendiary stewards who slapped him with a three-meeting suspension [April 15-23] and a HK$120,000 (R276,404) fine.
Nevertheless, Van Niekerk was overjoyed to ride a winner for Whyte, a new addition to the Hong Kong training ranks. “Douglas is an iconic person — growing up around racing people in SA you always hear the name Douglas Whyte so riding my first winner for him in Hong Kong is something special.”
Van Niekerk also won at the same meeting on Zero Hedge and Blooming Spirit and this resulted in complimentary media comments, notably in the South China Morning Post.
Basil Marcus’s advice is bearing fruit for Van Niekerk who is catching the attention of Hong Kong trainers. “If you get horses with chances, and you get the results, you naturally get confidence. I’m getting the results and that confidence is building, so hopefully I can keep getting support.”