Grant van Niekerk has earned his way to the top of our rider rankings with a well-deserved reputation for always doing his very best on every ride. With a new stable and a new sponsor, he celebrated Mother’s Day with 5 wins on the Kenilworth card.
The Capetonian joined the SA Jockey Academy in January 2007, alongside Gareth Wright, JP Van Der Merwe, Tshwaro Appie, Athandiwe Mgudlwa and Aldo Domeyer. His first ride came aboard the Glen Kotzen-trained Combat Leader at Clairwood on 11 June 2008 where he finished second. Two meetings later, he got the ride again and rode his first winner at Clairwood Park on 25 June 2008. It was his fourth ride under rules.
After his initial training, Grant was placed at the Cape Town academy, a move which suited him down to the ground, being his home town. However, Cape Town is also very competitive and it can be difficult for young riders to make an impression. The senior rank and file of our training ranks have seen more jockeys come and go than most of us have had hot dinners and are generally fairly good judges when the new drafts roll into town, so it was interesting that the late Alan Higgins singled Grant out as a future star, right from day one. For someone who mentored the likes of Spike Lerena, Glen Hatt, Mark Khan and Greg Cheyne, that is high praise indeed. When I ask why, the answer was simple, ‘Honest jock.’
A Little Luck
While being good certainly helps, as the old expression goes, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good and in Grant’s case, luck smiled down on him during the 2011 Jockey ‘International’. Randall Simons was stood down from his ride on Smanjemanje in the Victory Moon Stakes and Grant stepped into the breach, bringing him home an easy 3.75 length winner for trainer Tyrone Zackey. Mr Zackey kept Grant on the horse and, newly out of his time, he was the youngest rider in the 2012 J&B Met and the two were the narrowest of losers in the 2012 Vodacom Durban July, going down a short head to Pomodoro.
“My first job was with Mr van Reenen. I worked for him for a few months and then Glen Kotzen offered me a job. I was really over the moon. I did very well for Mr Kotzen and then Mr Bass approached me. Obviously it’s a stable you can’t pass by, so I took the opportunity and I have to say, Mr Bass put me on the map.” That was in July 2013 and brought with it a sponsorship from Kuda Insurance. The appointment, which raised eyebrows in some quarters, was a winning one and on 7 December 2013, Grant rode a career best 5 winners on the Kenilworth card, of which 4 were for the Bass yard. He also brought home 6 winners on the Kenilworth card on 12 July 2014, which included two for the Bass team. “I rode a lot of good horses for them,” he reflects. Big horses Inara gave Grant his first career Gr1 win in the Maine Chance Farms Paddock Stakes on 10 January 2015 and followed up with a second Gr1 in the 31 January Klawervlei Majorca Stakes. “I won five Gr1’s on her and she won in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. For a filly to do that is phenomenal and she’s a horse that is really close to my heart.”
Grant also partnered Marinaresco, who gave him a second heart-stopping July second, as well as a very emotional Gr1 Mike & Carol Bass Champions Cup on Mike’s last official day in the office on 31 July 2016. “Marinaresco is special. I know how good he is, but obviously things didn’t pan out in the Queen’s Plate and Met for me. I would have loved to keep the ride, but I am grateful to the Basses for everything they taught me and all the opportunities that came my way.”
Grant and the Bass yard parted company in February 2017, with both parties choosing to freelance. In March 2017, Grant was snapped up by the Plattner yard, while Aldo Domeyer stepped into the vacant stable jockey position for Candice Bass-Robinson. Grant also picked up a new sponsor in Drakenstein Stud Farm.
“Working for the Plattner yard is great. Andre Nel is really easy to ride for and he’s very very good with his horses. I get along with him and Mrs Plattner very well. It’s a great team to work for, there’s no unnecessary pressure on you, they’re very understanding when a horse gets beaten and I am really loving riding for them. We’re doing very well together and I hope it continues. Andre is a great guy and a great trainer and I think he’ll go straight to the top.”
On Sunday, 14 May 2017, from 9 carded rides at Kenilworth, Grant brought home 5 winners, two seconds and a fifth and his 9th ride was scratched. He brought home two winners for the Plattner yard, two for the Woodruff string and one for Candice Bass-Robinson. “I’ve had six on a day before and it’s always nice to have multiple winners on a day. If you get past the 4th winner, it’s a great feeling. I thought I was a little unlucky not to have 6 today,” he says, referring to the first race in which he lodged an objection. “But it was still a great day.”
“I haven’t had the best of seasons. I was off for six weeks, so I’m grateful to have five wins again – I am feeling very good about today.” Asked whether he was expecting a good day at the office, he says, “It just kind of happened. Sometimes you can have good rides and think you’re going to have a good day and end up with none. The first one came and I thought ‘thank God!’, then the next one and the next. Once you’ve had a winner or two, it pushes your confidence up and you may end up winning even on horses that may not be favourite.”
Ups and Downs
“The best part of being a jockey is riding winners – that’s what makes it sweet, you know? I love being around horses. I love riding. For me the best part of the job is being around horses and riding winners. That makes everything worthwhile.”
What does he find challenging? “Pressure when it comes to betting and critics afterwards. Like any sportsman, one can go through a bad patch and there are always people who will talk. If that gets in your way, that can affect you when you’re riding. I try and block it out and carry on with life. I think as long as you know you’ve done your best, no-one’s opinion really matters.”
Does he have any designs on the Durban season? “The Plattner yard are my first priority and we are working hard for that Graded win. But, they don’t have that many horses, so I am available for quite a few races. Andre is very understanding and if I am offered a good ride, he is happy for me to take it – he is very good like that.”
Is there perhaps a July prospect on the horizon? “Nothing has been confirmed yet, but I feel I’ve been unlucky on two occasions now. I really want to win the July and feel like my time has come to win it.” His other big race goals are the Queen’s Plate for his sponsor and the Met.
Asked if there has been a special mentor or support from anyone in particular during his career, Grant answers, “There are a few people, but mainly my family. They have been supportive right throughout. So I’d have to say my family and my little daughter. They are the reason I carry on and always try and do my best.”