“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favour you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
The words of the late, great Dorothy Parker are dancing at the back of my mind and rubbing their hands in glee as the very charming young Lyle Hewitson tells me he wants to be a jockey. While I certainly would not like to say I’ve ‘been around the block a few times’, at the ripe middle age of something approaching 40, I have had the privilege of working in a number of different industries and observing a range of different professions and have to say that being a jockey still ranks as the toughest and most thankless of them all. And to make the challenge even harder, young Lyle is tackling it from the work rider angle. So do I say “wow, I wish you every success?” or do I shoot him now?
Lyle Hewitson is 17 years old. He is the son of former jockey, Carl Hewitson (currently the assistant trainer to Yvette Bremner in PE) and Samantha Kempthorne Hewitson (whose Facebook page lists her as ‘Lyle Hewitson’s Mother’ which I think is pretty cool). I met Lyle on the eve of my expedition with the Legends of the Turf group in January. He’d just ridden Gondola Girl to victory for Michael Azzie in a 1200m Work Riders Maiden Plate at the Vaal and made it look easy. We had arranged to pick him up after races so that he could help out with the Legends shooting the next day. He could have been forgiven for being a little cocksure of himself, but he wasn’t. He was neatly dressed, his kit bag neatly packed and he had a framed copy of his latest winning photograph under his arm. Fresh-faced and professional, he proffered a smile and an outstretched hand in introduction to myself and the film crew. Anyone older than himself (that was all of us) was addressed as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ and he answered our good-natured jibes in good humour. When quizzed, he said he intends to collect his first 10 winning photos and then “just the bigger wins after that”. He’s already collected quite a few for big name stables and brought home a number of winners in some famous silks.
I’d be lying if I said I took it all entirely seriously, but I was intrigued when he got up without complaint at 5am with the rest of the crew, spent the entire day either on various horses (none of which were being particularly cooperative), being doused in unpleasant make-up for a scene, cleaned off and then re-doused in something else unpleasant for a different scene, and somehow doing all of it with a smile on his face and the sort of enthusiasm I thought went out with the 50’s. After an exhausting day’s filming, he pitched in along with everyone else to pack up the film kit. On the long drive back to Johannesburg, he happily recounted his background and the fact that he is due to graduate from Kearsney College this year, with pretty good marks by all accounts. The following day, I had to catch the red-eye back to Cape Town and while I was grabbing a bleary-eyed cup of coffee, Lyle had long since left to ride work at Randjesfontein. I started thinking I’d have to take this kid a bit more seriously.
Lyle’s father, Carl Hewitson, grew up in the UK’s racing town of Lambourn. Despite not being from a racing family, he was dispatched to the local racing stables during school holidays and the young boy found that he enjoyed galloping racehorses. He made it his trade, qualifying as a fully-fledged jockey and riding all over the world, before eventually ending up in South Africa. He met and married Samantha, who was a competitive rider and with Carl’s encouragement, took part in and won a few amateur races. They had three children, of which Lyle is the youngest. Sam was a keen polocrosse player and when the couple split up and the children moved with her to KZN, Tegan did a bit of show-jumping and played a bit of polocrosse, but it was Lyle who picked up the reins, so to speak, and continued the family riding tradition, playing polocrosse at the Umhlali club.
Father Carl stayed in Port Elizabeth, becoming an assistant trainer to Yvette Bremner. Lyle visited his dad during school holidays and it wasn’t long before he was sitting on horses in the ring and doing a few canter downs on slow days. In Grade 8 he befriended Anthony Delpech’s son, also a student at Kearsney College, and after an invitation to join Anthony at Summerveld one morning, Lyle has been riding work during school holidays ever since.
Lyle applied to the Jockey Academy, but at the last minute his mom pleaded with him to complete his formal schooling first. Lyle agreed. He says, “She’s happy for me to be a jockey, but the one thing she asks is that I finish matric at Kearsney. I realise that it’s the best decision.”
But why, given how notoriously difficult the industry is, would he choose to pursue a career as a jockey? “I’ve always been in love with horses and now the racing bug has bit, and I’m sure it’s there to stay,” he says with a grin. “I was riding so much work and I started getting really anxious. I wanted to ride in the work riders’ races, so I got my license. My first ride was for Glen Kotzen at Clairwood and I finished 4th. On my second ride, I won and I just loved it! It’s hard to explain, I just feel it’s all I want to do.”
While it would be easy to dismiss as youthful enthusiasm, Lyle is dead serious. He is focussing on his studies, so holidays and half terms are the only time he can ride work, but with there being a full programme of work riders’ races in Gauteng as well as the Work Riders’ Series, he travels up to ride twice a month and he is proud of paying his own way to do so.
“There are a lot fewer races in Durban and they are just down the straight. Thanks to Mr James Maree, it’s different in Joburg. The work riders’ programme is professionally run and there are races almost every week. When I first started out, I came up to Joburg for a meeting and picked up any rides I could to show my face and try and prove myself. One day I rode a horse for Mr Tarry – it was a big outsider and we finished 5th in a 2000m race, beaten just over 2 lengths. My rides started getting better and I started getting better. In one work riders meeting I rode 2 winners from 4 rides and then things really kicked off. Now I’m getting lots of support from a lot of different yards. It’s tough not being able to ride work every day, but it means I’m even more grateful to get the opportunities I do. I skip every second week because we write tests and play sport at school every Saturday, but the school has been very supportive and lets me go when I need to.”
Lyle has notched a total of 46 rides for 12 wins, including 4 on the second leg of this year’s Work Riders’ Challenge on 3 February, which gives me an excuse to give him a ring and catch up. He was at the airport, waiting to catch his flight home, but still pretty excited about a good day at the office. “In terms of fitness, with 6 rides today, I won’t lie to you, it was quite tiring, but the more I ride, the easier it gets. When I started, one was difficult, but the more I do it, the easiest it becomes. I cycle, run, do sport and any sort of fitness for these kind of days. It’s also easier when you’ve got decent rides and you’re not pushing from the back all the time.” The highlight of his big day was the fact that his dad was there to lead in his four winners. “My dad is my mentor and I’ve learnt most of it from him. He helps me out and calls and discusses every ride with me, but both my parents are very supportive. My mom has a Whatsapp group to tell her friends when I’m riding and she also watches all my rides and gives me feedback. There are quite a few people behind me and it’s nice to make them all proud. My sisters are both studying in Cape Town and always sent me best wishes and congratulations. It really makes my day getting SMS’s.”
The third leg of the Work Riders Series will be held at Turffontein on 2 May. Apart from the Champion Work Rider award, there is also a substantial cash incentive up for grabs – is he going for it? Lyle says “At the first meeting I only had 4 rides, so I was lucky to have 2 winners. Today I had a very nice day, but Charles (Ndlovu) still managed to beat me on points. I am a few points behind and sitting second on the log going into the last leg of the series. Of course I’ll try and win, but it will be hard from there,” he says candidly.
It’s rather unusual – in my experience anyway – to find a young person so dedicated and committed – particularly when he clearly has any number of other prospects. Where does the motivation and discipline come from? “It comes naturally. It’s how I was brought up and it’s just the way I am.”
While it’s all good and well, what are his realistic prospects? “The options are either to try and apply through the Academy or otherwise via Mr James Maree. But my main objective is to finish matric this year and then we’ll assess the situation and choose the best route.”
Can it work?
South Africa has long focussed on producing riders through our Jockey Academy, although it’s not unheard of for jockeys to qualify through alternative routes. In countries like the US and the UK however, jockeys generally make their way through the work riding ranks before turning professional and that method seems to work quite well. Jumps racing is one of the few sports that allows amateurs to compete against professional riders and England’s Sam Waley-Cohen is one of the most famous, attempting races like the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The press love making a meal of his amateur status, but he says “I never went into racing for the glamour and the girls, I went into racing because I enjoyed galloping racehorses and jumping fences.” He won the Gold Cup in 2011, becoming the first amateur to win it in 30 years. Brough Scott perhaps summed it up best, saying, “amateur nowadays is used in a derogatory sense – ‘he is very amateur’. I think what Sam has done is put the word back to where it should be which at its best is Amo Amas Amat – it’s a person who loves it.”
One of the first things Lyle said was ‘I’ve always been in love with horses’. I think that’s a pretty good reason to be a jockey.