Felix Coetzee. World class jockey, relentless competitor, supreme professional. If one grew up in the Millard era, it’s hard not to be a little in awe of the name. Working for the Cape Turf Club, my dad occasionally brought home posters of the great horses of the day to go on my wall and a good number had Felix in the saddle.
After a successful 16 year stint in Hong Kong, Felix returned to South Africa in late 2008 and as he seems to do with most things, he hit the ground running. A quick glance at his riding engagements is testament to his ferocious work ethic, travelling to all four corners of the country in search of winners and riding as hard at the bread and butter meetings as he did on the feature days. In fact, it is thanks to that very trait that I had the privilege of booking him for my little filly. It is one thing to have pictures of someone on your wall, entirely another having them stride into the parade ring in your silks. I was half excited, half panicked by my horse’s modest abilities and not at all sure what to say, but I needn’t have worried. Ever the professional, Felix was polite and business-like – in short, the same as he would be with any other owner ahead of any other race. I was quietly impressed and thrilled when they finished in the placings. Felix delivered considered feedback and even thanked me for the ride.
Felix was attached to the Snaith yard at the time and associated with the mighty Ebony Flyer, so I had the opportunity to observe him in a professional capacity and remember watching him at grass gallops at Kenilworth one mid-week morning. On our way out, we passed Felix making his way to the car park, suitcase in tow, on his way to the airport for the day’s engagements.
His sheer energy is awe-inspiring. In fact, in all my dealings with him, the first time I ever saw him sit still was in 2013, and that was only because he was recovering from his hip op and kindly agreed to chat to me about his July wins. Like most jockeys his recall of horses and races is incredible and it was a fascinating and thoroughly entertaining afternoon, but again I was struck by his intense focus and attention to detail and his endless patience in getting things exactly right.
The hip would prove to be his nemesis and despite throwing the kitchen sink at it, he retired from the saddle in February 2014. However, it wasn’t long before Felix was on to the next phase of his career: mentoring apprentices at the SA Jockey Academy. The teaching struck a chord and he was subsequently engaged to mentor apprentices for the Hong Kong Jockey Club, including current sensation, Kei Chiong. Back home, Felix has also helped S’manga Khumalo achieve his second jockey championship. I caught up with Felix – by phone, as he was travelling the country pursuing his other passion – starting young horses – to find out more.
“I’m here for a month, home for 4 days and then I fly back to Hong Kong for two months for the start of their season. I’m lucky to be in a very fortunate position where I can alternate my mentoring with starting young horses. There’s not a lot I’d rather be doing. It’s funny,” he reflects, “When you think of what you wanted as a kid, this was always in my mind.
I wanted to be busy, flying here and there and tending to lots of things and I’ve got it. I’m really blessed.”
The Hong Kong Jockey Club asked Felix to work with their apprentices on a consultancy basis. He explains, “I was originally due to go over three times for 10 days at a time, but they ended up giving me 2 extra stints as well as sending me to New Zealand to work with two of their kids there. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Kei Chiong started the season as a 10lb claimer and ended up winning the local jockeys’ title, receiving the newly inaugurated Tony Cruz award as well as finishing 6th on the overall log – an incredible achievement.
“I must make a special mention of Craig Benton who is the riding instructor. He was so good to work with and gave me a lot of free rein with Kei. The competition in Hong Kong is unbelievably strong and there were a lot of people saying it was going to be very difficult, but I could see there was something special about her. She’s a very hard worker and very dedicated to her profession. Being a 10lb claimer, people want you to go to the front, sit up handy and use your claim, so I wanted to get her very fast out of the gates, get her using her judgement in the race, getting a feel for pace and riding a strong finish. I also wanted accuracy in the straight and we worked on the last 400m to make sure she hit the line strong. She’s great to work with – you ask her for something and she does it. Even after long periods on the equicizer I’d say I want more and she’d dig in and give it to me. You don’t always get that. That she finished 6th overall is amazing. Being a girl, she was up against it all the time and she had to be impressive, but she’s done it. She even won the most popular jockey award over Joao Moreira. Now that’s really something.”
“As the claim gets lower, everybody’s perception will be ‘now we’ll see’ and things can change very quickly so we’ve still got plenty of work to do. When Tony presented her the Tony Cruz award, he commented that he’d seen her riding a lot from the front, but not from the back. She’s got to be ready for losing her 7lb claim and also for when she’s got to start dropping horses out. I’m trying all the time to keep her ahead of what’s coming next – that’s the way I’ve tried to train her.”
Felix has also been part of ‘Team S’manga’ for his 2015/16 campaign. “What’s been fun for me is that I started with him at the beginning of last season. I was looking after Sean Tarry’s Cape string and one morning Sean asked whether I’d be interested in doing a mentorship with S’manga. I jumped at it.”
“I don’t deal with him too much on his race riding – we started after he’d already won a championship, so he’s pretty set in his ways, but there were a few points I really was emphatic about and I think today he rides with a lot more confidence and finds himself with a lot more horse coming into the final 400.”
“When we discussed the championship at the beginning of the season, S’manga said he wanted to go for it, so that’s been our goal. I said I wanted him firing, travelling everywhere and being relentless. So often you hear the leading jockeys say ‘I’ll wait until the last few months and if I’m in the firing line, I’ll go for the championship.’ I don’t like that. In my opinion, you throw your hat in the ring and say you’re going for it and you do it. People will say ‘but he’s travelled all over and he’s had so many more rides, but you know what? There are a lot of guys who don’t have the energy and the desire to take those rides, to get up early, to travel every day and to keep it up consistently.
This is a guy who decided he was going to do whatever it takes, he was prepared to do it and he pulled it off. To me that’s what a champion is all about.
I asked him to be relentless and he has been. I admire that.” If one judges praise from where it comes, then that’s no small compliment.
“One of the lessons we learnt was watching Gavin Lerena give it a hard push at the end of the season, which just gave him the edge. While we were chasing the championship right from the outset, S’manga’s sponsors wanted to make sure that we paced it so he would have enough energy left for the last 2 months, so we didn’t go to mid-week meetings in Cape Town and Durban in the early stages. By the time we got to the Durban season he was already in a strong position and it just took a few winners in Durban to make him impossible to catch.”
“S’manga had a 2 week suspension at the beginning of the season, so he started off behind. I just got him to stick to his guns and keep his head down and after a couple of months, he started narrowing the gap. Then Andrew Fortune had his injury and a few more months down the line, S’manga was well clear. It’s amazing how the numbers can change. Last season he beat the number of winners that won him his first championship and this season he’s beaten last season’s total. That for me has been fun.”
“Sure, there have been some challenging times, but this season in particular I’ve seen him ride with a lot of confidence – perhaps even a little too much at times. But we all make mistakes and hopefully he’ll come out better, stronger and wiser for it.”
Unlike most other sporting disciplines where regular coaching is the norm, it’s interesting that racing functions differently. So how does one coach a jockey? “I haven’t been doing it for very long, but you gain confidence as you go along. I spent some time with James Maree to see what he does and what he looks for. I learnt a lot and it also helped me gain confidence that I am working along the right lines. I like to give riding specific exercises and I believe what’s helped me is a combination of my experience, a lot of conversations with Douglas Whyte, dieticians, fitness trainers and so on. Having been to a sports psychologist also really helped me with the mental side of it and it’s taught me how to convey the message better. Also having worked at breaking in horses it’s incredible how much I’ve learnt from the horses themselves.”
What it takes
So what does it take to be a champion jockey? “In my opinion it’s pretty simple really: get the basics right and you’re on your bike. We often overthink and try and complicate things, when all you need to do is focus on the basics. And then it’s just a case of committing and sticking to it.”