There is a picture in my mind’s eye. It’s from a long time ago, so the colours are a bit faded, but in it, there’s a young jockey, sitting on a bench outside the Milnerton weighing room. The sense of frustration and worry is written clearly across his face and the set of his small frame. Next to him is an older man, neatly attired in a suit and tie, listening patiently.
A closer look reveals the young man to be Felix Coetzee and his companion, Durban Turf Club’s chief stipe, Jock Sproule. The scene is from a crossroad in Felix’s career. He was in his fifth year and had transferred to the Theo de Klerk yard in Cape Town. While the yard was flying, Felix was not, as senior stable jockey Dana Siegenberg was being given all the top rides and Felix’s main duties seemed to comprise carrying the kit to the saddling enclosure. Sitting idly by on the sidelines is not Felix’s style and his confidence and motivation were at a low ebb.
Felix explains “I can’t emphasise enough that the course of my entire career was decided on that visit. I told Mr Sproule that I was unhappy and considering going back to Durban. We had a long talk and he told me about a jockey who hadn’t necessarily been the most talented, but through hard work and dedication he’d became SA champion jockey.
“He said I should try and stick it out. I thought about it that Saturday and all of Sunday and made the decision that from there on in I would simply work harder than anyone else. I was first in and last out every day.
“I rode so much work, people felt guilty not giving me rides. And then things started happening. I was riding long-priced horses and beating short-priced ones. I was riding winners at every meeting. It was a massive turning point. But if it hadn’t been for Mr Sproule, things might have been very different.”
Coming from a racing family, Felix has been around horses all his life, but his first win came aboard Royal Drummer at Clairwood in 1974. Not to put too fine a point on it, Felix has been riding winners since before I was born!
But from that wooden bench at Milnerton, Felix made his way into the weighing rooms, tracks and winner’s enclosures aboard some of the best horses on some of the biggest racecourses in the world. Amazing the difference one man can make.
Felix’s name last appeared on our race cards in February 2013, subsequent to which he has undergone a number of operations to remedy some of the wear and tear of a lifetime in the saddle.
Having exhausted all his options, Felix finally announced that he was hanging up his boots on 19 February 2014.
What Next for Felix?
There was an outpouring of support and affection from the racing community shortly followed by the question – what next ? As is typical of the man, rather than dwell on what he can’t do, he has been focussing on what he can and has been looking at new challenges for his prodigious energy. And what better outlet than the South African Jockey Academy?
I caught up with Felix and Martin Locke at the wonderful Avontuur Estate and found out more about the plans over a cup of coffee and the breath-taking wineland views. The instant smile and enormous energy are as evident as ever and Felix is brimming over with excitement about his new project.
It all evolved about 6 months ago when Felix contacted Martin Locke. Although Martin has been associated with some of the biggest golfers, cricketers and indeed sportsmen of the last 30 years, for many of us, he was the face and voice of racing’s TV heyday and he is as excited and passionate about the sport today as he ever was.
“It was a huge honour when Felix got in touch and with his reputation and experience, I immediately thought of the Jockey Academy. When I broached the subject, they were enormously excited at the prospect of working with him and things have really just fallen into place.”
Felix concurs. “Martin and I have always worked really well together and I think this is an ideal opportunity for me to stay involved with the life and career that’s given me so much.
A lot of people asked whether I didn’t want to go into training, but to be honest, this is an area where I feel more comfortable and where I think I can contribute the most. I’ve been to the Academy and you know, it’s changed so much since my day. The kids have access to wonderful facilities and the advantages of things like sports psychologists, dieticians and biokineticists. My riding masters were Cyril Buckham and Vince Curtis and the current academy staff are Stephen Jupp and Lawrence O’Donoghue, who I shared a dorm with, so I think we’re all going to work really well together.”
Felix will be starting out on a consultancy basis and under a fixed-term contract to begin with. His son has just started high school and the family are reluctant to uproot and go, so they will stay here for the time being, while Felix gets the lay of the land in Summerveld.
“I am incredibly fortunate to have had the time and the experience both here and abroad, but without that conversation with Mr Sproule it’s quite possible that none of it might even have happened.
“He motivated me to keep going, which in turn opened the doors to riding for Mr Millard and that’s probably where I really developed my discipline and strong work ethic. And of course that opened the door to all the rest. This is all about passing it on and hopefully being able to make a difference to the next jockeys coming through the ranks. I’m not joining in a riding master capacity and it’s certainly not about going in and changing everything, but just assessing and complementing the existing structures and adding some value in terms of what I’ve learnt both here and abroad. It is not an easy career and it comes with a lot of hard work, hard knocks and disappointments.
“It’s easy to lose your faith and lose your confidence without the right support and that’s where I hope I can make a difference in terms of mentoring and sports coaching. Life is not a dress rehearsal and we need to help these guys develop self-discipline, a positive mental attitude and an urgency to achieve.
“I’ve always set myself certain benchmark expectations of what I felt I could achieve in life and then set out to do them. I believe that I can help make a difference at the Academy and I am really excited about this opportunity.”
Jockeys are one of the few professionals that require an ambulance to follow them around at work and while we’ve all been armchair jockeys in our time, I think it is fair to say that few folks fully appreciate the physical as well as psychological challenges and deprivations of the job.
A good jockey needs hands of silk, nerves of steel, skin like a rhinoceros, unending good humour and unwavering faith in their own skills and abilities.
They also need the sort of dedication to start their working day at 4am, come rain, sleet or shine to manoeuver living, breathing, unpredictable creatures 10 times their body weight around tracks at speeds of up to 60 km per hour.
They need to make continuous high pressured, high velocity, split second decisions, under the tightest scrutiny and with thousands of rands riding on every move.
But to hear Felix tell it, one can hardly wait to start.