Tales From The Cat

Robyn Louw and a Big Cat

Felix Coetzee and Changingoftheguard

Felix Coetzee and Changingoftheguard storm to the finish of the Gr3 Matchem Stakes in 2012

We bandy around terms like ‘living legend’ and ‘national treasure’, but with three SA Jockey Championships, eight Gold Cups, five Metropolitans, two Summer Cups and three July sashes jostling for space in his trophy cabinet, Felix Coetzee is indisputably a local turf great.

He’s been on a forced break after a recent hip operation, but the good news is that he’s recovering well. He’s off crutches, back at gym and aims to be race fit again in August. With life normally conducted at warp speed, Felix can be a difficult man to interview, so I took advantage of the temporary handicap conditions to pin the notoriously busy jockey down for a chat. As one of our original winningmost July jockeys, I asked Felix what it’s like to win the country’s premier race.

David Felix Coetzee was born on 7 March 1959, which puts him at a shade over 54 years old (‘but still two years younger than Karl Neisius!’ he quips). He is a third generation horseman and a third generation Felix too! His grandfather Felix was an owner-trainer, his father Hennie was a trainer, as were all four his uncles, Cookie, Felix, Gert and Lookie.

“I grew up with horses. I had a pony as a kid, then started doing track work with my Dad every Saturday. I progressed from the nice easy horses to the harder ones and eventually I was riding everything, including all the mad ones. He never pushed me and just laughed at me when I fell off!” Hennie had high hopes that his son might study law, but Felix had his eyes firmly set on being a jockey, “there was never anything else I wanted to do,” and he joined the Academy in 1974 aged 15. Success came quickly and he notched his first significant win aboard Kentford in the 1975 Clairwood Winter Handicap.

“I was lucky, you know. Having grown up with horses, I had a real head start. The Academy let me serve my indentures with my dad. I knew all the Durban trainers which really helped. Aubrey Roberts was a big supporter and I rode lots of winners for him. It was an incredible time.

“I remember watching those famous Chris Saunders colours in the parade ring on horses like Jollify and thinking ‘wow’. And then there I was a few years later and I was wearing them. I was so proud, you know?” He smiles shyly.

Hennie passed away while Felix was completing his 5th year and the Academy transferred him to Theo de Klerk in Cape Town. The yard was at the height of its powers, but Theo already had a lightweight stable jockey in Dana Siegenberg.

Felix remembers marvelling at the winners they were churning out and remarking “It’s like pressing buttons!” Dana said “Yup” and kept pushing those buttons while young Felix watched in frustration from the sidelines. “I’d been riding all these winners in Durban and in Cape Town all I was allowed to do was carry the kit to the saddling enclosure! I was becoming a bit disillusioned. Then the Durban Turf Club chief stipe and family friend Jock Sproule came to Cape Town and asked to see me. I can’t emphasise enough that the course of my entire career was decided on that visit. It was a race day at Milnerton and we sat on a wooden bench outside the weighing room. 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. It was a massive turning point. 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. And then a friend said Mr Millard wanted me to come and see him. It was such a big job, that I thought they were joking. Eventually I sheepishly picked up the phone. On my first meeting for him, I rode a maiden. It was a 1-3 horse that had had a good prep run and all I had to do was point it. I got beat into 4th. It was my first day in this big job and I’d got beat on a 1-3 shot. I was devastated. Mr Millard saw how upset I was and he came up to me and just said “Felix, no-one died.”

“It took such a load off. I can’t tell you what it means to know you’ve got that kind of support from your boss. From there on, everything took off.”

Psychological aspect

“I’m the sort of person that goes straight to the motivational shelves at a book shop. I read a lot about Arnold Palmer back then and he once said that 80% of the game is played from the shoulders up.

“That’s always stuck with me and I’ve worked hard to be the right person on every horse I ride. Things don’t always go according to plan. And you can’t be sitting in the wrong place in the race, knowing that the trainer is up in the stands getting angry with you. You just can’t ride like that.”

What is like to ride at Greyville?

“I really like the track. It’s quite fast, but you can get all kinds of paces which makes it very versatile. It is interesting to ride and I think it’s quite a fair track.”

The July

1990 Durban July

1990 Durban July

If I’ve counted correctly, Felix has faced the Greyville gauntlet 23 times. His first ride was aboard Simon Magus from the Robbie Sivewright stable in 1977. “I loved riding for Mr Sivewright. He was always jolly and only slightly less so when it came to the July! The owners weren’t too keen to have me on the horse, but Mr Sivewright fought for me, so I got the ride.” At 18 years old and still an apprentice, I ask whether it wasn’t an overwhelming experience. “My dad brought me up strictly and when I was riding for him, he used to tax me about every ride and question me about each decision I made. It was good practice. So it was nice getting a ride in the July, but at the same time I realised how serious it was. But I’d been riding for a while by then and could take it in my stride. My dad would have expected me to cope at that level.”

What does it feel like to step out into that parade ring for the big race? “You get to watch the July as an appie. It was this incredible spectacle that felt almost untouchable for us back then. Those trainers and jockeys were legends. And then suddenly you’re part of it. You must understand that Rothmans were still sponsoring the race back then. They used to play the Rothmans advert music as you walked out onto the course. You can’t explain it. There’s just something about the course and the people and that atmosphere. You can be riding the biggest outsider and then that music starts and suddenly you’re thinking maybe, just maybe. Jockeys are always pretty competitive, but when those gates fly open, that energy and that desire is up quite a few notches, I can tell you!”

How was that first ride? “I was pretty happy really. I felt I’d and given the horse every possible chance and we crossed the line just out of the placings. But I found out afterwards the owners still weren’t too happy!” As it turns out, they finished 4th, 1.85 lengths behind Lightning Shot and nearly a length ahead of 5th placed horse, Politician. With the benefit of hindsight, it would be interesting to hear the owner’s comments today!

First Win

Devon Air gave him his first win in 1984. “Her prep had gone so well. She’d come off a really good run in the Greyville 1900 and was this incredibly big, strong individual. I can’t tell you the confidence you get with that much horse under you. I decided to run from the front – she was that big and strong that anyone who tried to challenge us would kill themselves doing it and if not, we’d be so far ahead they’d never catch us. And that’s how it worked. As we came off the false rail I asked and she gave me a little lift and that’s when I knew. But when you’re in that position, let me tell you, that last 200m goes slow ! You can see the post, but it’s miles away and everything happens in slow motion. And then you cross the line and it’s like the light changes and it all speeds up again. Everyone is around you and congratulating you. Everyone is so happy, that’s the best way to describe it. You just want to slow it all down and enjoy it.”

Royal Chalice

1988 Gr1 Rothmans July

1988 Gr1 Rothmans July

“Mr Millard had two runners in 1988 – Tensing, a genuine 2 mile horse and Royal Chalice, a speedy, miler type. After our Greyville gallop I chose Royal Chalice. Just out of the gates I asked him to switch off and he relaxed beautifully. Jeff Lloyd was riding Pedometer, so there was a decent, consistent pace. We were sitting back and in a good position and just idling, so I thought we’ll just wait and see. Coming off the false rail, I asked him to go and he accelerated so fast it felt like we’d just jumped out of the gates. Jeff Lloyd says it’s the fastest anyone has ever passed him! The post literally flew by like ssssshhhoooooeeewwww!” He chuckles at the memory.

Illustrador

“Illustrador had had a fantastic Durban season in 1990 and came off back to back wins in the Rupert Ellis Brown and SA Guineas. He was the right horse, but he needed pace. He didn’t have much gate speed, so after the jump, we sat about midfield on the rail.

“We were just about a length further back than I wanted to be and by the Drill Hall I was getting worried whether we’d have enough acceleration. Coming up the hill at the 700m mark, a horse rolled off the rail and I managed to creep up that length closer and that was it!”

Any thoughts or predictions for this year?

“No, I’m just going to enjoy it on TV this year. I don’t often get the chance!” he says with a twinkle. “The coverage is always good, particularly since Vodacom came on board.

“In fact, I watched it one year while I was back here during my Hong Kong off season and I enjoyed it so much that I vowed to have a ride the next year. There are very few race meetings like it!”

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