Ian Sturgeon’s recent ride aboard Zante to win the Track & Ball Oaks garnered appreciative comments from across the country. As he was on the sharp end of the 2015 Durban July objection, it seemed a good time to drop him a line and get to know him better.
Track & Ball Oaks
In the recent Track & Ball Oaks, the Woodruff-trained daughter of Ideal World seemed to shift across the track, necessitating deft changes of whip hands to keep her steady and on the correct line to the finishing post and the accomplished display of horsemanship prompted a congratulatory phone call. Although there have been race reviews about the result, it was the skill behind the performance that impressed me most and I was curious to learn more about the man who produced it. The softly spoken 32 year old sounded a little surprised, but hugely pleased to be singled out for praise.
“I really enjoyed the ride on her. She was fantastic and has such a good attitude. After running 2000m, she still gave me another good kick up the straight. It was very good of her. A lot of people have said it was a good ride, which I’m really grateful for. Unfortunately we can’t ride like that on all horses.” Asked what he means by that, he says, “It’s different for all horses. We all want to go out there and ride each horse how they need to be ridden, but depending on how the race works out and what horse you’re on, you don’t always get the chance to take up the lead a mile from home. I know Zante stays particularly well – it’s her forte – and it was fantastic that I was able to take advantage of that. It was a bit of a risk, but I pulled her out on the back stretch, which meant I didn’t lose any ground as I would have if done around one of the bends, so I was then able to then get to the front and stretch the field out a bit. They’d moved the stalls to the inside track, so in the straight, she ran out, trying to shift away from the stalls. That’s when I had to change my whip, but if it weren’t for that, she’d probably have won a bit easier.”
“There is a lot of horsemanship in the jockey room, but we don’t always have the opportunity to do things as blatantly as that in a race,” he continues. “A lot of jockeys are good riders and can judge pace very well, but we’re not always in a position to pull out when the pace is slowed up front, as that might not suit your horse’s running style. A lot of the time jockeys are going into a race wishing they were on a horse with a different running style, like if there is a lot of pace in a race, but your horse loves to race from the front, you may have to adjust the racing style accordingly. It’s lovely riding a front-runner in a race with no other front runners, but it’s not always the case, so doing our jobs we judge the pace and factor in things like distance suitability, how the track is running, where our main dangers are, how the horse is traveling and so on.”
“For me, rule number one is getting the best ride for the race I can. When I wake up in the morning, that’s the first think I think about – how to get the better rides, so that’s what gets me up nice and early for track work. After you’ve done what you can in that department you can start thinking about what you need to do on them to give them a winning ride.”
The softly spoken young man hails from Ireland. “I’m actually Northern Irish,” he corrects. The two are separate countries, although no-one here really knows the difference,” he adds kindly. “There’s really only a small difference – mainly the accent. And religion,” he adds as an afterthought. The distinctive Irish lilt may not be there, but he speaks with the same soft rhythm and thoughtfulness.
Asked how and why he chose to make riding his career he explains, “When I was growing up, my dad did a bit of point to point – that sort of thing. On my 4th birthday, he took me to a place called Altmore where I caught my first trout and then he put me on a Shetland pony.” Commiserating that Shetland ponies are the devil incarnate, he laughs in agreement. “He did try to take off with me. Luckily my dad was holding on, because I obviously had zero strength at that age. About a year later, I was riding out and doing some basic stuff and I broke my collar bone falling off a pony. My dad made me get back on and ride home. Other kids may have been put off by something like that, but I think kids who really love horses and riding want to get back on to master it and are willing to fall off again and again and have runaways until they finally reach a point where they can ride any horse without thinking, because they’ve learnt to speak a different language. I’m really only a jockey because I love horses,” he admits shyly. The soft hearted jockey and his wife Chantal, who he regards as one of our best show-jumpers, are both keen on animals, helping home some Thoroughbreds find homes off the track and Ian has even been known to buy dog food to feed stray dogs on his way home.
Thanks to his father’s job, the Sturgeon family moved to South Africa when Ian was 8 and he joined the SA Jockey Academy in 2000. “It was an awesome decision for me and the whole family. We love it here, compared to the cold of Northern Ireland! I think as a jockey it’s easier to stand out in SA because it’s such a small group who become jockeys. In Northern Ireland every tom, dick & harry can become a lad. In my year we started with 12 and ended up with 4 making it. It was tough at times, in fact, most of the time in those early days before starting to ride in races.”
It’s a pretty tough career choice – does he have any regrets? “I often think of my favorite saying, ‘People are like teabags – you only see how strong they are when you put them in hot water’. It is tough at times and one has to learn how to go through good patches and bad patches – it can be a rollercoaster, being a jockey or even a trainer or owner too, I’m sure. I feel I’ve been lucky though. I’ve ridden a lot of feature race winners over the last 10 years and it’s been fun. I’ve really enjoyed it. Winning races is an awesome feeling.”
Ian Sturgeon was on the sharp end of the Durban July enquiry between Power King and Punta Arenas on that fateful afternoon in 2015. I ask him to talk me through it.
“Stan Elley sent him to Durban for the season and Dennis Drier was looking after him. Sean Cormack was the stable jockey at the time, but luckily he’d taken the ride on Futura. I was given some chances by Dennis when I was young and I think possibly my young top agent, Bradly McHardy phoned up about the horse, but I got lucky and got to ride Punta Arenas in all the lead up races.” Joking that ‘lucky’ was generous, considering some of Punta’s on-track antics, Ian says, “He was a Ferrari, he really was and he gave me a thrill every time I rode him. He was a challenge, but I really enjoyed him. Carrie Redford was the rider who got him to settle down. She rides a lot of different horses at Dennis’ yard. You get some riders that just click with a horse – she does with a lot of difficult horses and that’s why she’s so valuable to the yards she works for. She just clicked with Punta and made him really rideable and nearly normal, which made it much easier for us to work with him and from there he just got better and better.”
“That year we made ourselves some luck. I managed to get on and stay on and we ran 3rd in the Betting World 1900 and I won the Cup Trial on him and that’s how he got into the July. I really thought he had a good chance. My goal when visualizing the race was to drop right out to 4 or 5 lengths off at the 400 – I know how he can turn it on. So there I was, about 4 or 5 lengths off at the 400m and we nearly won it..”
“It was amazing. At the top of the straight, I was probably about last and he went from zero to flat out in a matter of split seconds. Within about 100m he just ran past the whole field – he was just exceptional. Unfortunately Power King held us off. Punta was a bit temperamental and after he’d been bumped at the 300, where we got pushed onto the outside fence and came out on the other side of the pack, he was no longer in a great mood. Then Power King and I were locked together and we had a coming together again and that put him off again. But Power King won a super race that year. When we came together, Power King had already moved ahead of us slightly and he had also come from about midway back and really won a great race and was well ridden by Stuart Randolph,” he says graciously. “It was just unfortunate that I had to come second again.”
“I’ve had two seconds now, he muses. I was second on Sushisan for Mr Herman Brown back in 2006. That’s how I got to ride for Frank Robinson. It’s amazing how horses can help you move forward in your career and Sushisan definitely helped me. Punta also helped. I’m just hoping we can get on more like them in the future and get the July under my belt.”
Why the July?
“I think there are two parts to that. I think the reason it’s such a big race is because of its heritage. It’s one of the great races from the past. The reason I think it’s such a great race is that it’s such a difficult race to win. First of all, to get into the July, a horse has to be performing at peak performance to qualify and to maintain that all the way into the July is very difficult. It’s difficult for a trainer to pull that off. It’s 2200m, so that’s nearly the Derby Trip, nearly a mile and a half. And you have the best of the best from Joburg, Durban, Cape Town – even PE if they qualify. A very good horse won it a few years ago that originated from PE,” he says, referring to Bold Silvano. “It’s the best of the best from around South Africa. The winner of the race can sometimes go and race anywhere in the world. Look at Ipi Tombe. Horses that have won the July really are cracking good horses. And the public get such a spectacle – because of the lead up, everyone’s got a pick and everyone’s got a favourite because there are so many really good horses running.”
“Winning the July – it’s my dream,” he says simply. “I can’t stop riding till I win the July. It’s not just the money. It’s one of the oldest races. Like the English Derby or one of the big races at Royal Ascot where you possibly meet the Queen. As a sportsman, I think that’s when I’d feel I’ve reached the top.”
Does the race feel different to any other race from a rider perspective? “It does. As a jockey, to be riding in the race, it’s such a great feeling. Your adrenaline does kick in. You come onto the track and the crowd is going mental, it’s just insane! When you come into the straight, the crowd roars, it’s incredible. On Punta, we were right on the outside and he connected the rail when we were pushed across. We were almost touching distance from the crowd. It was IN.SANE.” he repeats. “I don’t know what the horses must think!”
“It’s amazing winning any race but hitting the front in a race like the July is an awesome feeling. I think it must be an amazing feeling to win it, but I’ve got a few years. I can still dream. This year I don’t have a ride in the July. Not yet, in any case! You always hope right until they jump. You never know. You just hope this year can be your year.”