Profile – Gavin Van Zyl

Gavin Van Zyl

Gavin van Zyl was a highly successful jockey who has now made the transition to training horses with conspicuous success. He is determined to make his mark all over the country and has installed his son, Chesney, as head of the Gauteng yard. He is rewarding him by turning out winners in peak condition. Gavin is as open and honest as one could wish to find and, apart from his training ability, this is one of the attributes which draws top owners to him. Racegoers can be certain that a lot more will be heard from Gavin van Zyl all around the country.

What is your name? Gavin Harrison Van Zyl.

Where do you live? Summerveld.

Tell us about your family? Married to Shannon had 6 children Melissa married to Darryn Baird “one child” and one on the way, Gareth married to Kirsten Taylor, Chesney, Derek passed away at 18 months, Richard and Felicity.

Are any of your family members involved in racing or particularly interested in racing? Chesney and Gareth both work with me and are very enthusiastic about racing.

How did you originally get into racing? A passion was developed at an early age for horses.

You went to the academy at Summerveld in 1975. Are you still friends with any of the guys you were with at the academy then? Felix Coetzee, Anton Marcus, Anthony Delpech and I get on well.

You were a jockey for about 30 years. What would you consider to be the most memorable of your career in the saddle? Mill Hill, Roland’s Song, Smackaroo, Rain Forest, Count Du Barry, Extra Cover, Eliza, Moccasin, Special Preview, Serena, Poetic, Jungle Princess, Brass Bar, Sea Policy, Overdog,Harry’s Charm, Finest View…….  5 winners on a day 3 times.

How many winners did you ride as a jockey? Just about 2000.

Which do you consider to be the best horse you ever rode? Special Preview.

Which horse do you think was the best you ever rode in a race against? Horse Chestnut.

How much of a difference has it been for you to make the change from riding horses to training them? Night and day, differences too big and too many to describe.

You have risen in the training ranks very quickly. Have any trainers, or particular trainer, mentored you since turning to training or have you just done it ‘your way”? Quite a few trainers have been very helpful, namely: Ormond Ferraris, Herman Brown (Senior), Chris Snaith, Michael Azzie, Glen Kotzen, Tony Millard, Tony Rivalland and others. I am not shy to ask for advice and will keep doing so.

You took quite a big gamble by sending your son, Chesney, whilst still relatively inexperienced, to open a satellite yard in Gauteng. Your faith in him has been fully vindicated as your horses have done exceptionally well up there. Have you left him pretty much to himself or has there been a lot of input from your side? In the beginning I spent a lot of time speaking to him about each move he made but he has been full time in the horse game for 7 years, first as an apprentice farrier then as a qualified farrier then as a stable employee at Glen Kotzen working under the guidance of Frikkie Greyling at Turffontein. He also had a spell at James Maree and did some race riding. He rode a winner on River Lodge which fulfilled a life long dream for him. Then shoeing 80 horses for me at Summerveld and then moving to Gauteng, so he actually, over and above the fact that he is a natural horseman, has a fair bit of experience. He has a very bright future ahead of him and I’m fortunate to have him on the team!

Seal won the Derby in great style. How much of a surprise was that to you or was it the result of a well planned race? Sure we always had the Derby as a target race, but looking at the field and his previous form we thought 3rd would be great and worse than 5th disappointing, the win was a surprise but not a shock.

Bulsara has also done well when taking on the best. Will Seal and Bulsara be returning to your KZN yard to be entered for feature events here? Bulsara goes for the Champions Mile and Seal the KZN Derby.

You have just won the Daily News 2000 with The Apache. How big a surprise was that to you and without being over optimistic what chance would you give him the forthcoming July? One has to say that it was not a total surprise to win the Daily News. The Dingaans has mostly been won by horses that have gone on, and his prep run in the Guineas was no disgrace to finish 4th. Those were his only 2 runs in the past 6 months so why should he not have had an equal chance as any in the field! Well it’s always a lot easier after the race, but one of my owners did phone me prior to the race to tell me that he clearly dreamed that The Apache won a big race, not sure which race but a big one, so he duly had 2 grand on him!!

Tell us about The Apache and the problems you had when trying to send him overseas. Do you think the break he had while trying to send him may have done him good? African Horse Sickness derailed his trip to Hong Kong but the extra time could not have harmed him.  He now has fresh legs for the season here.

Which other of your horses do you think could make an impact on the KZN season? Bulsara and Seal.

From the results you are having it seems you have been picking your purchases really well. Do you select your horses on your own or do you have help from any of the professional bloodstock agents? As Mike De Kock says, “Good horses find you!!” But Mark Tarry does help me. This is a tip I took from Mike years ago. He told me to use an agent to help select horses and I took his advice.

What is your routine once you have bought a yearling. Does it come to the stable or do you send it to a spelling farm to be broken in etc? A bit of both, but I do have a great yearling man in Opensea Mhlamvu, my registered assistant and one of if not my “Best Horse”. He was David Payne’s registered assistant and has a wealth of experience, on which I am constantly drawing from.

How many horses do you have in both your yards at present?Around 120.

The Gauteng winters are pretty hard. Will most of the horses up there be brought back to KZN or will Chesney race regularly through the winter in Gauteng? We have sent some horses there to have a change of scenery for the winter. Chesney’s skills can now be tested with the 2nd string horses while I have a go at the season here with the A TEAM, Ha ha.

Tell us about the teams which assist you in KZN and about the team which assists Chesney in Gauteng? Here in KZN we have Opensea, Gareth, Jessica Von Niebel, Mdu, Humphry, Moses and Matanzima Robert Eppel runs my office. We have a tread mill which was kindly donated to us by Mrs Oppenheimer. We also have two equisages one which Jessica uses to treat the horses aches and pains, the other is with Chesney in Gauteng. Summerveld Equine are our vets and we work closely with them to give our horses every chance of recovering from  injuries which are unfortunately unavoidable given the intensity of their training program to compete at the highest level. As you can see we have a big team and that is why I always mention that it is a team effort and there are many dedicated team players, not to mention the biggest players of all being my owners whom we would not have a business.

At this early stage have you any idea of which horse you think will be the hardest to beat in the July? Two horses stand out in my mind, they are Igugu and Past Master although there are a few more lurkers, namely: Run For It, Piere Jordaan, English Garden, and Bravura. Let’s not forget Black Wing. So maybe the July is still a wide open affair.  I must say Igugu looks special and is trained by arguably one of  the best trainers that I have seen. To think that he is always waiting to pounce with another bomb is quite nerve wrecking, but we use it as a challenge. Let’s just say that he throws down the gauntlet and we are getting tougher and sharper as a result. He has raised the bar, now we have to raise our game to his level and we are doing our best. Thanks Mike!!

How often do you visit your Gauteng yard to see how things are going? Enough!

What is it about being a trainer that gives you the most pleasure? Winning is what it is all about.

Do you have any ambition to take a horse to run in Dubai or elsewhere? Of course, one must have dreams!!

Do you have many friends outside of racing circles? I’m not a socialite but do have a small band of friends outside racing.

Do you advise any friends or family to back a horse you ride when you feel you have an outstanding win chance? That’s part of the game, but so hard to get right that it makes for a very stressful day when we tip our horses, but it must be done and we need to be as sharp as we can, but that is the hard part of training.

How do you like to celebrate a big win? Quietly most times, but if the occasion arises we get down and boogie!!

You have never made a secret of your strong religious beliefs. Do you find that there is any conflict between your beliefs and the fact that you make your living from a business which is very gambling centered and which is against your beliefs? My religious beliefs teach me honesty and integrity. My aim is to strive to reach a high level in these two teachings, this is my mission statement taught to me and instilled upon me through my religion and my parentage. In all careers or occupations we have the choice to be honest or dishonest, I choose to be honest therefore my Church accepts that I get a fair reward for an honest days work. There are many other wonderful people in this “sport of kings” striving to do the same, who have just the same if not better ethics than I and I learn from them and have great respect for them as well.

Who are the people in racing who have had the biggest influence on you in your racing career to date? First I would have to say that the late Gerald Turner taught me the finer detail of tactical race riding and the tips he gave me were invaluable to me and I have to be ever thankful to him for his unselfish tutorship. Mrs Barnard, Hemming was the next person who gave me my biggest break and very early in my career. She set the platform for much of my future success at the time. Since then there were many trainers that gave me more than a fair chance and to them I’m also thankful. Some of them include among others: Stanley Ferreira, Cliffy Otto to whom I was apprenticed, Freddie Shappell, George Bowker, Henry Eatwell, Terry Ryan, Toby Spies, Brett Warren, Michael Azzie, St John Gray, Alistair Gordon, Joey Joseph, Doug Campbell, Nick Robb, Clodagh Shaw, Cyril Naidoo, Alec and Sid Laird, Joe Soma, Tony Rivalland and others, to each of them I say a big thank you. There are people out there that I don’t even know that have influenced my career for good, by saying good things about me, and to them I also say thanks, for without a friend you can’t go very far. Now as a trainer I would have to say that Mrs. Oppenheimer and her racing manager Gavin Schafer have had a huge influence for good on my career and to them I am also very grateful. Winston Chow has also given me wonderful support and that is thanks to Anthony Delpech.  Alan Mellor threw everything he could at the time behind me and although not big at the moment has been a very good friend and supporter. To the many other owners I say thank you very much.

At this stage of your career what are your main ambitions? To win at the very highest level.

What is it about racing that makes you passionate about the game? We are never the conqueror. Racing is the conqueror, the horse is majestic and will be there for our pleasure as long as we are there for his comfort and well being. Long Live THE MIGHTY HORSE.

If you have to name the most important lesson you have learnt about racing thus far what would you say that is? This game tames lions!

How do you like to spend your free time? A round of golf or relaxing in the jucuzi and swimming pool. Spending time with the family, and now the fun of a grandchild.

Apart from racing what else are you passionate about? My family and my religion.

The control of racing is now very strict. Is there anything more, in your opinion, that you think the authorities could or should do to make racing even straighter? No I think racing is very well controlled.

What is your philosophy on the racing game? So long as you are on the pitch, the ball will come to your foot, what you do with it is up to you. Stay on the pitch and fight to the end.

Many trainers and jockeys are now sponsored. Do you feel it is important to have a sponsor and would you like to have a sponsor? Who doesn’t? Money talks!!!  I welcome all reasonable proposals.

If you had one piece of advice for your fellow associates in the racing world what would it be? Try with all you have in you to love what you do, even though it’s hard to love this game sometimes and I sometimes say I would love to get out and run a mile and even have tried my hand at other ventures, but so long as there’s hope there’s a chance. GOOD LUCK. We all need it!!

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