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Baby On Board – JP’s Ready To Rock!

Headed for one of his best seasons ever

Excited at the prospect of becoming a Dad for the first time, Saturday’s WSB Legal Eagle Stakes winning rider JP van der Merwe is riding at the top of his game and looking to build further on his national top 10 position.

Speaking to the Sporting Post on Monday, JP, or ‘Juan Paul van Damme’ as his colleague Corne Orffer labelled him after Saturday’s Hollywoodbets Kenilworth feature win, says that things are looking up domestically and professionally and that there is plenty happening.  

JP steers Itsrainingwilliam to a smart victory (Pic – Chase Liebenberg)

And top of the agenda is that his wife Abbi, daughter of East Cape Champion trainer Gavin Smith, is expecting their first daughter at the end of August.

They celebrated the traditional ‘baby shower’ on Sunday with family and friends, and the soon-to-be brand new Miss van der Merwe’s Godparents, Randall and Vash Simons.

“We are very excited about starting a family. I’m 32 and Abbi is 24, we have travelled a bit and now it feels like the right time to adjust our course,” adds the man who has come a long way since the then shy apprentice stood on the Clairwood winner’s podium in October 2008 after riding his first career winner, Regent’s Honour, for trainer Bennet Bulana.

It was to be just under eight years later that JP reached a pinnacle in his career when he received a last-minute call-up at 09h00 on the morning of the 2016 J&B Met to partner the mare Smart Call.

Smart Call wins the 2016 J&B Met

He achieved consistent success in the years thereafter, and even puts the Singapore experience down to life’s ‘school fees’. JP was suspended for a year in 2021 in his third year in the island country and on appeal had his time off reduced to six months.

“I am sorry to see that Calvin Habib has returned. But I understand the dilemma. I personally loved Singapore as a place to live and to race. But it’s difficult breaking through and, as you are aware, there isn’t racing like we have every day. So when you have a quiet raceday here, you get up and keep moving forward the next day. That clears the mind and the momentum helps. It’s very different there. But, as I said, Abbi and I took the experience and have used it positively.”

Abbi and JP – flashback to Singapore

On the movement, or ‘brain drain’ as we labelled it, of SA racing folk to overseas destinations, JP says that despite the problems facing South Africa, lifting one’s roots and moving to a new world was a challenge.

“That’s why I take my hat off to guys that do it and take the chance. Our jockeys are world-class and we don’t have to stand back for anybody.”

Following Ryan Munger’s departure for Canada, where he has made an explosive start, JP is the new Bryanston Auctioneers-sponsored rider.

“I am thrilled to have been given the opportunity to continue where Ryan left off and did such a great job!”

On his terrific progress this season – JP is now on 84 winners – he says the key is travelling.

JP proudly holds the trophy after Saturday’s feature – Drakenstein’s Kevin Sommerville, WSB’s Kim and Jono Snaith enjoy the moment (Pic – Chase Liebenberg)

“There are factors to consider. Air tickets are expensive and if one travels, the opportunities to ride work in my home province are not there. So it’s a give and take and finding a balance. I’m very fortunate to get good Highveld support from Mr Alec Laird and the Azzie racing team, then the powerful Snaith operation in the Western Cape and my father-in-law in Gqeberha. It’s a great mix and I’m very fortunate.”

JP’s win strike-rate of 15% and place strike-rate of 29% for Justin Snaith is excellent, considering too that he is not always on the stable elect. His beautifully-judged ride to get Itsrainingwilliam home in the WSB Legal Eagle Stakes at Hollywoodbets Kenilworth on Saturday was an example.  

Watch the replay here:

“The Snaith stable has enormous depth and even riding the third string doesn’t mean you are on a no-hoper. It’s a pleasure and privilege to ride for such a professional team and I hope I can continue to deliver the goods for them.”

While he rides for the powerful East Cape stable of soon-to-be-Oupa Gavin Smith, JP can take other rides and he partners Hunting Trip and Silver Falcon for the Snaiths in the Listed Milkwood Stakes and Fairview 1400 on Friday at Fairview.

“I have won two from two on Hunting Trip. She’s a really smart sort and must have a chance. I haven’t ridden Silver Falcon, but his form looks decent!”

On Saturday JP partners Raiseahallelujah off a handy galloping weight of 53kgs for Candice Dawson in the Lonsdale Stirrup Cup at Hollywoodbets Greyville.

“It’s a decent quality field. But he stays well and will strip fit. I’m looking forward to being there on the big day.”

JP has had just one previous Hollywoodbets Durban July ride – that was on Astrix in 2022. We asked about his prospects for this year’s big one.

“It’s an iconic race and every jockey wants it on the cv. The atmosphere and vibe was wonderful on the day last year and I’m hopeful of getting a ride for Justin Snaith, as he is likely to hold a powerful hand again.”

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