The Cold As Ice withdrawal drama at the start of Saturday’s Avontuur Gr1 Cape Fillies Guineas brought out the raw explosively competitive side of one of South Africa’s leading heavyweight riders.
With adrenalin pumping and skull-cap and goggles flying, Bernard Fayd’herbe was naturally bitterly disappointed as he gathered himself from the Kenilworth turf with Majmu’s magnificent main rival high-tailing it to the parade ring.
We believe that Bernard’s public theatrics in front of the starting stalls earned him a reprimand from the Chairman of the Stipes.
Given all of the extraordinary circumstances in the heat of the moment, it looks to be a balanced decision.
In The Blood
One of the privileges of race writing is that one is generally up close and personal when the magic happens.
Sometimes the magic is in the flash at the finish line – those are the moments that everyone is interested in and that are easy to describe and share. Sometimes it’s in the smaller moments that ordinary fans miss out on – a pleasing workout, a knowing glance, even just a moment of quiet in the midst of the daily chaos. There is magic in those too, although they’re harder to quantify and less ‘commercial’ in a sense. But you keep them all the same, because they’re all part of the same story in the end.
I was lucky to collect a number of these moments from the latter half of Pocket Power’s career and witness the extraordinary relationship between him and jockey Bernard Fayd’herbe. In an industry where jockeys are lucky to swing a leg over the same horse twice, out of 43 career starts, Bernard rode Pocket Power a total of 33 times. That kind of partnership – and success – is exceptionally rare.
There are 2 moments that stood out in particular – one was just after their final Queen’s Plate prep gallop at Kenilworth. Having been a gentleman on the track, something got Pocket revved up back in the parade ring and he was fussing. Unlike most jockeys who hand their horse straight back to the groom, Bernard lingered, placing a quietening hand on the ruffled old soldier’s neck. The second was Pocket’s farewell gallop after his final Met performance in 2011. Throughout his career, Pocket famously hated parading in front of the stands, fidgeting and fussing and doing the bare minimum before whipping round to canter to the start. But on that particular day, he allowed Bernard to coax him a little further down the track than usual, allowing them a long return stretch to canter in front of the electrically busy Met crowd. Again, Bernard quietly petted and stroked Pocket’s neck all the way back and brought him safely home. It is an enormous privilege when a horse credits you with that kind of trust. Particularly one like Pocket.
Pocket Power retired nearly 4 years ago now, but Bernard’s star has continued along the trajectory Pocket set for him. He has ridden in Canada, Singapore, Macau, France, Mauritius, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Hong Kong and has a string of big races on his CV. He joined the Good Hope Racing team about a year ago, but still gets to freelance and devotes a fair bit of his time to the Bass string. We meet at the gallops. There is a malevolent South Easter that is pushing buttons, fraying tempers and driving sand into every orifice so we take shelter in the Bass’s office.
Bernard is a grandson of Harold ‘Tiger’ Wright (or ‘Pops’ as he was known to the family), who was also the son of a jockey, ‘Tiny’ Wright, so it’s fair to say that Bernard has horseracing written in his DNA. He spent the first 7 years of his life in Durban, before the family moved to Madagascar, which he describes as ‘paradise’. Having been born with a natural affinity for horses, Bernard’s racing career started when Neil Bruss arrived on the island and established a horse racing industry. At the age of 13 he was riding in his first races. Bruss liked what he saw and recommended that Bernard apply to the South African Jockey Academy. He missed the first interview, but attended the second one in Durban on 12 December 1995. “It was a weird day,” Bernard recounts. “Pops collected me at the airport and then dropped me off with my aunt. I never saw him again. He passed away that afternoon.”
Bernard joined the Academy, a period he describes as ‘tough’, but necessary to turn him into the rider he is today. His riding masters were Vince Curtis, David Cave and Dean Russell. It was during his third year that he suddenly shot up in height and he is one of the tallest jockeys on the South African roll. Although he jokes that Lester Piggott was also tall, the drawbacks are obvious in a career that is ruled by the scale. “I always say that dieting is my job and riding winners is my hobby,” he says drily. “It used to bother me, but I’ve got it under control now. It’s hard work, but it’s just a way of life and I accept it.” To keep his weight down he trains daily, but says the key to winning the battle is simple, “I don’t eat a lot.”
Success came quickly and he won his first outing on 28 April 1997 aboard Dollar Deal for the late Michael Roberts where he served out his apprenticeship. “I thought ‘easy game, this!’ I soon found out it wasn’t.” After finishing his time, Bernard moved to the Cape to ride for the Snaith string. “Chris had gone to train for Plattner and Justin was just starting out. They didn’t have many horses, but they had some good ones like Trojan Belle and Park Lane. From there I went to ride for Mike Stewart – it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Fred Crabbia had a whole lot of horses for Singapore, but they couldn’t get out of the country and so he sent them to Mike. We did really well together.”
After a stint in Durban for Herman Brown jnr, he returned to Cape Town and joined the Bass yard in late 2001. “Mr Bass gave me my first big break. Once you’re on the big horses, people can see you. But then it’s up to you to deliver when you have the chance – if you don’t, someone else will.” Bernard delivered, winning the December 2001 Queen’s Plate on Trademark.
Unlike a lot of jockeys who live close to Milnerton, Bernard lives in Green Point. “I hate sitting in traffic. This way, there’s no traffic when I go to work and it’s all cleared by the time I go home again. I hate wasting time in traffic,” he says again with meaning. But the commute is worth it as he values his time away from racing and makes a clear distinction between work and time off.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, he divides his time on the gallops between Milnerton and Philippi. Wednesday he wastes and then goes racing. Thursday is a Milnerton day, Friday he splits between the centres again. On Saturdays he rides first string and then wastes before going racing. Time off is spent training. “I run every day and I do a lot of cardio. Other than that, I like spending time outdoors or at the beach. I like to be active. I’m not one for lazing around.”
More to racing than riding
He is also developing an interest in breeding. He enjoys visiting the stud farms when he can and is often seen at sales, appraising babies. “It’s fun to see foals on the farms and watch them develop. You get to know the families and how they work and if you’ve ridden one generation, when their foals start coming in, there’s usually a lot of similarities.” Bernard also spends a lot of time cultivating relationships with breeders and owners outside of racing and is careful where and how he socialises. He has recently been engaged as the preferred rider for the Kieswetters. “It’s all about relationships. There’s more to racing than just riding.”
Asked about his riding style and early influences, Bernard says he idolised Jeff Lloyd and was his kit boy all the way through the Academy. “My kit boy was MJ Byleveld. I told him ‘stick with me and I’ll make you famous’. He’s not doing too badly,” he says mischievously.
His technique is more or less self-styled, but he studies the top international riders and says there is always room to improve and polish your skills. Mostly it comes down to feel. “There are a lot of things that happen in a race and a lot of factors that can influence how a race is run – the track, the headwind, the conditions and the horses. You ride each race differently and according to how it unfolds. You are constantly watching what’s going on around you, feeling your horse and adjusting throughout the race.” What happens when that conflicts with riding instructions? He just smiles.
Big match temperament
A jockey’s working day is an odd one – you can have Grade 1 glory and the misery of finishing last in a field of maidens, all in a single afternoon. How does he handle that? “You can’t carry a bad ride into the next race with you. When I take the saddle off, I reset. Every race is a clean sheet.” Was that a skill he had to learn? “I don’t know. Not really. It’s just me. I’ve always been like that.”
Bernard books a lot of his rides himself, but has also engaged the services of agent Justin Vermaak. “He’s a bit of a buffer really. He’s the complaints department. If anyone’s unhappy, I send them to Justin!” Complaints department or not, Bernard has some nice prospects for the season, citing Cold As Ice and Hammies Hooker as feature race prospects, Futura if Glen Hatt isn’t back in time and Good Hope Racing has a selection of Guineas hopefuls.
The secret with horses, lies in having patience. Not in being patient – that’s different and implies being tolerant. In any riding discipline, a rider is taught to wait – don’t ride to your jump, or your dressage marker – be patient. Watch it. Wait for it. Allow it come to you. Having patience means trusting your instincts, having unshakeable faith in your ability and waiting for exactly the right horse, the right moment, the right opportunity to present itself – watching it, waiting for it and then allowing it to happen. The last bit is the hardest. That requires discipline and courage. Bernard has it.
He is getting fidgety in his seat, which signals that our interview is drawing to a close. I wind things up and make a feeble joke about being glad I don’t have to head back into the wind and the biting sand. He pauses for a moment, “I don’t mind it, you know. I enjoy the horses, that’s my passion. And as a jockey, you live to find those big horses. It’s not a mission to get up in the morning.”
He fastens his helmet and heads back into the teeth of the South Easter. Off to find that next big horse.