Growing up on the mean streets of Elsies River has given Cape jockey Craig Bantam a unique perspective on the new normal, or life as we now know it, under the dark cloud of the covid-19 pandemic.
The son of a fisherman and a shopping mall cleaner, Craig wrestles the challenges that he faces with youthful vigour and a masked smile every day.
‘Umalume’, as he is affectionately known at the stables, Craig Bantam is very aware of the reality that he represents a beacon of light for the community where he grew up.
Elsies River has produced such diverse talents as internationally renowned fashion designer Errol Arendz and SA Champion Jockey Andrew Fortune. But also its fair share of tragedy in a checkered history.
And with unemployment at record levels – his Mom is amongst the casualties – Craig is very mindful of the stark 2021 reality facing thousands of people.
“I am not famous or anything. But when I go back home to ‘Elsies’, I am aware that people do look up to me. I have a good job. I drive my own car. I have accomplished something in my life. I am one of the fortunate few and, believe me, I count my lucky stars every day,” says the bright-eyed enthusiastic talent that has flown below the radar for much of his career.
Craig rode a modest ten winners last season, but has no issues with getting to work bright and early. And after his flying start to the new term on Saturday, he is revved up and looking to set new goals.
“I’m a morning person. So being a jockey is the perfect profession for me,” says the 25 year old as he sits down to chat to the Sporting Post after a rocket launch to the new season saw him booting home his first ride of the 2021/22 term at Kenilworth on Saturday.
For a small fish in a vastly reduced pond that tends to look after the name brands a lot better, Craig is still working hard at building his name and confidence.
And the 25 year old Manchester United fanatic could hardly have hoped for a better start as he rode a cracker on Vaughan Marshall’s Voldemort – a beautiful grey son of William Longsword, who won at his second start at Kenilworth on Saturday in the orange and blue flag of NHA Board Member, Ricky Sewgoolam.
Craig had ridden the BBP Syndicate-bred colt to a ‘surprise fourth’ – in the words of the equally greying veteran trainer – on debut.
The excited jockey proudly told the Sporting Post that he had learnt from the progressive youngster’s first start.
“I wanted to get to the inside rail on Saturday after he had shifted in first time. He was a bit green again, but he knew better what to do. He was always travelling well down the inside rail and I think he will improve plenty from this.”
And what of the hard-knockers in the saddle – like Grant van Niekerk and Keagan de Melo- who were chasing him home, looking for him to fluff his lines and lose his poise and balance?
“I ride against some top talented jockeys. But my horse carried the day. I knew the guys were there on my outside, but I kept my head, my focus and maintained my ride. We were pulling clear at the end. A senior jockey once told me that good horses make good jockeys. I’d love to ride a few more of these!”
The second eldest in a family of six, Craig tells us that life was ‘quite tough’ growing up, but that his parents worked hard on fuelling his passion for soccer – he is a talented midfielder – and kept his mind on Matroosfontein Primary School and later Range High School.
“I would be lying if I said my hometown was a good environment. But we lived in Epping Forest and life wasn’t bad. As a child, you don’t always see the despair and all the nonsense. You only know what you are used to.”
We asked him if gangs and drugs had played a part in his childhood in one of the suburbs infamously listed as the ‘Cape Of Fear’, alongside the likes of the gang ravaged Manenberg, Hanover Park and Heideveld, to mention a few in the broader Peninsula.
“Thanks to my family – I have an older sister, as well as a younger brother and another sister – I never fell into that sort of distraction. I was really a good boy!” he laughs, almost shyly.
Craig tells how another relatively ordinary day at Range High School in 2013, while he was doing Grade 11, became a lifechanger.
“Mr Vince Curtis and Mr Terrance Welch came to do a presentation on a career as a jockey. I had dreamt – that was where it ended – about a job as a professional footballer, so the idea appealed to me – even though I didn’t know anything about horses. I was the right size and I was selected. That was literally the first day of the rest of my life, and I have never looked back – even though it hasn’t been easy!”
Having hardly uttered, or even heard, a word of English throughout his life, Craig wisely repeated Grade 11 in 2014, his first year at the SA Jockey Academy.
“I promise you that I didn’t speak for the first three months! I was excited but almost too embarrassed to try and say something in English without making a complete fool of myself.”
But the likes of Eric Ngwane – still his best friend to this day – Mpume Mjoka and Calvin Ngcobo, made him comfortable and feel welcome, and the introverted Craig slowly came out of his semantic shell.
“My parents always taught me to listen rather than speak. So I had a good grounding and plenty of practice in coping with my own silence in those first three months! But then one makes friends and we started talking.”
Craig says it was difficult when he blundered with English pronounciations and using the wrong word.
“They laughed at me. But I thought I need to take the pain and start laughing too. Slowly I made progress and you can see from my post-race interview on Saturday, I am using bigger and better words these days!”
Due to the closure of Clairwood at the time, and the unavailability of Hollywoodbets Scottsville, the academy moved apprentices away to centres with straight tracks to complete their qualifying rides.
Craig booted home his first winner at the Vaal on 23 February 2016. The horse was the Judpot filly S’way, trained by Wallace Tolmay.
“What a thrill – it was a 1200m race and I think it took just a few seconds! It was quite an interesting moment as I recall it was my first ride and Mr Tolmay’s final winner as a trainer. I will never forget it.”
After spending a career-shaping two years with former SA Champion Jockey Andrew Fortune at the Vaal, Craig is keen to up his game.
“Mr Fortune taught me horsemanship and to think tactically – and to sit properly. He was a champion and a natural. I learnt a lot of things from him that I am trying to put to good use.”
Craig feels that he has never ridden as many good horses at top stables that he is doing right now, and that this is his big chance.
“I live with my girlfriend Lauren Diedericks in Century City, so I am within an easy drive of both Milnerton and Philippi. I spend 4 mornings a week riding for Mr Marshall and for Mrs Candice Bass-Robinson at Milnerton, and then do two mornings at Philippi where I try and work for Mr Mike Robinson, Mr Snaith and Mr Crawford.”
We asked him how he enjoyed working for Vaughan Marshall, for whom he rode his season icebreaker.
“Mr Marshall and his team are punctual, professional and polite. He doesn’t lose his temper. If he is not happy with a ride, he explains it. He tells us to go back and look at it again. I also enjoy working with Ossie Noach. He is a great example to us younger jockeys.
Craig lives a healthy lifestyle and can ride at 52kgs with ease.
“I try and watch what I eat. I also jog and I love playing indoor soccer. I have no excuses to not improve my strike-rate this season and I’m going all out.”
He says that he is keen to travel if the opportunity presents itself. “I want to work and to work hard!”
The man who picked up his nickname ‘Umalume’ – Zulu for ‘Uncle’- in his morning chit chat with the stable staff, shares with us that his two primary goals are to ride 50 winners this term – initially it was 20 – and also to secure his first ride in the Cape Met.
“I have to dream big. The Met ride is a major goal for me. If only some in my community have ever heard of horseracing, many have heard of the Met. One has to think positively and do the basics right repeatedly. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to the media. I appreciate the interest,” he says in closing.