Leading Gauteng-based jockey Craig Zackey is winding 2020 down in quiet style with partner Sasha and the apple of his eye, Sierra. His short-term focus is on securing a Cape Met ride, winning his tenth Gr1 – and he is even looking at possibly spreading his wings internationally, if the international climate permits.
Just a year ago things were happening so fast and Covid-19 wasn’t even a factor yet.
“I was just sitting reflecting back how much life can change so quickly.We can thank God that as a family we are safe and secure and have managed to maintain ourselves with the support of our broader family. The lockdown ripped the heart out of racing – but there is clearly a will to come back from the edge. We are in good hands – we just have to unite and make it work together,” says the 25 year old former Champion Apprentice, who has enjoyed a meteoric rise through the Gr1 ranks in his short career.
A year ago Craig won the Cape Fillies Guineas on 14 December 2019 on Missisippi Burning for Adam Marcus.
On 11 January 2020 he booted Vardy home to win the Gr1 L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate.
Four days later on 15 January, he and Sasha welcomed Sierra into the world. Life would never be the same again!
“Fatherhood has definitely mellowed me out. It’s been a big eye opener and it’s given me the reason to plan my best possible future, from being the go out person to now being lucky if I have been out once this year!” he smiles proudly as he concedes that the suburban dedication of being a young Dad has outweighed the party animal need for clubs and parties.
“Sasha, Sierra and myself are residing in Modderfontein, Edenvale these days, it makes work and travel nice and convenient. We are enjoying it”, he tells the Sporting Post.
In a relatively brief career, Craig has always been a standout.
He was a good soccer player at school. In Grade 7 he received an invitation to attend the Academy Of Excellence in Gauteng and at the age of 14 he was offered a trial at Orlando Pirates.
He was aware of horseracing as his father and late grandfather always followed the sport and it soon became evident he was always going to be small in stature.
When he went for an interview at Turffontein for the South African Jockeys Academy he learnt a lot about the sport and was now clear on what he wanted to do.
Zackey was the National Champion Apprentice in the 2014/2015 season, riding 58 winners.
He blossomed from there and broke through the 100 mark the following season, riding 101 winners.
The following season in 2016/2017 he rode 138 winners for sixth on the national log and that remains his best season to date.
He received a setback in 2019 having had to have a double hip operation – but the good news is this was not due to the hip wearing away, so he can still look forward to a long career.
He was found to have ‘massive cam lesions’. This refers to an abnormally shaped femoral head, which comes into abnormal contact with the edge of the hip socket, thus limiting the range of movement in the hip.His femoral heads were duly shaved so they could sit in the sockets correctly.
However, it was subsequently discovered he had a labral tear in the cartilage of his right hip
The benchmark of excellence for any jockey is Gr1 performance.
Craig says modestly that he has been fortunate enough to already have nine Gr1 wins on the board in his young career.
“My first was aboard Arabian Beat in the Gr1 SA Nursery during my apprenticeship. I then won two Gr1’s aboard Van Halen, the Gold Medallion and Mercury Sprint, another two Gr1’s aboard Nother Russia – she won back to back Empress Club Stakes.Will Pays won me the Mercury Sprint, Missisippi Burning gave me the Cape Fillies Guineas, Golden Ducat won the Cape Derby and Vardy blessed me with the Queen’s Plate,” he recalls proudly.
Nother Russia was an early career changer for him when she surpassed Slumdogmillionaire as the best he had ever ridden. He doubts there will ever be another horse closer to his heart.
He recalls:“She was temperamental and before she started racing nobody liked her, particularly as she was mad in the gates. I started working with Malan du Toit on her issues and something just told me to stick with her, so I was even prepared to go on Sundays to school her at the pens. When her owner and breeder Jessica Slack heard I had been working with her and showing her a lot of love she told me – ‘This is your filly until the end of her career’ – and there was no looking back after those inspiring words.”
Zackey duly rode her in all eighteen of her starts. She twice won the Gr1 Empress Club Stakes over 1600m and also won the Gr2 Ipi Tombe Stakes and the Gr3 Acacia Handicap over that same Turffontein Standside course and distance. She ran four Gr1 places too from 1600m to 2000m, three of them against the boys.
Craig has enjoyed the association of being aligned with a top brand in Mauritzfontein and Wilgerbosdrift and he has worked hard on being a good ambassador for the champion breeders.
“That happened just over 4 years ago when Nother Russia and I had partnered up. I would just keep Jessica Slack Jell updated almost everyday about Nother Russia and our relationship had just progressed from there. For me, it’s the best sponsor I could ever have hoped for. I love the family – they are fun and passionate about their horses and they have been so special to me, I don’t think anyone can ever top them. I’m very fortunate to be a part of such a professional team and a family.”
Looking ahead, Craig says that the announcement of a step to lockdown level 3 protocols by President Ramaphosa on Monday evening was an indicator just how serious the government was taking the threat.
“Hopefully this time next year, the world will be a better place. The vaccinations will be key. We just have to have faith and be sensible!”
Craig’s professional goal is to win his tenth Gr1. And he is also keen to explore a bit.
“I know that these are difficult times to be planning travel, but I’d love to give one or two other countries a go, get more experience and just keep improving every horse I ride. I wish everybody in the racing and breeding industry the very best. We have to hold on to the hope that better days lie ahead.”