Becoming a jockey was a childhood dream for as long as Divan Neethling can remember.
But after riding his first winner at Clairwood in June 2013 and graduating from the SA Jockey Academy, his career has unfolded in a different direction.
Although he only turns 23 on Tuesday 25 September, life has taken Divan in double quick time from the rustic surrounds of Duncan Howells’ military precision champion operation at Ashburton to Dubai, and now a world-class HK$3.7 billion new training centre in the Conghua District of Guangzhou in Guangdong Province, China.
While it seemed a good time to catch up with the Durbanite, it was in unpleasant circumstances that Divan came on to the Sporting Post’s radar this past weekend.
Typhoon Mangkhut, which had intensified to a Category 5–equivalent super typhoon, with sustained winds of 125 miles an hour ploughed its path of destruction across the Philippines, then into Hong Kong and south eastern China, where it was downgraded to a tropical storm after tearing up villages and cities, flooding coastlines and plains, and causing massive landslides. Mangkhut was one of the ten biggest storms to hit China since 1949.
“I have seen the worst of it on TV. I am fine and safe, thanks,” Divan told us after his experience on Sunday at Conghua was nothing worse than a bad weather day in Durban.
“We experienced a major rainstorm. Karis (Teetan), Grant (Van Niekerk) and Callan (Murray) were in far greater danger as Hong Kong, which is a three hour drive from where I am, was far harder hit. I hear they are all fine thankfully,” he said.
Going back to 2011, from the early days Divan Neethling was well-informed and fortunate to have a good ‘feel’ for the game as he grew up in a ‘horseracing house’.
When he walked through the doors of the world-renowned SA Jockey Academy in 2011, he enjoyed an edge over some of his classmates, who included current Hong Kong-based Callan Murray, new Glen Kotzen retained jockey Ryan Munger, Craig Zackey, Calvin Ngcobo, Collen Storey and Colin Thabana.
Divan was already fairly streetwise and familiar with the unforgiving world that he was taking on.
Being the stepson of one of SA Racing’s foremost administrators, Graeme Hawkins, meant that he knew what he was letting himself in for and wasn’t under any starry-eyed false illusions.
He enjoyed the camaraderie of academy life and did well. It took him thirty rides to find his first winner. It was the 75-1 Lago who bounded home on a sleepy Sunday at Clairwood five years ago.
“That was a special thrill. My Mom was on course to lead me in. It is a feeling and a moment that any apprentice who has been through the SA Jockey Academy mill dreams of. When it happens, it seems surreal. You wake up the next day pinching yourself.”
But things didn’t exactly take off for the talented 4kg claimer.
“The early stages are important. It’s when a young rider finds his feet and establishes himself and builds his confidence. Having the claim and the ability to ride a wide range of weights means that apprentices get their chances. But I was battling my weight and competing with the established jockeys off the 58kg mark. That saw me on the back foot.”
The apprentice, who labels multiple champion Piere Strydom his hero, lists adventures, chilling with friends and family and watching rugby (who doesn’t love that game suddenly!), as his non-racing interests, had plenty of wise counsel around him to guide him. He reached a point where he decided that he didn’t want to be spending his life doing something that he wasn’t good at and that wasn’t putting food on the table.
“I love racing. I am passionate about the horses. I have so many good people guiding me. People that know what they are talking about. So I thought I need to focus on my strengths and carve a future. I have a ten year plan to train racehorses. But it’s fluid. Things can change. I live by the motto – ‘always expect the unexpected and when life knocks you down, pick yourself up and move on’. I at least have direction and how fortunate I have been to learn from top men like Duncan Howells and Mike de Kock!”
He worked for Winning Form-sponsored KZN Champion trainer Duncan Howells in Ashburton. Howells, a known hard task-master, was impressed with Divan’s work ethic and good manners and offered him afternoon shifts at the stables.
“Mr Howells was tough on me – but constructively so. I have so much respect for him. He runs a really professional set-up.”
Divan was employed by the Howells stable for over a year and then the opportunity came in December 2017 to work for Mike De Kock in Dubai.
“Dubai was an eye-opener. I was lucky enough to work Whisky Baron – what a horse! And Mr De Kock is another no-nonsense sort of boss. Things go according to clockwork. There is no messing around. That was such a fulfilling experience for me.”
At the end of the Dubai season, Divan was fortunate to land a top position with Australian Racing Hall Of Fame trainer John Size, who recently won his tenth Hong Kong trainers’ championship. Size is one of nine trainers who shifted to the Conghua dual-site model during the off-season, with two-thirds of his string based at Sha Tin and the other third based on the Chinese Mainland.
His best experience of a top athlete, beyond Whisky Baron, is a horse of John Size’s called Calculation. The chestnut son of Dandy Man is a Gr2 winner and one worth keeping an eye on. “Like the Baron, he is a lovely horse. Real class,” says Divan.
Divan’s work day starts at 05h00. He saddles up and warms up his mount. He will work an average of eight horses every morning.
They break at 10h30 and are back at 14h00. In the afternoon they may swim some of the horses and do the bandages and poultices. He gets one day and two afternoons off a week.
The recreational facilities in-house include a fully equipped Gym, an indoor sports court, a dancing studio and a library.
“They prefer strength in work-riders rather than a featherweight. And I weigh around 61kgs now. Which is perfect. I use the gym to keep in shape but haven’t progressed to the dance studio,” he adds with a laugh.
Divan says that the roads are ‘organised chaos’ and he won’t even consider trying to get a licence to drive. Particularly as the road signs are all in Chinese. Google translation is his newest best friend and he gets by – cautiously with the food especially – by improvising with sign language too.
He travels about a half hour to the Conghua District, the capital of Guangdong province. Conghua connects the Pearl River Delta with the mountainous area of northern Guangdong. It is known for its hot springs and lychees and Divan says that the people are very friendly.
“I haven’t quite mastered the local cuisine to be honest but we are catered for with western food at the training centre. And there is also a McDonalds and KFC in the town. So we are very lucky really. Naturally, there is a lot more social life and things to do in Hong Kong. But I am not complaining. I am saving cash and focussing on doing my best. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Is he homesick?
His girlfriend Kristen Davis is on a swimming scholarship at South Dakota State University and the family are in Durban.
“We are kept pretty busy and it’s tiring work. So we don’t have time to do too much longing. Naturally I miss my family and of course my girlfriend Kristen, who I will get to visit twice a year. That’s the sacrifice of building a career and a future. Nothing worth it is ever easy!”
World – Class
Divan is based at the Conghua Racecourse complex.
It was officially opened just last month and is situated in the Conghua District of Guangzhou in Guangdong Province. It is the first world-class racecourse and thoroughbred training centre on the Chinese Mainland. Operating as part of a dual-site model, Conghua Racecourse complements the existing training centre at Sha Tin. With its state-of-the-art stabling, training and horse-care facilities, it will enable the Hong Kong Jockey Club to further develop the quality of its world-class racing.
Essential to Conghua’s operation is its location in the Mainland’s only large-scale internationally recognised equine disease-free zone, which ensures that Hong Kong horses have the same health status in Conghua as in Hong Kong. Under a series of special arrangements agreed between authorities in the Mainland and the Hong Kong SAR, horses are able to travel freely between Conghua and Hong Kong.