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Emotional MJ Calls It A Day

A chapter closes in the life of the top jockey

A quarter of a century after a bright-eyed youngster from Limpopo took his first small step with nervous trepidation into the rough and tumble world of life as a professional jockey, one of South African racing’s favourite sons has been forced to hang up his boots.

Giant steps coupled with a work ethic second to none saw the charismatic MJ ‘Bakkies’ Byleveld achieve seven Gr1 victories and close on 1150 firsts in an innings that commenced with his aptly named first winner, What A Promise, for Alistair Gordon on 14 July 1999 at Hollywoodbets Scottsville.

And now it’s sadly all over.

The One World Met winning glory moment! (Pic- Chase Liebenbegg)

Following a work riding injury in September 2020, where he fractured the medial maeleuoses bone and tibia, MJ has had his fill – in the nicest way possible, he stresses – of medical specialists, biokineticists and physiotherapists.

In an emotional chat with the Sporting Post on Monday, the 40 year old 2020 Sun Met winning jockey told how he is dealing with the loneliness and the deafeningly stark realisation that a profession that consumed his every waking moment, and that he loved and lived with zest and zeal for so long, is now actually trailing one-paced behind him.

After the first operation

After the second operation

After the third operation

“Modern medicine is amazing and I am privileged to have benefitted from some world-class care over the years. But when Dr Graham McCollum sat me down and said it’s time to face the music, the gnawing denial of two years of pain, three operations and endless treatments, finally came to the boil and hit me in the solar plexus.”

The simple term of a ‘nonunion’ – the refusal of a fracture to knit – is at the core of it.

Attempts at a comeback have failed – the pain is unbearable when he shortens his irons. The usually chirpy and chatty MJ is tangibly devastasted.

The reality is that he has had no luck with injuries in the past six years.

In August 2016 he had an operation to repair the right leg injury he suffered when he was kicked by Ready To Attack after the 2015 Langerman. In September 2018 he underwent complex back surgery. In 2019 he suffered a neck injury that kept him out for many months.

A younger MJ

And now almost two years of uncertainty and paging mindlessly through outdated magazines in medical waiting rooms are wrapped in a file of documents, reports, scans and rubber stamps.

“I haven’t yet worked out how I am going to get over not riding again. I suppose I haven’t got a choice, have I? I am going to miss it – the horses, the trainers, the owners – the camaraderie. What I won’t miss is the pain and the risks, the injuries and the agony, that goes with the often inevitable accidents. We know the cliché that race-riding is the only profession where an ambulance follows while you are working. But that’s an indisputable fact.”

Watch MJ’s finest moment:

He wipes away a tear as he urges us to record his thanks to ‘so many people’.

“My parents and family, first and foremost. I had the philosophy that hard work and honesty never killed anybody drummed into me from when I was a kortbroek. My Dad was a policeman and he and I have a small meat wholesale business that I am going to focus on now. He never stops working – a great influence in my life.”

While he and his girlfriend of the time Bianca Mincione are no longer together, MJ says she has been a pillar of strength and a shoulder to cry on.

“Bianca is a horsewoman and mature beyond her years. She has been a great sounding board. And I have learnt to cry, believe me.”

MJ and his long-time boss, Vaughan Marshall share a serious chat (Pic – Chase Liebenberg)

And MJ talks fondly about the top trainers with whom he was associated over the years.

“You can be the greatest jockey in the world. But without support and horses to ride you are on your own! I have been fortunate to have had great backing – from Mark Dixon to Oom Nic Claassen in the early days. Then I had a chance to move to Cape Town – which was a lifechanger for me. I must thank my good friend Bernard Fayd’herbe for pushing me when I had doubts. I enjoyed extended associations with powerful yards like Alan Greeff, Glen Kotzen and Dean Kannemeyer. Then one day I had a pick-up ride which won for Vaughan Marshall – how’s that for a lifechanger! He has been my second Dad ever since. I am indebted to him and his wonderful owners. One World’s win in the Met on the eve of the devastating covid pandemic was a career and life highlight that I never realised the value of – but will cherish forever. I have the video to watch when I’m feeling otherwise.”

MJ had a close on twelve year association with Avontuur Estate as sponsors.

MJ proudly shows off the Avontuur silks

“It was an honour to be associated with a prestigious brand. I learnt so much about social skills and life – about carrying yourself and behaving properly. I rubbed shoulders with leading local and international personalities. Pippa Mickleburgh has been a friend, an inspiration and a firm voice when I needed some ‘rukking reg’,” he laughs.

MJ says that he was fortunate to work on the Cape Summer Season big days for 4RacingTV.

MJ the TV presenter at the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate Festival (Pic – Chase Liebenberg)

“I am no Larry King – I come from farming stock and policemen – but I loved the edge and dynamics of television work, which also helped me to stay directly involved in racing. I am here if they need me – it would be a pleasure to stay in the racing mainstream, but I realise that I also have to consider the security of my financial future. I would probably have been riding for another 15 years in good times!”

MJ understandably doesn’t want to reminisce too much at this juncture about how living every day and life to the full is so vitally important.

MJ’s last feature winner on Black Knap (Pic – Chase Liebenberg)

History now shows that his last feature winner was Black Knap in the Listed Settlers Trophy for the Fosters and trainer Vaughan Marshall on 26 September 2020 at Durbanville.

Two days later he steered what was to be his final career winner – and ironically his final ride – home when Wicked Grin won for trainer Duncan McKenzie on Monday 28 September 2020 at Fairview.

The next morning at Milnerton track-work for Vaughan Marshall, his mount had a heart attack and MJ came down heavily, fracturing his tibia and ankle. That was to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

His career died that day.

 

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7 comments on “Emotional MJ Calls It A Day

  1. Ivor Moodie says:

    MJ.

    I wish you everything of the very, very best in your future ahead.
    Thanks for all the great memories.
    Keep strong.
    Vasbyt my friend.

  2. Cliffie Miller says:

    Mj all the very best going forward in your future

  3. Frankie Zackey says:

    Frankie Zackey… Very sad to hear that MJ… God has other plans for your brother,, who knows it could be bigger and better…placed your trust in God… All the best for the future

  4. Amanda Habib says:

    Dear MJ. Its never easy for one to retire when you not ready. But unfortunately you have tried everything to get back in the saddle and it’s not working. You have to try accept this heartbreaking situation and try be thankful for all the great memories. You will always be remembered in this racing game. You need to now work on what is next for MJ. Be strong and we wish you all the best for the future.✝️????????????

  5. Helena Blignaut says:

    MJ ons het saam groot geword. Jy was m kortgat windgat Laaitie met n Groot hart. Ek onthou ons skool jare steeds soos gister. Jou ouers. Ellie en Klein sus. Kralining winkel waar jy jou tong af gebyt het in St1. Goeie memories jou loopbaan gevolg. Baie baie trots op jou my vriend. My Alma mater. Wees Geseend op jou pad vorentoe. Klein botteltjie groot gif. Jy gaan gat skop en n sukses wees in wat jy ookal aanpak. Jy het die beste leermeesters gehad. Jou dierbare ouers. Saluut my vriend. Groete. Helena Blignaut ( Hills)

  6. Cecil Pienaar says:

    MJ, alles gebeur tog maar vir n rede. Yip, dis sad, maar n mens se gesondheid is tog maar die belangrikste. Een deur maak toe, en ander deure sal oop maak. Goeie dinge gebeur vir goeie mense. Maar jy is nog jonk, gaan soek daai deure.
    Sterkte en Voorspoed.

  7. Theo Roelofsz says:

    MJ all the best for the future. May you succeed in whatever you do. Remember Larry King also started at the bottom.

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