A qualified Industrial Engineer and a young lady always destined to be a professional jockey, Erin-Lee Watkinson took her next small step to the realisation of a lifelong ambition when she booted Jet Captain home on debut at the Vaal last Tuesday.
Racing in the silks of SA Champion Owner Suzette Viljoen and prepped by Corne Spies, the son of Captain Of All travelled comfortably throughout and stayed on smartly at 25-1 to record a professional opening victory, the 25 year old Erin-Lee’s first since relocating to the Highveld to join the James Maree Workrider Programme.
“I was overwhelmed when the top owner went out of her way to contact me that evening – she obviously takes a keen interest in her horses and has their best interests at heart. It’s lovely to ride for owners like that,” says the former St Mary’s DSG pupil, who seems to have achieved a bundle in just seven years since matriculating at the Kloof school.
Focussed, enthusiastic, eloquently pleasant and very goal-driven. That’s probably the best way of summing up former jockey-turned-trainer Robin and Deputy Principal Lynette Watkinson’s only daughter, whose heart is set on becoming a professional jockey. And with Rachel Venniker growing in stature with the passing of every racemeeting down in Kwazulu-Natal, female jockeys are suddenly viewed with a lot more respect in this fickle industry of ours.
Erin-Lee’s Dad Robin trained for 28 years in the holiday province, and the man she labels her ‘racing inspiration and idol’ knew exactly how tough the racing world is and prepped his only daughter accordingly.
“Dad completed his apprenticeship in South Africa and then went to ride in Mauritius. He had a career-ending race fall on the island at the age of 22. He trained for 28 years and now owns a transport company in KZN,” she proudly tells the Sporting Post.
“He always taught me that it’s a privilege to ride a racehorse and that it’s an honour if someone entrusts you to ride their horse. When I was younger, he said that he wasn’t too keen on me becoming a jockey. But he made sure that I always brushed my teeth with my non-dominant hand so that I could become more ambidextrous and thus use the stick in both hands. He also insisted that I did ballet, modern and tap dancing to gain a good core strength. I danced for 10 years but must be honest and admit I wasn’t very passionate about it. But Dad insisted that it would help me with my riding in the long run. He also took me to ride my show jumper every afternoon and took me to shows on the weekends. He really instilled a respect and love for horses in me from a young age!”
Erin-Lee’s Mom is Lynette, the Deputy Head at Highbury Preparatory School in KZN.
“Mom values education and made many sacrifices to ensure that I could go to school at St Mary’s DSG in Kloof and then attend Stellenbosch University. My parents asked me to rather focus on finishing my tertiary education before pursuing race-riding. I studied industrial engineering at Stellenbosch University and had an amazing group of friends. They often joked that I was a ‘part-time’ student because I went to ride work often and missed quite a few lectures. My friends always took notes for me and kept me updated. I self-studied a lot but my friends’ support definitely got me through my degree,” she concedes with a laugh.
The brand-new Maties student only started riding work when she was 18.
“I moved to Cape Town for varsity and my Dad introduced me to Eric Sands, who taught me all of the basics. I’m very lucky to have learnt from him because he does everything properly and with pride – and takes no shortcuts. Some days, he would ride upsides with me and talk me through the pacework. He also taught me how to count times.”
While she admits she was a bit young and inexperienced, she never quite appreciated the quality of horses that she rode for Joey Ramsden, a neighbour of Eric Sands at the Milnerton Training Centre.
“Mr Ramsden and his workriders also taught me a great deal. I was very much still learning when I rode for him.”
Then followed a move to Andre Nel at the magnificent Rondeberg on the West Coast.
“Mrs Plattner has the most incredible facilities and the farm is such an amazing environment for racehorses and her horses come first. I really enjoyed Andre Nel’s training methods and riding for him was an absolute pleasure. For any rider, you just need someone to believe in you when you’re starting your career, and Andre and Mrs Plattner have given me the best start. I’m forever grateful for their contribution to my riding.”
She rode her first two winners for Mrs Plattner and won the Cape Workrider’s championship during the 20/21 season.
“I was so excited to ride in Mrs Plattner’s colours and I felt proud every time that I wear them because they symbolise such an amazing team. I’m very blessed to have been a part of it. Andre also encouraged me to finish my degree before starting racing. Most of my thesis was written in the Plattner Racing office between strings!”
Another key player in Erin-Lee’s progression has been Craig Du Plooy, who runs the workrider course in Cape Town.
“Craig is very dedicated to his students. He has taught me so many fitness/strengthening exercises and visualisation techniques. He still phones me before each race to go over how I want to ride it. He then phones me afterwards to suggest corrections and to discuss the race. He goes above and beyond and his investment in my riding has given me a lot of confidence and a positive mind-set.”
Multiple champion jockey Basil Marcus is another who gets a mention on the Watkinson support honour roll!
“Mr Marcus also gave me raceriding advice while I was in Cape Town. When I rode at Milnerton, I would go and chat to him and he would give me a list of suggestions. Every week he would add a new item to the list. I wrote it all down and still look over it regularly. Some of the things that Mr Marcus taught me are only starting to make sense to me now that I’ve ridden in more races.”
Erin-Lee also rode work for Lucinda and Geoff Woodruff.
“They are talented horse-people and I learnt a lot from them. Their attention to detail and the individual attention that each horse gets, is quite incredible. Mr Woodruff is the person who encouraged me to move to Joburg to learn from Mr Maree. There was a break from workrider races in Cape Town and Andre and Craig agreed that it would be good for me to gain experience in Joburg. Joburg has the most workrider races and it’s the only province where we can race around the turn. I’m so thankful for the encouragement to take the plunge and go to Mr Maree.”
Brand new in Joburg, Erin-Lee says that Shandre and Calvin Habib very kindly offered her temporary digs at their home.
“It was a ‘full-circle’-type moment because Shandre’s Dad, Andre Hoffman used to stay with my Mom and Dad during some holidays when he was an apprentice, and my Dad was a trainer.”
An enthusiastic Erin-Lee commenced with James Maree’s course as soon as she arrived in Joburg.
“Mr Maree and Mr Marthinus Mienie are exceptional teachers. They take such pride in their work. I have learnt so much from them and I think that the improvement in my raceriding reflects this. I never thought that I would live in Joburg – but it’s all worth it to learn from Mr Maree. We do pushing practice and Mr Mienie films us – then they analyse the videos and make corrections on the equiciser. I passed Mr Maree’s course so I can raceride in Joburg, but I still attend every week because I have so much more to learn from them. Mr Maree truly wants his students to succeed and his passion for teaching also pushes us to give it our all.”
Her ‘Joburg folks’ Corrie and Emmie Lensley have been a great support structure and offered Erin-Lee accommodation nearer to the Vaal Racecourse, where she happily rides work for Ash Fortune and Corne Spies.
“Ash conducts herself in a really professional manner and can truly be regarded as a role model for many young people in racing. I often go to her for advice. Ash and Mr Andrew Fortune have a lovely string and they help me daily with my riding.”
Erin-Lee is also liberal in her admiration and respect for Tobie and Corne Spies.
“Mr Tobie Spies is an amazing horseman and is a very wise person. I feel like he believes in me and I’m very honoured that a horseman of his calibre has taken an interest in my riding. He watches all of my races and also helps me with corrections.”
Their assistant Fransie Naude also helps her.
“I’m so pleased that my first winner in Joburg was for the Spies team. I’ve also started riding some work for Mr Paul Peter. He’s been very welcoming and I’ve had one ride for him so far. I also hope to ride work at Randjesfontein when I can get there. I have a lot of respect for Mr Matchett and I’ve had one ride for him.”
While her future goal is to be a professional jockey, Erin-Lee’s current focus is to ride good races, have winners and to learn as much from James Maree as possible.
“I’ve only had 15 race-rides, so there’s a lot of room for improvement and neatening up – but at least now I’m on the right path to becoming a jockey.”
Good luck Erin-Lee!