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Getting Back Into The Saddle

Redemption after the return

In 2017, at the height of his career, George Barker suffered a severe brain injury when his horse fell while riding in St Moritz, Switzerland. At the age of 35, with a record of 1300 career wins over 18 years, he had to accept the fact that he would never ride again.

Stallone and Atkinson Grimshaw’s moment of redemption at Fairview (Pic – Pauline Herman)

In the blink of an eye, the kaleidoscope of powerful speed and thundering hooves can turn to a silent shade of black – this is the fearful possibility a jockey faces every time they get on the back of a half-ton horse.

Jockey Majia Vance took a fall in 2018 which resulted in her suffering 13 broken ribs, facial injuries, punctures to both her lungs and a broken back in no less than five places – she was told she would never walk again. She proved them wrong! Through soul-devouring rehab, she returned to riding.

In a sport where the contenders are constantly followed by an ambulance, this reality could not be clearer. And in the past few months, local horseracing has witnessed its fair share of riders falling off their mounts.

But not all is doom and gloom – the dedication of these jockeys to continue the pursuit of their passion for horseracing is also evident.

The Sporting Post caught word of one such story…

Formerly from KwaZulu-Natal, now Port Elizabeth-based Jockey Stallone Lee Naidoo had a special-kind of return to the winners’ enclosure – his first win back happened to be on the very same horse who, in his own words, ’’tossed him over the fence”, and sent him into recovery in the first place.

He certainly has a history with the Varsfontein-bred Atkinson Grimshaw. Stallone pointed out that Atkinson is a very temperamental horse and on 17th October, the day of the incident, a lot went wrong around him.

“It took a long time to get him into the pens. When we finally got him in, the horse beside him acted up and this just made him more anxious. At that moment, I could feel that he wasn’t his normal self and acting on that anxiousness, he fly-jumped out at quite a height and my head hit the top bar in the starting stalls. I blacked out for a couple of seconds and that was all it took to be on the ground.”

That certainly sounds like it could knock anyone out. How long were you in recovery for?

Stallone shakes off a laugh. “Well, I had a herniated disk in my neck and had to wear a collar for two months. I only returned to riding on 9 February. Although, I must admit, this was not the severest career injury – my worst injury was when I broke my femur. I fell in a race and a horse stepped on my thigh. A rod had to be inserted and recovery took four months.”

The moody guy – Atkinson Grimshaw (Pic – Supplied)

So why get back aboard the same temperamental guy?

“Yeah, he’s a moody guy but a good horse. It’s part of the sport and every jockey knows that you need both mental and physical strength to maintain a healthy wellbeing. When you return from an injury, getting that first win plays heavily on your mind. You are hungry for that return-win. It’s all in an effort to get that peace of mind and maintain the momentum. I was lucky – both Atkinson, who is named after the English Victorian-era artist, and I got to redeem ourselves with our win at Fairview on 12 March.

Whether it’s a  maiden or grade 1, that winning feeling never gets old and it’s impossible to put into words. I think the closest description would be – it’s magic, surreal and you can never get enough. And not to sound greedy, but enough is never enough.”

Competitive by nature, Stallone says that from a young age he was constantly challenging himself to improve and pushing himself to win – even though losing has taught him quite a lot.

It was his father’s goal to become a jockey and while that was not possible for him, Stallone is thankful that due to his stature and drive, he was accepted and able to follow this career path.

He has been riding since 2013 and in 2014 he relocated to Port Elizabeth to team up with Hollywoodbets sponsored-trainer Gavin Smith. There is a sense of pride when he talks about this partnership.

“Gavin Smith has always been the backbone of my career and he continues to support me through all the good and bad times. We’ve had great success together and our history is priceless.”

Stallone and Atkinson return after the momentous win to the delight of the Gavin Smith Team (Pic – Pauline Herman)

Are there any other individuals who have contributed to the development of your career?

“Certainly, there have been a few instrumental supporters and mentors along the way. Joey Ramsden always saw potential in me, and he helped me gain confidence in Durban and Cape Town. When I moved to Eastern Cape, Yvette Bremner played a huge role in my growth as a jockey, helping to boost my confidence in reaching my goals.

Other jockeys have also been a great source of guidance in fine tuning my riding. Warren Kennedy stands out as my main role model; I love his do-or-die riding style as he puts everything into each ride. Aldo Domeyer is also someone I aspire to follow. He is an excellent judge of pace and very level-headed under pressure. His sense of humour is also on a whole different level.”

We know that every jockey has a reason, but what inspires you to get back into the saddle after an injury, quite literally?

“I have a truly supportive team behind me. Back home, my mom and dad are always rooting for me and my decision to keep on this path comes from the desire to want them to always be proud to say, “Stallone Lee Naidoo is our son”. I’ve had a good career. As it is in all sports, injury is part of the game.

To be honest, I’ve been lucky enough to come back from pretty serious injuries, including a nasty battle with cancer. I’ve been Champion Apprentice Jockey in the Eastern Cape and won quite a few features here. I’ve managed to deliver successful rides for my trainer.”

And where to from here?

“Well, my main goal is to re-establish myself and regain my bearings. Hopefully find a few good horses I can win some features on. Maybe, with time, I will be tempted to ride overseas, but for now I aim to ride winners here and boost my reputation.”

One last question then, what quote or philosophy does Stallone live by?

“It ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done,“ he says, echoing the words of Rocky Balboa from the movie Rocky.

Indeed, this is a sport that will knock you off your high-horse, sharper than a lightning storm, but it is also a sport that is fuelled by the undying passion of those who find themselves intoxicated by the powerful bond between man and beast as they race towards those moments of unforgettable victory.

It’s what drives these resilient jockeys to get back into the saddle after the fall.

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