Little more than a month ago, apprentice jockey Heavelon van der Hoven was at something of a crisis point in his career. Having fallen short of the minimum required number of wins to qualify, he made the decision to stay in the Academy for another year and with the CTS Million Dollar and Snaith’s historic 8th win on a card under his belt, it seems the only way is up.
Heavelon was born on 15 December 1992 and grew up in the town of Reheboth, just south of Windhoek in Namibia. He grew up on a 9,000 ha farm where his family farmed cattle, goats and sheep. Heavelon started riding at the age of 5 or 6 when the family acquired a few horses and used to go on outrides together on a Sunday. He and his brother used to play at being jockeys and stage their own races. Heavelon’s uncle had a lot of horses for bush racing and with Heavelon’s size and his love of horses, it was a natural progress to want to be a jockey.
When he was 14 years old, the family were on holiday in Johannesburg and went racing at Turffontein. Gary Alexander spotted the young boy, took his measurements and encouraged him to apply to the Academy. Although Heavelon’s application was accepted, he waited until he’d finished matric at Reheboth Dr Lemmer School before joining the SA Jockey Academy in Summerveld in January 2011.
After completing his basics in Durban, he transferred to Cape Town for his second year and credits trainers including Alan Higgins, Ronnie Sheehan and Piet Steyn with a lot of his early support. Heavelon spent 8 or 9 months in Port Elizabeth riding for the likes of Grant Paddock, Yvette Bremner and Hekkie Strydom. He moved back to Cape Town in the early part of 2015 and hasn’t looked back.
Through fellow rider Chris Puller, Heavelon was introduced to the Glen Puller yard where he got to know one of the owners, Ken Martin who decided to take the boy under his wing. Ken decided to sponsor Heavelon at the gym, and with a special diet and the help of personal trainer Rouan Bester, things started turning around.
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire
When Illuminator came into the Puller yard as a young horse, he proved quite a handful, but Heavelon says they just always got along and with the help of Glen’s assistant Roderick Fredericks, the colt made good progress and Heavelon got to partner him on his track debut over Kenilworth’s 1200m on 1 September 2015. “When you’ve done all the work on a horse, it should really be like that,” he says, but acknowledges that things don’t always work out that way. They were victorious, coming home 1.25 to the good of Arctic Blast in a time of 76.69 seconds in soft going.
Illuminator appeared again on 31 October 2015, again over Kenilworth’s 1200m in a MR79 Handicap and again, they won by 1.25 lengths in an improved time of 72.53. In subsequent outings in the Selanor Cup and the Grand Parade Cape Guineas, the ride went to Andrew Fortune. Illuminator finished an eye-catching 0.70 lengths 4th in the Selangor, prompting a large offer, which the owner partnership turned down and then 3.65 lengths 8th behind Noah From Goa in the 19 December 2015 Grand Parade Guineas. Things were getting competitive on the CTS Million Dollar log, but with a good 0.75 length second to Ernie in the Listed Sophomore Sprint under Robert Khathi, Illuminator stamped his ticket for the 23 January 2016 CTS Million Dollar on the newly launched Investec Day of Dreams.
Hand of fate
Big race rider Weichong Marwing had been booked for the ride, but as it happened, fate stepped in. Heavelon explains that he was at the yard on the morning of the race and had been chatting to the connections when the call came in that Marwing was unable to fulfil his engagement. “Ken and I jumped in and said I was available. Ian tried to ring Francis, but he was at the beach and didn’t answer his phone. Then he rang Mr Puller and then tried Francis again, but he still didn’t answer. Then Ian phoned Mr Puller back and said ‘Put Heavelon on and I’ll deal with Francis.’ After I asked, I felt scared, but it just felt right. Roderick, Mr Puller’s assistant came to me before the race and said he was really happy that I’d got the ride. He said it was meant to be and that I’d win. It gave me a lot of confidence and helped me calm down knowing the yard supported me.”
A purse of that stake is a huge responsibility for an apprentice, but the senior riders were very supportive in the jockey room. “Aldo told me before the race that my horse would run good. Corne Orffer and Grant Behr said ‘it’s your horse, just ride him like you know him.”
As it happened things didn’t quite go their way. “On the canter down I knew it was not going to be easy, but I thought we’d be in the mix. It didn’t go too well though,” he admits. “I got squeezed a bit and hit the rail. The horse lost his footing and the saddle slipped a bit and we dropped back, but then he pulled through and moved up like a winner. At about the 300m mark we got to them and he quickened. I saw Silver Mountain and moved out with her. It was also in my favour that the going was good on the outside.” In the end, Illuminator crossed the line 0.75 lengths ahead of race favourite Silver Mountain. Such was the surprise, that most of the cameras were trained on the filly flashing up the rail, resulting in some classic shots of Aldo Domeyer and MJ Byleveld staring across in disbelief. As the CTS million will be split into two races from next year onwards, Heavelon will go down in history as our first and only million dollar jockey.
Coming from a small yard, small owners and an apprentice jockey, it was one of the feel good stories of the season and particularly so for the Jockey Academy. “I think the other apprentices were happier than me!” he laughs. As Heavelon is still contractually bound to the Academy, there has been a question mark over how much of the fee he will get to take home, but he shrugs and said he’s not been told yet. Opportunities like that can be career-changing and Heavelon admits shyly, “It’s changed a lot. I’m getting a lot more opportunities.”
“My family are very happy for me and threw a small party at home. They’ve supported me through thick and thin.”
Making history – again!
Little over a week later was the J&B Met and Heavelon found himself with 2 engagements for the day’s card – and picked up another two on the day. “It was very exciting – it was the most rides I’ve ever had for the Met. On a big day like that, you just have more energy to ride. I don’t know, the people, the crowd, the atmosphere … it makes you more eager to win.” With S’manga injured on the canter down for the 11th race, Justin Snaith needed a replacement rider for Baritone in the last. Snaith Racing had already equalled their South African record for 7 wins on a card and with the late scratching of Bianzino, had two lively contenders going into the last. Baritone was carded to carry 54.5kgs narrowing the pool of available riders significantly. When Justin and Chris Snaith rushed into the weighing room looking for an emergency acceptor, Academy Master Terrance Welch immediately jumped into the fray. “I’ve got two apprentices here!” Justin took one look at Heavelon and said ‘He was lucky on the million dollar horse, maybe he’ll be lucky here.’ They were just turning to leave when they got the news that Piere Strydom was stood down on medical grounds and fellow apprentice Shadlee Fortune got the ride on True Master. The Snaiths have been particularly complimentary about how proactive and efficient the Academy were in coming to their aid.
“I felt sorry for S’manga – he told me it was a good ride. Mr Snaith just told me to give the horse a confident ride. He didn’t put me under any pressure, but said, ‘when you go, you go and don’t look back. The senior jocks are very supportive and down at the start, Bernard Fayd’herbe said to me just to treat it like another maiden.”
Heavelon rode a faultless race and Baritone obliged by 1.5 lengths, running our first million dollar jockey into the record books for the second time by becoming the rider on board the Snaith’s historic 8th win on the day’s card.
As career highlights go, it’s been a pretty big week for the 23 year old. Has it given him an edge? “As you have more runners, you get more confidence, but you need horses like that to help you along. I really need to thank the owners and trainers for all the support they’ve given me.”
Is he still determined to see out the remainder of his apprenticeship and qualify as a jockey? “Definitely. It’s a hard game and it’s tough out there, but it’s still enjoyable.” With his support at the gym he’s got his weight down to a comfortable 50kgs and says he can still eat breakfast and make weight, so life’s looking rosy.
What are his plans for the future? “For now I’m just taking it day by day. I’m trying my best and working hard to get the winners.” And any news on Illuminator? “He’s going very well. I worked him last Thursday and he just wants to race now!”