JP van der Merwe is a young rider who has steadily been making a name for himself among South Africa’s jockey ranks. His career took something of a quantum leap when he secured a last minute engagement to ride Smart Call in the 2016 Gr1 J&B Met and delivered the goods with consummate ease.
Juan-Paul van der Merwe is the son of Andre and Dalene van der Merwe and the eldest of their three children. He was born in Johannesburg on 28 December 1990, but when he was 9 or 10, his family relocated to Port Elizabeth. He speaks in clipped, heavily accented English, but it is clear he is a very determined young man with a solid head on his shoulders. JP cites his father as a big influence on his career choice. “I was always small and my father thought I could be a jockey. I think he tried, but it never happened. My father said I should apply and at that time we were living in PE. I went to the Academy and applied. In the first year they didn’t take me, but I applied again the next year and the second time they accepted me.”
Like another blonde bomber, the young man also attended primary school Altona Primary Daniel Pienaar. “I was in grade 5 or 6 and Piere was on suspension and came to PE to visit his family. My old headmaster and Piere were friends and he told Piere to ‘come and have a look, we have another jockey here.’” Piere duly stopped by and had a look at JP’s shoe size, legs, height and weight and said he thought he should give it a try. “He’s kept an eye on me ever since. In fact, most of my seniors are quite good to me,” he adds modestly.
After finishing his basic training at the Durban academy, JP moved to the Cape Town Academy under the eye of Vince Curtis and completed his time under Robert Moore and Gary Waterston in Johannesburg. “When you race once a week like in some centres, it’s very difficult. Joburg has a lot more racing and with Kimberley and Zim always available, you learn things faster.”
Once he qualified, JP spent a year in Johannesburg and says, “I was doing OK, but I wasn’t happy and think I needed a break. There was a lot of pressure, things weren’t happening for me and it was starting to get to me, so I looked around for something else. Tex Lerena helped me out and got me two opportunities – one in Mauritius and one in Dubai. I opted for Dubai and went and rode there. It never lasted long and in the end I was only there for 10 days. The stable I was riding for had a very small string and I thought I’d rather come back, but it was an awesome experience and I raced at Jebel Ali and Meydan.”
When I came back, I heard Lloyd Lunn was looking for a jockey. I used to go well for him as an apprentice, so I went to Durban for 6 months. I did some work for Glen Kotzen in Durban and Glen said he needed a jockey for Cape Town, so I came down for 8 months. Cape Town is hard and there’s not a lot of racing, so I moved back to Joburg and it’s been going well ever since.”
JP currently rides work for a number of top flight Joburg strings including Michael Azzie, Alec Laird, Sean Tarry and Mike de Kock. He doesn’t currently have an agent and prefers to do his bookings himself. “It’s quite nice. I mostly ride work for those four trainers and either they’ll let me know about rides or I’ll ask them at noms. I’ve had agents before and it didn’t work out – it’s a bit like having a middle man and in the end, the trainer’s not too sure what’s going on, I’m not too sure what’s going on and it’s not ideal.”
With Smart Call’s regular rider Weichong Marwing benched due to a back injury, there was a glaring blank in the slot for the jockey’s name which caused increasing speculation as the D Day of the Met approached. With the public in the dark about the filly’s riding arrangements, how did things play out from his side? “I rode her a lot at work, but never in a race,” he explains. “Obviously Weichong is having a back problem and early last week I spoke to Mr Laird and said ‘Is there any chance I can ride the filly?’ He said it should be fine, but that he’d need to speak to Miss Slack. On Wednesday Mr Laird phoned to ask whether I would be in Cape Town on Saturday and he said there was a big chance I might be riding, but I was never on her at that stage – he only put me on late on Saturday morning. I was always going to come down for Paul Reeves, but it wasn’t until I landed and checked scratchings, that I saw I was on for the first time. The first thing I did was phone Weichong to ask him for advice. Myself and Weichong have got a good relationship. We understand each other and as my senior, he’s always had my back and given me advice. When I phoned him, he was very helpful and gave me very good advice. We were drawn 8 and all the fancied horses – Futura, Legislate and Legal Eagle – were on our inside, so the plan was to try and slot in behind one of those three.”
As it was his first ever Met ride, how did the nerves hold up? “The thing is, I only got put on at 9am of the morning of the race. Usually for a big race you know 2 or 3 weeks in advance and the pressure builds, but because I picked up the ride so late, I never actually got excited and never felt any pressure. It was a filly against the boys and she’d never run against them before, but there was no pressure on me. The only instructions from Miss Slack were to bring her back safe and to pat her a lot!”
Asked what it was it like to be part of the jockey’s parade and all the big race razzmatazz for the first time, he answers, “To be honest, I didn’t enjoy the formalities. It all takes so long and I just wanted to get on the filly and do my job.”
He confirms all the reports of the filly’s easy temperament. “She’s never done anything wrong. She doesn’t rear, doesn’t kick. She used to be a bit keen, and used to over race a bit, but that’s about it.”
The big race
“We came out a little bit sluggish, but then got over quite nicely and sat behind Legal Eagle. Master Sabina bumped us a few times coming around the bend and she got a little keen, but it was nothing serious. By the 1000m Anton used Legal Eagle, so I followed and joined him and at the 300m I saw Legal Eagle was off the bit – it was unbelievable. The rest was actually quite easy. I got to Anton and by about the 300m, I let her go and she quickened from there. I didn’t even have to give her a few slaps, she’s so good. You can see I start looking around quite early, but ja, the further we went the further we won by.”
As he crossed the line, JP placed his fingers across his lips, which made for some fun front page photographs, but is there any special significance to the gesture? “You can’t stand up and salute anymore or they’ll fine you. Across the line I just wanted to do something and I had to come up with something unique, so that was it.”
With a total of one ride and one win in the J&B Met, JP is currently on a 100% strike rate. A jockey’s first Grade 1 is always a milestone and can have a significant impact on his career. “I still can’t believe it – I think I’m still waiting for it to kick in,” he says, still sounding a bit shell-shocked. “It’s my first Grade 1 win. I’ve been having a good season and been just under the top 10. I haven’t got an agent, and I’m getting good horses, if not the top rides, but one needs a big one like that. Obviously you are what you ride, but you can work as hard as you like and think you’re doing everything you should – getting a Gr1 win just gives you the confidence that you’re on the right track.”
“There have been so many phone calls and messages. I saw a lot of people while I was in Cape Town, but my phone battery died at about 10pm on Saturday night, so it all piled up. I’m still clearing stuff off the phone. My family are very chuffed for me. I haven’t seen them yet – they’re down in PE and it’s a bit difficult getting time to get down there, but my mom phoned in tears and they’re all very happy.” Asked whether any of the younger van der Merwe’s might follow in his footsteps, he laughs and says ‘No, being a jockey is definitely not for my younger brother. He’s not into sport.”
A Grade 1 means a huge amount on any jockey’s CV, but for someone as young and competent as JP with the all-important advantage of being a light-weight rider, the achievement will not only give him a huge confidence boost, but presents a golden ticket to a lot of new opportunities. “After winning a Gr1 like the J&B Met there are a lot of doors I can open. My CV is going to look good and I will try and send it to Singapore and places like that. I must send my CV everywhere.”
Back to the grindstone
He’s not had a great deal of time to absorb it all yet, but racing life moves on quickly and by the time we catch up with the newest member of the J&B jockey honour roll, JP is en route to Kimberley. They say you’re only as good as your last ride and when your last ride was the J&B Met, it’s a good time to keep the momentum going. Trainer Corrie Lensley must have been thrilled to leg the 2016 Met winning jockey on his string on Monday and from 6 rides, JP brought home a winner and 2 seconds – not a bad day at the office!
Asked whether there were any particular horses he liked that folks could follow going forward, JP selects Greek Legend in the Michael Azzie yard, saying “He’s one of my nice ones and is just coming back from injury.” He cites Splendid Garden, also from the Michael Azzie yard, as “also another champion. He’s a bit hot in the gates – he rears up and does stupid things, but he can run.”