When Pat Eddery died in late 2015, Brough Scott, in his tremendous tribute to the great rider, wrote “A top jockey’s life will always have something of the portrait of Dorian Gray about it. Whilst he is riding, he is ever young. When he finally dismounts, there is a very old picture to come out of the cupboard.” Fifty-Eight is hardly old, but it is a very good age for a jockey and it is the age that “King Karl” Neisius retired his racing saddle in November 2015. We catch up with him to find out how retired life is treating him.
Jockeys spend their lives watching what they eat and there is a particular tension in the heavy weight jockeys. It’s something one becomes so accustomed to that you stop noticing it until it’s not there anymore. Catching up with Karl three months into retirement, it’s gratifying to find him relaxed and at ease and when the waitress brings over 2 cappuccinos and complimentary biscuits, he accepts with a warm smile.
Karl Walter Neisius was born on 27th January 1957 in the Welsh town of Carmarthen. His family moved to South Africa in 1964 and settled in the Cape Town suburb of Ottery. Being the son of a riding instructor, Karl had horses in his blood and joined the SA Jockey Academy in July 1971. He was among the last intake to start at Mariaanhill and moved with them to the new Summerveld facility.
Being a jockey
Karl was indentured to family friend, Ralph Rixon in Cape Town for whom he rode his first winner aboard Glad Rag Doll in March 1973. After qualifying, Karl rode for Rixon in KZN for 3 months, but came back to Cape Town, riding mainly for Terrance Millard before going freelance. After an injury-plagued 1978/79 season, he took up with the Snaith and Elley yards and never looked back. His career has spanned more than 4 decades and it’s been one of consistency and reliability. He tallied 100+ winners on 12 occasions, was Champion WC Jockey 10 times and rode 5 winners on a card on no less than 7 occasions. He notched his 3,000th career winner aboard Cape Royal on 9 April 2012. His winners are landmarks in our racing history – Jamaican Music, Festive Season, Home Streaker, Lord Randolph, Flaming Rock, Eli’s Truth, Midnight Run, Flobayou, Dynasty, Free My Heart, River Jetez, Blue Tiger, Fort Vogue, Noordhoek Flyer, What A Winter, Capetown Noir. It’s quite a CV.
Karl was last seen in the saddle on 12 October 2015, when he rode a full card of 8 rides at Durbanville for 1 win, a second and two thirds. His last ride was on board Avail for the Dean Kannemeyer yard and he finished 0.9 lengths third. After battling on-going back problems, Karl officially announced his retirement on 9 November 2015 at the age of 58.
Asked what prompted his decision to retire, he explains that he was boarded for medical reasons due to osteoporosis in his lower back, namely the L3, 4 and 5 vertebrae. “Riding professionally is hard on your back. You’ll probably find that about 50% of riders have back problems to some degree. Some of it is lifestyle and some of it is hereditary. Injuries and falls exacerbate it, but it’s part of the job and most of us manage it to an extent. It’s what we’re conditioned to do. I’ve been riding a little longer than average, so most of mine is wear and tear. I still had a few goals, so I’ve been hanging on for the last few years – I was still hoping to win the Met and I’d hoped to ride 2000 winners at Kenilworth. I’d have been happy to try and manage it a bit longer, but I’ve been seeing all the specialists for the past two years and it just got to the stage that I couldn’t manage it anymore.”
Was he tempted to have a go at equalling Stanley Amos’ record (he retired on 3 July 1983, three months shy of his 65th birthday)? Karl laughs, “No-one knows how old Stan Amos really was! Plus he only rode work occasionally and was only riding 1 or 2 a day towards the end. I was still riding full cards and things were much more intense,” he says with a hint of pride.
“When I do something I want to do it properly. I want to ride 5 – 6 rides a day as well as riding work, but it got to the stage where I couldn’t do that without medication practically every day. I knew it couldn’t carry on indefinitely, so I was preparing myself, but you ride a winner and you think you’re still invincible and that the next champion will be around the corner, you know?” Then “You have to draw a line somewhere,” he smiles ruefully.
What’s he been doing since?
“Apart from seeing millions of doctors, I’ve basically been relaxing and trying to get my mind around the whole thing. Luckily I’m well covered in terms of insurance and will get an income replacer for a few years, so basically I’m taking a nice break. I’m spending more time with my youngest daughter and being able to go away for weekends is wonderful. I’m going to miss race riding and the guys in the jockey room. I think the Cape jockey room has got a special camaraderie compared to rest of the country – they’re all special guys – but I guess life goes on.”
On being a jockey
“I’ve loved it, but it’s a rollercoaster – you’re can be on top one week and not have a job the next – that’s just racing. It’s a very insecure lifestyle, but you’ve just got to get used to it. We were all battling apprentices at one stage, but in my day, if you had a nice boss, he gave you chances, especially when you were claiming and if you got an opportunity you got to run with it. I was very fortunate and always had long relationships with the trainers I rode for. When I stopped riding for someone, I always moved on to a better job – I was very fortunate in that respect.”
“We all make mistakes at every meeting. You just try and keep the mistakes to a minimum and good jockeys make less mistakes than others. I’ve always ridden a certain way – I know a lot of people think I’m not vigorous enough, but I feel if horse is balanced, it’s giving its best. I’ve had a fair amount of criticism, but you learn to deal with it. I’ve spent most of my career riding for top yards, and obviously they’re happy or they wouldn’t employ me. I’m very happy to be judged by people I ride for and the jockeys I ride against, rather than ones in the grandstand! ”
“The Queen’s Plate, the July, all the Classics. I’ve ridden over 50 Gr1’s – they’re all special. Winning the July on Flaming Rock was probably one of the best. Shirley Pfeiffer was great and stuck with me through thick and thin. When I came back from injury, the first thing people said was ‘oh, he’s done his nerve.’ Straightaway Chris gave me chances and I never looked back. I had to lose a lot of weight and we won it from a wide draw, which made it very satisfying. Winning the Queen’s Plate for Lady Laidlaw on Capetown Noir was also very special.”
“Flobayou – I won 16 races on him and that was fantastic, but there were multiple horses I won multiple times on. With good horses you try and build relationships with them and I was fortunate to stay on quite a few.” Eli’s Truth get a mention – “nice story and nice people”, Free My Heart and Dynasty gets the plaudit of being “probably the best I’ve ever ridden.” There’s Lizard Island, Corcovado and horses like What A Winter, Noordhoek Flyer and Capetown Noir, who Karl rode at his stud launch at the 2015 Summerhill Stallion day. “They wanted me to do a Frankie Dettori and do a flying dismount – they had no idea!” he chuckles. “It’s wonderful to ride horses that go on to be stallions and broodmares” and here he singles out What A Winter for a special mention. “He has a great temperament and I think he’ll make a good stallion.”
At the mention of Pat Eddery, Karl says he rode against Pat once in an international. “We got to ride against some real greats like Joe Mercer, Pat Eddery, Lester Piggott. I had some wonderful times and got to meet great people. I’ll miss riding work almost as much as riding in races. I liked sitting on the babies early on and being able to tell someone ‘you’ve got a nice one here’. I’d always try and pick out the Classic horses for the next season, pick a nice one early, book it in the spring and say I’d like to stay with it. It all comes with experience and confidence that trainers will keep you on. Dreams are what it’s all about!”
At the Gold Cup meeting of 2002, Karl famously didn’t weigh out on a horse called To Infinity and ended up being banned from Gold Circle tracks. “That was probably the worst day of my life,” remembers Karl. “The club were trying something new that day and all the horses placed first, second, third and fourth weighed out in public in front of the stands. Unfortunately I rode 3 favourites on the day and none of them won and I was getting abused more and more as the day wore on. After that race it was particularly bad and I didn’t weigh out in front as I should have. I did go to scales at the back, but it was my fault, I was distracted and that was the situation. We brought it up afterwards as we felt it was very unfair to the jocks – in any race there’s only one winner and only so many happy punters. Luckily that’s the last time they did it and now only the winner weighs out in front.”
Gold Circle ended up banning me from their tracks. It’s a long time ago now, so I don’t remember all the details, but we had to go to court and get it overturned. It was all sorted out in the end, but it wasn’t nice, I tell you.”
“The other major low was the fall that put me out of action before Dynasty’s July.”
“Not winning the Met. I probably would have won it already if it had been run under today’s conditions. But maybe I’ll breed or train one – that’s always a possibility,” he says wistfully. It’s not that much of a stretch. It’s a little known fact that Karl has had significant success on the breeding front and was part of the JACK Syndicate (short for Jehan Malherbe, Alan Hodson, Carl de Vos and Karl Neisius) who bred the champion race filly Spook Express. Interestingly, Spook Express was not accepted for the Cape regional yearling sale, so she was sold off the farm as a 2yo. She went on to be a champion race filly in South Africa before being exported to the USA, where she ran second to Banks Hill in the 2001 Breeders Cup Fillies and Mares Turf. “We had some nice horses,” he says thoughtfully. Maybe I’ll do it again.”
“I haven’t made my mind up yet. I want to stay involved to some degree – there must be a gap somewhere. I follow racing closely and I’ve been going to most of the big races during the season. Being a spectator is very different from riding – watching from the stands, speaking to owners and trainers, it gives you quite a different view. I think I preferred the jockey room!” he quips.
He has considered training, but is weighing his options carefully. “One would need the right backing. I would like to keep small and perhaps run it privately from a farm, but I don’t think that’s really feasible. It’s become a numbers game and small trainers tend to battle. Things have changed a lot since the Graham Becks and Laurie Jaffees of the world. People like them really understood the game and took the wins with the losses so well because they had the means and they saw the bigger picture. One needs to be in the game a long time to understand it to that extent and there are few owners like that nowadays. I feel for the trainers who need to try and explain it to newcomers.”
“I’ve had a wonderful career and would just like to say a big thank you to all the owners and trainers that supported me and particularly to my family, the Kannemeyer yard and my friend and agent, Rob Champion.”