In his first full season as a trainer, former champion jockey MJ Odendaal travels the long road into the Turffontein tiger tank on Saturday to take on some of the great conditioners he once rode big race winners for.
The pony-tailed 52 year old says his maiden Gr2 runner is both a momentous and humbling occasion for him and his team as he saddles Shavout for owner Luis Cunha in the World Sports Betting Gr2 Dingaans on WSB Summer Cup day.
A son of Elusive Fort, the lightly raced Shavout takes on the likes of Mike de Kock’s undefeated multiple stakes winner, Mount Pleasant.
MJ stresses that his team is travelling to Turffontein with every respect for the opposition.
“They are world-class trainers. I have ridden big race winners for most of them. If anybody knows how good they are, it should be me!”
The charismatic Hollywoodbets-sponsored trainer told the Sporting Post that his charge, an eyecatching runner-up in the recent Listed Model Man Mile, had earned his chance to take on the better horses of his generation.
“Look, I’m not going to Joburg pushing my chest out bragging that we are going to take on the best and beat them. I think our horse is top class, but I realise that on the ratings and, based on what the likes of Mount Pleasant has shown to date, we have our work cut out. He is also drawn wide. But Marco van Rensburg has ridden him in work this week and he is happy with him. He will ride Shavout to run second – we will see what happens from there,” he smiled broadly.
He describes Shavout as an athletic youngster, who is a dead ringer for his handsome Dad, Elusive Fort.
“Find a photograph of Elusive Fort at Turffontein in the SA Derby 14 years ago. It’s that eye – that face!” he says enthusiastically.
As regards his travel plans for the weekend, MJ explains that one of the best transporters in the game will be travelling his charge to Turffontein.
“Depending on the individual horse, there are various theories of travel – and most work for the particular horse. Top man John Fox will travel with my loyal Grooms Mr Rasta and Shorty. I will either be with them or following in my own vehicle. We have all the logistics planned – our own water and vacuum packed food. He will arrive at Turffontein in the early hours of Saturday morning. And then he will just be walked and we will count down to the Dingaans,” he adds excitedly, explaining further that Shavout is relaxed and is likely to have a good night’s sleep on the road.
“My horses are like me – they sleep well. And it is like travelling on a train!”
MJ currently has 35 horses in training at Summerveld and chose the world-class centre for its warmer climes as he suffered some bad falls as a jockey and can feel his injuries in cold weather.
He says that his assistant, Brahm Malherbe, who is more of a ‘horse person’ than a ‘people person’, is the cornerstone of his yard.
“He is older and wiser than me. A top man. He worked for Paul Peter looking after their babies. Uncle Brahm is meticulous and is brilliant with legs. You want to try and keep the vet bills as low as possible, and he is an absolute genius with that. ”
It was reported recently that MJ felt goosebumps last year when shown his new stables by Summerveld manager Tony Rivalland, as he had a flashback to the day he was sent to the very same yard to meet his first boss, Brian Cherry.
Cherry’s first words to him were: “So you’re the little Dutchman are you? Stick with me and I will make you famous.”
MJ was crowned South African champion jockey in the 2004/5 season and later made a remarkable comeback. Modesty stops him from dwelling on his falls, injuries and the miraculous comeback, which saw him add two more Gr1 SA Derby’s to his CV with Wylie Hall and Seal.
A former amateur bush rider, the youngster who grew up in Amsterdam in Mpumalanga, arrived at the South African Jockey Academy in the early 1980’s hardly able to speak a word of English. But he was full of confidence, having booted home five winners in his last bush meeting before joining the Academy.
Today he is a Hollywoodbets sponsored trainer and is proud of his association with the purple team.
“A perfectionist and true professional, their Racing Ambassador Anthony Delpech is my good friend. But I’d like to believe that I cracked the nod as a Hollywoodbets sponsored trainer for more than the fact that I was his best man at his wedding! We need to bring colour and fun back into racing and I want to do my bit to contribute to the reincarnation of this great game.”
On the subject of glitz and glamour, what will he be wearing when he comes up against the likes of fashion giants like Paul Peter and Mike de Kock in the Turffontein parading ring on Saturday?
“Is there a fashion theme? Surely not, during these times? But my suit is a cross between suburban and a pirate look! I’d like to think that I will be looking more like Johnny Depp than an Englishman in New York. But hey, this is all about Shavout!”