Matthys Johannes Odendaal, or MJ as he is affectionately known, is an energetic, friendly, enthusiastic man whose positive attitude has helped him overcome serious injuries which would have put paid to many other jockeys careers. MJ has simply not allowed setbacks to deter him and he has got on with his life in a highly commendable manner. Back once again after a long break from riding he has decided that he will make KZN his base in the winter months and Gauteng in the summer. He is already getting amongst the winners in KZN despite only just arriving back from up north. MJ is a busy go getter and a lot more will be heard about him during the winter season.
What is your name and age? Matthys Johannes Odendaal and I am 42 years strong.
Where do you live? I lived in Randhart, Johannesburg, but I recently sold my property and moved to KZN for the winter months. I will stay and ride in KZN until the warmer weather returns to Gauteng. When necessary I will ride in Gauteng for mid-week meetings.
Tell us about your family? My Mom and Dad farm near Amsterdam in Mpumalanga. Farming is my other passion and became very involved from a young age. All 3 of my sisters live abroad. The oldest sister did her honours and master degree in America and now resides in Hong Kong. Her husband is a professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. My other two sisters live in America. The one did her biochemistry degree in Maine and the other one lives in Veil, a ski resort in Colorado.
Are any of your family members involved in racing or particularly interested in racing? My Dad follows my career closely but is not a gambling man. The way he picks horses he should be. His late brother enjoyed the gambling side as does my uncle Tommy Kidd. He often phones me to tell me what I will do well on and he is pretty accurate.
An injury kept you out of racing for a long time. How did you get over it and how big a decision was it to decide to keep on your career as a jockey? Injuries have kept me out of racing for about 4 years. My dad was quite keen on my returning to the farm but understands my passion for racing. I am grateful to the doctors and their new technology which helped put me back together again.
Who were the people who influenced you to continue riding? Myself – although many doctors, on different occasions, were of the opinion that I would never ride again. That thought never crossed my mind!
You had spent many years riding in KZN. You now appear to have settled in Gauteng. Was there any particular reason for this? I won the Championship from Gauteng and have been through many obstacles since then. Ideally I would like to be in KZN for the winters and Gauteng for the rest of the time. Maybe even a short stint in Cape Town during the Met season.
You recently won the Derby on Seal. It looked like a well planned win. How much time had you spent with Seal in the gallops leading up to the race and did you give him a big chance in the race? Seal improved with time. His prep run over 1800m was inspiring. After his final gallop I phoned Gavin and told him that Chesney had him spot on.
Since your return to the saddle do you think the standard of the horses racing has risen or is it more or less as it was? I think the standard of our horses has always been very high. Our jockeys are well respected all over the world as are our trainers. Michael de Kock has really put SA racing on the world map and he does it with style. Mike will always be remembered as a pioneer who paved the way for SA trainers, owners and jockeys. Herman Brown, too, has done very well overseas and I am sure there will be more to follow.
You ride for a number of yards. Is there any chance you will be raiding KZN with any of them? Have saddle will travel! I am already in KZN. This year I think I beat the men from Joubert Park to Durban. I am riding work at Summerveld and Clairwood.
If asked for your long shot selection for the July which horse would you select? It is normally in the last few weeks building to the race that the puzzle begins to fall into place so I must be honest and say that at this stage it is too soon for me to make a prediction.
You appear to be riding as well as ever. How fit and strong are you feeling? I am feeling good. I am happy and my fitness level is high and improving all the time. My strength is good and the injuries are in the past. Let’s get on with it!
Seal is trained by Chesney van Zyl for his father, Gavin, in Gauteng. Chesney has a whole host of admirers. How do you rate his future? Chesney’s record speaks for itself. He is in charge of the Gauteng string and he is doing tremendously well. He gets them very fit and he has the gift of getting a horse right on the big day. He is a young man with a bright future.
You have been a jockey for a long time now. What would you consider to be the most memorable time of your career in the saddle? My first winner, Lord Kildare. All the grade races. The two occasions I rode 6 winners on a day. The night I received the trophy as champion jockey and every winner since I have been back riding especially the Derby!
How many winners have you ridden thus far? 1500+.
What do you consider to be the best horse you have ridden to date? Topa Inca, Goldmark and Active Bo Bo (overseas).
How did you spend your time whilst you were off with your injury? When I was able to help my father on the farm. He has a right hand man in Willem de Waal whom I worked with. The highlight for me is going to the bull auction. I picked good bulls and the “old man” is impressed with the offspring. I also cross breed with painted pinto and quarter horses. They are a multi coloured type of horse with a great nature. Anyone interested in them can contact me.
How many horses do you normally ride work on in the morning? Anything from 10 -25. I love riding work in the hot weather. If the temp goes towards zero then I am like that horse that doesn’t want to get out of the gates.
Do you have any ambition to ride a horse in Dubai or elsewhere? Would love to ride in Dubai and many other places but right now I will stay in SA and ride my way into the top 5.
Do you have many friends outside of racing circles? I have a broad spectrum of friends from all walks of life.
Do you advise any friends or family to back a horse you ride when you feel you have an outstanding win chance? As long as people don’t expect to win I will give my opinion.
How do you celebrate a big win? Winning a big race is not all about celebrating. I get a feeling of satisfaction so it is nice to take a step back and enjoy the vibe.
At this stage of your career what are your main ambitions? Firstly to stay on top (joke). I believe in statistics so I will have to work my way into the top 5 but at the same time I will not pressure myself. I enjoy my sport and am sure it will all fall into place.
What is it about racing that makes you passionate about the game? I love horses and I like winning. Trying to find those special horses excites me and I am proud to be a jockey.
If you have to name the most important lesson you have learnt about racing thus far what would you say that is? The lesson is not just about horses but it is about life. “Never expect anything from anybody”. Rather be grateful and appreciative.
How do you like to spend your free time? Farming – especially cattle farming.
How much time do you spend studying form? As long as it takes. The more you study the easier it gets. My mate, Grant, always gives me a hand and my agent, Allan Reid, is also pretty clued up.
The control of racing is now very strict. Is there anything more, in your opinion, that you think the authorities could or should do to make racing even straighter? When something is straight it is straight – you cannot make it straighter. Trust me the myth that jockeys know what will win every race is just that – a myth. I do sometimes know that my horse is working very well and has an outstanding chance but some other horse might be working even better. It then becomes a calculated risk. It is a tough and competitive sport and that is what makes it so good.
What is your philosophy on the racing game? It is a bit like surfing. Sometimes you get dumped, sometimes you get
scaled and sometimes you catch a wonderful wave and then it is wonderful.
Many trainers and jockeys are now sponsored. Do you feel it is important to have a sponsor and would you like to have a sponsor? Our exposure is very good but yes I would like to have a sponsor. I’m sharp enough to promote a sponsor without sounding like a stuck record.
If you had one piece of advice for your fellow associates in the racing world what would it be? To the youngsters, ”Learn from the old timers”. They have been there, done that, got the T shirt and are still wearing it with pride.