KZN-based jockey Tristan Godden came out of his time in January 2017 and has been finding his feet as a fully fledged jockey. He recently celebrated turning 21 and with a sponsorship from Winning Form, his future looks bright.
Tristan grew up in Richard’s Bay, two hours outside Durban. His mom is a teacher and his father owns an engineering business. Tristan is the oldest of their two sons. His younger brother is currently finishing school.
One of his school teachers told him about the SA Jockey Academy and he decided to give it a try. Had he ever ridden a horse or had any involvement with racing before joining the Academy? “No, nothing at all. I didn’t know a single thing about a racehorse. I was just influenced by a teacher in primary school and thought it sounded cool, so I decided to give it a go. Mom wanted me to finish matric in normal school, but I didn’t want that.”
Despite normal concerns, his family are very supportive. “My mom has actually been very good. At first she was nervous and very worried about me, but she’s grown to accept the fact that this is my job and what I have to do. My dad on the other hand, is just a normal dad. He wants me to toughen up. He’s chilled. My brother follows my racing, but he’ll never be a jockey – he’s double my size and he’s 3 years younger! But he enjoys following my racing and phones and congratulates me. I’ve got a good support structure.”
Tristan joined the Academy alongside Callan Murray, Mathew Thackeray, Brandon May and Shadlee Fortune. Although he admits to finding the first year particularly tough, it was the friendships he made that helped him through. “It was like a brotherhood, you know? It turns you into family. It was sad when Callan moved to Joburg and Mathew went to PE. Even now we all stay in contact because you grew up that way. The Academy was a big part of my life. It was a good experience and I wouldn’t change it for the world. It made me the man I am today.”
He still vividly remembers his first time on a horse. “I was so nervous. When I saw the size of the horse, I actually wanted to change my mind! But I grew out of the fear and I’m glad I did. It’s been a wonderful experience so far and I really enjoy what I do. The riding masters are very good – Mr van Wyk, Mr O’Donoghue, Mr Jupp and Mr Roebuck – they produce world class jockeys.”
His first ride came aboard the Yogas Govender-trained Moon Frost for Plattner Racing at Clairwood Park on 15 September 2013. “The build up to the race is what I remember the most – the nerves and excitement, you know? Mathew and Shadlee also had their first race ride the same day. The race itself is a blur – it all went so fast – I just remember coming up for oxygen in the last 400m. I couldn’t breathe. It was a very different experience.”
His first win came on 11 May 2014, courtesy of the Kom Naidoo trained Secret Traveller, also at Clairwood. “It was an amazing feeling. It was 1000m and I just remember we jumped out of those gates and just went. I was in front the whole way and I just remember seeing the winning post, right there, 10m away and I didn’t know what to do. I was so excited. It’s emotional, you know? I was almost in tears in the interview. It was a very good experience. Something I’ll never forget.”
Along with Eric Ngwane, Tristan was selected to represent the Academy at a stint at the British Racing School in 2016. “It was an international apprentice course and we were over there for a month,” he says proudly. “I can honestly say I would definitely do it again, it was one of the best experiences of my life.”
“We spent a week doing courses in the classroom, going to gym and working in the simulating room. We were coached by a few different coaches and learnt a lot. We worked for William Haggas and spent the next three weeks track riding. We rode on the Newmarket gallops, up Warren Hill and got to ride on all the different tracks – it was very good. We used to ride 4 lots every morning and I think we did well. We were there with people from all over the world and the South Africans did the best.” One of the highlights of the trip was visiting a number of prominent UK race courses, but there was also time for some sight-seeing and the boys got to explore London and Cambridge.
“Newmarket is a town full of history. They love their racing and the whole town is about racing and very horse friendly. It’s nice for the horses. It’s very tranquil and I felt very at peace there. The training methods are very different compared to how we work at home – they do much longer work with their horses, compared to the short sharp work we do in SA. And I would definitely say the horses are much quieter than the ones in South Africa, but I think it’s got a lot to do with the environment. It’s so peaceful. The people in Newmarket were also great – very friendly and always willing to lend a helping hand.
In at the deep end
The quantum leap from being an apprentice to fully fledged jockey can be a tough one. How is he coping? “For the first two months it was a bit of a drastic change for me, but now I’m used to it. I’m happy where things are, although I want to improve. One always wants to be better. But I think the Academy made it easy. They tried to teach us as much as we could while we were in there so that when we came out it would not be such a big transition and I think they did a good job.”
Tristan has chosen to stay in Durban and lives just near Summerveld. “I have been traveling now and then and am looking to travel a little more and get more support. At the moment the people I ride for mainly are Lezeanne Forbes, Kom Naidoo and Patrick Lunn.”
In terms of help and mentorship, he cites Anton Marcus. “Anton is very helpful when it comes to helping other jockeys. Muzi Yeni is another one. I learnt a lot from him. He’s a good guy and a fun character to be around.” Muzi was also instrumental in helping Tristan get a sponsorship from Winning Form. “Muzi is also sponsored by Winning Form. One day at races he introduced me to Monty Mariemuthoo. I asked them if it would be possible for them to sponsor me and Muzi put in a good word. They were very helpful and willing and I’m very grateful for the sponsorship. It really does help financially and also for PR. I’m very grateful for the opportunity. They’ve been very good to me, so I’m just hoping for a long working relationship.”
Ups and downs
The racing game can be a very tough one, both mentally as well as physically. What does he find the biggest challenges? “For me, the weight is always an issue.” Tristan can get down to 53kgs, but says, “I think no matter who you are, managing your weight is tough. For example, last year I couldn’t have a good Christmas lunch because I was riding light on Boxing Day. Then there’s the pressure. We do get a lot of pressure from owners and trainers because it’s a business. People are paying money to train their horses. And another thing would be the risk of injury. It’s easy to get injured. We don’t earn a set salary – one month can be a good month and the next a bad month. If you get injured and you’re off for 3 months, you’re not earning. I’ve been quite lucky so far – I’ve only had minor injuries, no broken bones, touch wood. Let’s hope it stays that way. Although it does have its downs, there are definitely a lot of ups in this career, which is one of the reasons I chose it.”
As for the best parts of the job? “I enjoy beating people!” he laughs. “When it comes to a close finish, I love having the bragging rights. I enjoy pleasing the trainer, but mostly I love winning. It’s addictive! Other than that, it’s the friendships you make and the fellowship we have in the jockey room and at work. Like I said earlier, you become family.”
In terms of staying strong mentally, he says, “We’ve got a lot of older, more experienced jockeys that help. If you’re going through a rough patch, or you’ve lost a bit of confidence, they try and help keep your spirits up. And when you have a win, that obviously helps. We have a good support structure. Although the jockeys are all competitive on the battle field, off the field we’re like brothers and look to help and support each other. And no matter what I always look to the Lord and know he will provide for me.”