Wesley Marwing made a splash in Cape Town recently, adopting confident, front-running tactics to produce a grandstand finish to the Settlers Trophy aboard Bill Prestage’s Red Peril. We get to know him better.
Although the 26 year rider old describes himself as ‘Johannesburg, born and bred’, the son of international star jockey, Weichong Marwing, spent a lot of his formative years travelling. In addition to an interesting and well-rounded education, it also gave him a front row seat to some of South Africa’s biggest and best moments, both at home and on the international stage.
“I’m not saying this just because he’s my dad, but growing up with him being an international jockey and having so much success, he is my hero. It was great not only seeing him triumph, but also the triumph for South Africa and South African racing.”
“In Hong Kong all the jockeys live together, so I grew up around racing people. I can remember when SA jockeys were ruling HK racing – Douglas Whyte, Robbie Fradd, Felix Coetzee, Glynn Schofield, Anthony Delpech, Anton Marcus – they were all there and I have fond memories of seeing SA riders sticking it to other world class jocks from around the world. We produce talented riders in our country and there’s no doubt they hold their own wherever they go.”
Like father, like son
Wesley doesn’t resemble his famous father very much, although there are traces of Marwing in the cheekbones and strong set of the jaw. But there is a lot of likeness in his temperament.
Perhaps it is the fact that he is older than most of his peers, but he is thoroughly grounded and possessed of a clear sense of self. He speaks easily and unselfconsciously, and unusually addresses me by my first name, rather than the customary ‘ma’am’ I loathe so much. Although the Academy might disapprove, it serves as a sign of someone with sufficient self-respect to return it by treating me as an equal. As social niceties go, it is the conversational equivalent of a warm, open handshake and I like him enormously for it.
Wesley started riding later than most. “I was always told I’d be too heavy or too tall, but I think every child born into racing aspires to follow their parents. And when you get bitten by the racing bug, the first step seems like the last step too, as you never get out,” he notes wryly. “I just wanted to work outside, be outdoors and work with horses.”
After receiving his IB Diploma, Wes returned to South Africa and joined his uncle Weiho Marwing’s stable. “After working as a stable hand for a while, I was thrown in the deep end and started taking horses to track and I think that’s where bug bit even more. From walking horses to track, I progressed to trotting, then cantering and did that for a couple of months until I’d progressed to the point where he said ‘take this horse and go and work it fast’. I had no clue what to do, so he put me with one of the work riders, Sam Mosia. He said ‘work with Sam and do what Sam does’. It took off from there.”
“My uncle said if I was going to work horses, I’d need to learn properly and sent me to Mr Maree’s work rider programme. Mr Maree was a great rider and he is a great teacher,” he enthuses. “He’s a true horseman. You learn so much from him.”
Riding to commit
Realising that his weight was a stable 52kgs, he took the plunge and joined the Jockey Academy. Did joining as an older recruit make a difference? “I knew what I wanted and what I was getting in to and I think that helped. Although I’d been taught the basics by James Maree and Marthinus Mienie, the Academy did the fine tuning and I am ever grateful to all the riding masters for everything they taught me.”
He had his first ride on 18 March 2012 and his first winner at the Vaal on 27 March aboard Money Tree for Gavin van Zyl. “Coming into that last 200m, the claim 4 just kicked in and she just took off. As we crossed the winning line, I was so shocked, I looked to both sides – thinking did I just win this? Then of course came the big salute that somewhat “ruined” the big moment,” he says regretfully. Asked why it ruined things, he answers firmly, “You look so much more professional if you don’t. The perception is that you’re showboating, but it’s because you’re so overwhelmed with joy that you just have to let it out. I’ve actually saluted a couple of times and didn’t even realise until I watched the replay and then it’s like ‘what did you just do there?!’ he exasperates.
Before the question can be asked, he says “I’m very competitive and very hard on myself. I’m very critical on all my rides whether they’re winners, places or unplaced. There is always room for improvement, but at the same time, I need to remind myself to enjoy my racing.”
Are his family supportive of his career choice? “My mom’s dad, Jannie Fourie, was a heavyweight jockey and used to live off black tea and toast. Growing up with that and then Dad being involved, I don’t think either of them wanted me to become a jockey. It can be a pretty hard lifestyle, especially if you’re not successful,” he acknowledges. “But after the first couple of winners, it was like ‘my son can actually do this!’” he laughs. “Family is everything. I am very fortunate to have both my parents in my life and they support me through thick and thin. My mom and dad are so involved and supportive and they help me deal with the ups and downs of racing. My dad’s also always there to help me, and give me advice.”
Are there a lot of downs? “I think the best way to deal with it – especially when you’re riding, is to let it in one ear and out of the other. It’s not that you are not willing to learn or listen to criticism, but confidence plays a big role in racing and you don’t want to take that with you into another race.”
“You have to be mentally tough and always focus on the positive. There’s no space for negative thoughts. Once negativity shows up, it starts showing in your riding, so you’ve got to be motivated and hungry, put the effort in and get on with it. You can always put it in the memory bank and go back to it later, see where the mistakes were and better yourself to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Career to date
Wesley joined the Academy alongside Callan Murray, Mathew Thackeray, Shadlee Fortune and Brandon May, but thanks to his solid grounding, he graduated a year ahead with the likes of Craig Zackey and Ryan Munger. Commenting that he’s in good company, he concurs that both were strong years that have produced some of the most exciting upcoming riders.
The reason Wesley has been relatively quiet to date is that the first year out of his time proved torrid. “I fractured my back twice and then broke my foot in Mauritius, so I spent most of my first season on the side lines,” he explains. But he is working hard to make up for lost time and Wesley is travelling to look for more opportunities. “I really enjoy travelling whether it’s for a Monday meeting out in Kimberley or a Sunday meeting across the border in Zimbabwe. Travelling gives you a lot more exposure to different types of racing, and also allows you to work with different horses, which helps you hone different skills and become a more accomplished rider.”
Wesley got the ride on Bill Prestage’s Red Peril thanks to his agent, Ray Curling, who thought the horse had a good chance. “If I get booked for a ride, I always make an effort to work the horse beforehand and get some background on them,” says Wesley. “It’s something I live by. You wouldn’t go into an exam without studying for it beforehand. You need to know what you’re in for.”
“I’d watched his last couple of runs and the last time he won and had spoken to Mr Prestage earlier in the week. He knows his horses very well and we decided we would go to the front and dictate. He’s always been a strong galloper and if you’ve got that in your artillery, why not use it? I went in confident and just rode to instructions.”
“If you go to any centre, you’ve got to try and stand out and I couldn’t have scripted it better myself to have my first winner in Cape Town in a feature race. I’ve had a number of feature wins, but must say it’s definitely one of the sweeter ones.”
Did he enjoy the new Durbanville track? “I never rode on the old course, so wouldn’t be able to tell how it’s improved, but it’s a beautiful surface. The Cape is crying for rain, so it is running slightly quick, but it’s very fair and at this point in time, it’s definitely one of the best surfaces in the country.”
Asked what gets him up in the morning (other than his alarm clock), he laughs, “The desire to win. The desire to be competitive and try and better yourself and of course working with these beautiful animals. Riding winners definitely makes it easier to get up the next morning, but I’m a really motivated person and find myself on a mission all the time to better myself and get as many and the best rides possible. I think you get addicted to that feeling of winning. You have to,” he says thoughtfully. “Everyone wants to better their situation and better themselves. It’s human nature.” “
Obviously I would love to establish myself as one of the top riders in SA. I am no Joao Moreira right now, but I am a work in progress, which will be well worth the wait,” he smiles. “I would love to represent my country and go overseas one day and box with all the ‘big boys.’”
For now his immediate focus is to get as many rides and as many winners as possible and Wesley is living by the motto ‘have saddle, will travel’. He rides comfortably at 54kgs, but can get down to 53kg if required.