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The Work Riders Challenge is a three-meeting empowerment venture sponsored by Phumelela, the Racing Association, the Thoroughbred Horseracing Trust and Betting World won last year by Abram Makhubo. The first four riders past the post in each Challenge race score points with 10 for first, seven for second, five for third and three for fourth and the leading rider at each of the fixtures gets a R5,000 bonus. The top three point-scorers across the Challenge win R20,000 for first, R10,000 for second and R5,000 for third. The winner will be given a special award at the Highveld Feature Season Awards. All the riders are graduates of the Trust’s Work-Riders Training Programme run by trainer James Maree at his Eikenhof training establishment. (February 2010)

 
 JOHN NEL
Nicci Garner: A three-timer at the Vaal last Sunday put John Nel into a six-point lead in the Work Riders Challenge.

The 23-year-old, who is currently assistant trainer to Grant Maroun, is hoping to win this season’s Challenge - and the Equus Work Riders Award for 2009-10, an accolade he took two years ago.

He graduated from the Work Riders Training Programme in 2006, having earned his stripes to ride in races down the straight in 2004, and is described by James Maree, who runs the programme, as ``very competent; cool and collected; a strong rider’’.

The statistic confirm that opinion: John has won 33 races since his first race-ride aboard Brutal Power for Duncan McKenzie on 26 May 2004.

``We ran unplaced over 1200m race at Scottsville. It all happened so quickly, it was over in a flash. And I didn’t learn a thing from it,’’ he chuckled.

But any breeding expert will tell you that genes count for a lot when it comes down to raw talent and John has plenty of racing in his strands of DNA - and if you believe in nurture over nature, in his upbringing as well. His grandfather was the late Nic van Tonder, a well-known Highveld trainer until his retirement in 1997; his father, Kevin, was a jockey and his step-father is Reid Paterson, a former Zimbabwe champion jockey and currently training a small string of horses at the Vaal.

So racehorses are embedded in his makeup! Inevitably John quickly picked up the gist of race-riding under the tutelage of his first ``boss’’ Barend Botes and then Maree.

``When I was younger, race-riding was the furthest thing from my mind. I was big into golf,’’ admitted the youngster, who was brought up not far from the Vaal Racecourse before his family relocated to Zimbabwe for a few years in the ’90s. ``In Harare we lived on a golf estate and I played golf all the time.’’

They came back to South Africa in 2000 when Paterson became a stipendiary steward and during John’s last two years at school there was little time for golf, ``so I spent more time at the races. Suddenly the bug bit and I wanted to start riding.’’

Aged 16 he got a job with Botes, becoming his assistant as soon after he turned 18 as he could organise - ``I think I was the youngest assistant the National Horseracing Authority had licensed at that time’’ - and the trainer soon had him riding competently.

``I did think about becoming a jockey then, but my weight has always been against me. I walk around at 63-64kg.

``I knew about the work riders’ courses, that everybody has the same problem with their weight as I do and that getting a license would give me a chance to feel how it is in a race. ``It’s glorious; awesome; exhilarating! There’s no other feeling like it in the world. And we all do it because we love it so much.’’

In 2005, Nel transferred to Paddy Kruyer as his assistant and enrolled on Maree’s first course, which he found ``very basic’’.

But once licensed to race-ride, he determined to do it as well as anybody. Perhaps he tried too hard because it took him 12 attempts to break his duck. It must be said, though, that his second attempt was miles better than that Scottsville ride - he finished third aboard Heartbreak Hotel for Romeo Francis - and less than a month later came so close on Chelsea Voyage for Botes, getting beaten just 1.50 lengths into fourth by Patrick Matshokotsha and Catullus.

In his next eight starts, he placed three times, suffering major disappointment on each occasion, but then on 6 October 2005, 17 days before his 19th birthday, he did finally break his duck aboard Kruyer’s Oscar Graduate.

``That was first time I’ve experienced a feeling like that. As we went past the 300m mark I knew this race was mine! I’d had to waste for the race and wasn’t feeling so well. But then I got on that adrenalin rush -it was like being on Cloud 9. I was flying!’’

Another of his red-letter racedays came on 10 February 2008 when he booted in Carnoustie (for Terry Lowe for whom he was working at the time and the ride he rates his best to date) and Trojan (Ormond Ferraris), who he rates the best horse he has ridden in a race.

``I’d been crying to ride Carnoustie,’’ he remembers. ``He was a difficult horse to ride because you had to drop him out, leave him alone and let him build up to his run. Terry was having a hard time of it at the time, so that win was brilliant for both him and the owners!’’ In November last year, John started working for Maroun, who he thinks has ``a stable to watch in the future’’.

``He’s got a couple of decent horses - there are some nice two-year-olds coming through - and he likes to travel. You can learn a lot when you spend time with good horses.’’ Sunday’s treble was ``unexpected, though I’d hoped for it’’.

He adds that he had to endure one of his worst moments that day, having already ridden a double (Azarius in Race 2 and Splendid Tambur in Race 5).

``Going into the second-last race there were only four points splitting Abie Makhubo and me, and he was on the favourite, Humberstone. I had to run a place on Akilah if I was to have a shout in the riders’ contest.

``Akilah, who I was riding for John Vos, refused to jump and hit me three times in the face. Luckily there are no bruises, but it is tender to the touch - and thank goodness, Abie didn’t even place.’’ There was more drama in the last race when John’s mount Shalako broke through the front gates.

``I thought, `Oh, no! My day cannot end like this!’ ’’ It didn’t! They justified good betting support to beat Chamu Mabaya and El Matador by 1.25 lengths.

``I always want to try and do better,’’ commented John. ``So now I just want to ride four at the next meeting!’’

The Programme, he believes, is a bigger success than anybody could realise.

``Allowing us to ride in races makes us better judges on track because now we know what a horse feels like in a race. That’s got to be a big advantage for both the riders and the trainers they work for.

``I encourage all trainers not to be scared to make their work riders race, even if they aren’t the best race-riders. It will definitely improve their skills at home.’’

He is awed by what Maree accomplishes on the two courses. ``The programme is very good. If you think about how much time James gets to spend with the learners - just two to three hours, two to three times a week - and when I attended the courses, Marthinus Mienie wasn’t there to help him out!

``It’s amazing what he manages to accomplish with the guys - it takes a good teacher to change the mindset of the riders from work riding to race-riding. He’s a great guy to learn from. ``I’m fortunate because I work closely with jockeys at track and learn a lot. I also discuss my races with my dad (Reid), who points out where I’ve gone wrong. I also get to talk to the trainers about my riding, which has helped enormously.’’

So, what is the difference between riding work and in races?

``Fitness, patience,’’ he responds. ``At track you don’t have to work as fast as in a race and the horses give you a totally different feeling.

``The way you bond with a horse is also different. On track, you think about the horse. In a race, that horse is a ball of energy and you’ve got to hold that energy for as long as possible. ``But the biggest difference is fitness. You can ride 100 horses in work and not feel a thing. Ride one horse in a race and you’ll be blowing!’’

John, who enjoys fishing and has recently started playing golf again, has ridden at track for a number of trainers on the Highveld and believes the best horse he’s ridden in work was Argonaut. ``Good horses have a presence,’’ he said. ``He had that. I’ll never forget him.’’

He says he is looking forward to 1 May when he will again have to pit his wiles and his skills against the work riders he respects the most - Makhubo and Jackson Feni.

``Abie is a good rider and he’s snapping at my heels (only six points separate them). If any one of us could become a jockey, it would be him. Jackson is a very good horseman and the competition keeps me on my toes. ``In fact,’’ he affirms, ``a lot of the guys need recognition where it’s due. They work hard and are very good at their jobs. But Abie and Jackson are the ones I always watch in races.’’

The Challenge is a good incentive, he says, but he believes the concept can be improved with just one minor alteration - more work riders races in the weeks leading up to the meetings.

``We all battle fitness-wise because riding in races is different. Holding more races before these big meetings would give us a couple of good workouts, help us get fit and tone down.’’

As for his future, he is happy being an assistant for now, but in a couple of years ``when I’m mature enough to get patrons’’, he will hang up his saddle and take out his own trainers’ license.

``Work riding is something I will enjoy as long as my weight allows it - I’m battling with it. Then I’ll start looking at trying to build up a clientele and think about taking out my trainer’s license.

``I’m not ready yet. Being a trainer is huge pressure, probably the most pressured of all the jobs in racing, and you need a lot of life experience if you’re going to succeed.’’

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