NEWMARKET’s in the middle of a Cheyne reaction.
Tens of trainers in Flat racing’s fashionable HQ have had an ultra-experienced, international jockey available and right under their noses for months — without even realising it.
PATop South African jockey Greg Cheyne rode a big winner at Newmarket last weekend[/caption]
In fairness, Greg Cheyne was a name that was unfamiliar to most of us in this country — a handful of racing anoraks aside.
So anyone who was expecting to see a fresh-faced jock in the winners’ enclosure at the July Course last weekend, after riding just his sixth British winner, will have had a bit of a shock.
Because the South African, 46, is one of the most respected jocks in his homeland, with over 2,400 winners and multiple Group 1 wins to his name.
He never quite got over the hump in the jockeys’ championship, finishing second a handful of times, but he did net two of the most prestigious races in South Africa, The Metropolitan and Durban July.
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And he has racked up the air miles over the last 30 years, riding winners in Hong Kong, Singapore, Germany, South Korea, Malaysia and, the toughest racing gig of the lot, Mauritius.
But he has always had a close eye on the racing over here which, for all our issues, is still viewed with a huge amount of prestige around the world.
He decided after a flying visit six years ago, when he jetted in to ride top South African horse Whisky Baron in the Joel Stakes, that he was going to move here.
The horse didn’t disgrace himself in sixth behind Beat The Bank, and his jockey was hooked after riding on the world-famous Newmarket gallops and up the Rowley Mile.
The decision to move from Johannesburg in the latter part of his career, along with his wife, Claire, was a brave one.
He could easily have stuck to his usual circuit in South Africa for another five or six years and notched up his 3,000th winner before heading off into retirement.
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But he and Claire wanted to challenge themselves — so they packed up their belongings and started working for William Haggas.
And Cheyne has quite literally started from the very bottom.
He said: “I’ve been mucking out boxes, doing what the stable staff would be doing.
“I’ve worked around with the head lads, the assistants, I’ve been racing to saddle up runners. I’ve been given quite a good insight.
“I was still successful in South Africa, I was a top-five jockey every year and I could have potentially done that for several more years.
“But I wanted to come here now while I still had the opportunity to race ride, while also combining that with working in a racing yard.
“My wife did the diploma course at the National Stud and loves Newmarket so she was very keen to come over.
“South African racing has been on the rocks a little and our country has its issues from a government point of view and things aren’t dandy there, so this was the perfect time to come.”
To say things haven’t been dandy at home is probably an understatement.
The South African racing industry was on the brink of financial collapse during Covid and, just a few months earlier, there was a huge walk-out of stable staff.
They went on strike over pay and conditions and marched on Turffontein racecourse during the biggest race day in the Johannesburg calendar, the Summer Cup, and it turned ugly when police fired rubber bullets to disperse the angry crowd.
That was hot on the heels of a terrifying incident for legendary South African trainer Mike de Kock, who was confronted by a group of “weapon-wielding grooms”, prompting him to open a satellite yard in Australia.
The situation is less volatile now, but the standard of racing has suffered and the glory days of the 1990s and early 2000s seem a long time ago.
He said: “During and after Covid, racing in our country has really suffered and it has been a struggle for a lot of people.
“Racing literally didn’t look like it was going to survive. If it wasn’t for the generosity of a few wealthy donors who kept the sport afloat the industry may have collapsed.
“Thankfully things are starting to look up and the sport has a completely new structure which is such a relief, because we have a rich racing history and heritage at home and our top horses would be capable of competing with the best in the world.”
And things are also looking brighter for Cheyne in this neck of the woods.
So low has his profile been since he arrived in this country that he even had to send trainer Richard Spencer his CV before picking up the ride on July Festival winner Naomi Lapaglia.
He won’t have too much trouble picking up rides going forward.
Cheyne said: “It was only my second ride at Newmarket and it was an unbelievable feeling to get a winner.
“These big Saturday meetings are phenomenal and to be part of it is great. When I came over I would have been happy riding a few at midweek meetings.
“Racing in the UK is so unique. At home most of our tracks are flat and have kind, sweeping bends. Here you are going up, down and side to side, it’s a great challenge.
“Nobody knew me when I came here, bar William Haggas who I happened to meet by chance on his summer holidays.
“I am having to start completely from scratch, but having nice winners at big meetings certainly won’t do me any harm.”
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