Ken Nicol: With the final field for the WSB Grand Heritage over 1475m on 29 September down the Vaal straight being announced on Wednesday, the obvious man to speak to was Gavin Lerena, as he has never tasted defeat in this spectacular race.
There have only been two previous runnings of the 28 horse “gallop for glory” and the former champion jockey has won both.
In 2016 he brought 8-1 favourite Irish Pride home from off the pace for Johan Janse van Vuuren, and last year did much the same thing with 16-1 chance Forest Fox for Paul Peter.
Unsurprisingly then, he is a big fan of the unique spectacle.
“It’s a great race to ride in. Because the field is so big you get a true pace, but you have to think about your tactics.”
At the time of writing, Gavin hadn’t settled on what he was riding in the big race, with Van Vuuren’s Mardi Gras and Geoff Woodruff’s Zouaves the two under consideration.
Van Vuuren’s entry is priced up a strong 15-4 favourite in the ante-post betting, with Zouaves next best at a distant 14-1.
Of course, Gavin only recently returned to the saddle after a more than five-month absence following a horrific fall while riding Hakeem for Mike de Kock in the Derby Trial on 31 March.
“I broke my collar bone and shoulder blade, as well as two ribs. I was also severely concussed, which took me almost two months to get over. But when I eventually saw the replay I realised I got off lightly, as it really was a very bad one.
“It was a bit depressing as I had just recovered from a virus which had affected me for a couple of months and was doing really well at the time.
“But my family kept me strong and positive and I’m happy with the way things have gone since I returned a fortnight ago”.
Indeed, he has already had a couple of winners from a limited number of rides and appears to be in fine fettle heading into the Highveld Spring Season.
“I’m not tied down to a particular yard, but Geoff Woodruff and Johan Janse van Vuuren always give me plenty of support. I’m very fortunate.
“With regard to the coming season, my focus will be on riding as many Group winners as possible. I’m looking forward to riding the unbeaten filly Mighty High for Johan. She won the Allan Robertson in great style.
“Another one that really impressed me recently, although it’s not my ride, is Chimichuri Run of Sean Tarry’s. It quickened like a real top horse last time.
“In the longer term I would love to ride overseas again. Every time I have gone I’ve had a great time.”
Away from the track, a little-known fact is that Gavin is a keen bowler.
“I enjoy playing bowls, but haven’t done it for a while. I also love a round of golf, and spending time with the family of course,” he said.
Married to former jockey Vicky (nee Badenhorst), the couple have two children together in Ashton (4) and Ava (7 months), while Vicky also has Emily (14) from a previous relationship.
The big family man plays soccer and rugby with Ashton. “When Ava gets bigger we’ll also play a lot together, even if the pastimes may be more girly. But I’ve also invested in a shotgun since Ava came along,” he adds with a laugh.
After something of a rollercoaster 2017-18 season it’s great to have one of our very best jockeys back doing what he does best, and Gavin Lerena looks well set for another hugely successful season.