VAN NIEKERK & LITTLE BIRD
Hong Kong – After two months, 44 rides and nine placings, freshman jockey Grant van Niekerk felt a huge wave of relief wash over him as he banished his Happy Valley hoodoo on Wednesday night.
The South African had enjoyed a strong start to his Hong Kong career with seven winners – but all of them came at Sha Tin as he struggled with the intricacies of the unique city venue.
But Van Niekerk snapped the cold streak in the night’s feature race, the American Club Challenge Cup (1200m), as the Ricky Yiu Poon-Fai-trained Little Bird led all the way to give him his eighth winner of the term in his 45th ride at the Valley.
“Finally! I told the trainer it feels like my first winner,” Van Niekerk said afterwards.
“I’m just very glad I got my first winner at Happy Valley, it’s been a tough month for me but I’m glad it is done now.
“It was definitely frustrating – when you don’t have winners it is frustrating.
“Obviously you find that when you do battle, you get fewer rides and trainers don’t really look your way that much, but once you get a winner in Hong Kong, things just build up again.
“I’m really grateful for the support I’ve been getting. It’s obviously well known that the newcomer doesn’t always come and do well. I’m hoping from here on out that I can build on this.”
The 27-year-old said he had never ridden on a track like Happy Valley; there are no similar circuits in South Africa.
“Obviously I haven’t been here for long and it’s a tricky track, so everything takes time and for me it felt like I just had to get the rhythm of the track,” he said.
“The track is very tight and quick. In my experience, you need to have a horse that is up with the pace – like Little Bird – when they turn for home, and if they can give a bit of a kick, they are quite hard to catch.”
Fellow jockey Alexis Badel also secured a breakthrough victory at the Valley when Richard Gibson’s Wishful Thinker savaged the line to claim the Class Two High Island Handicap (1200m).
The popular Frenchman only arrived in Hong Kong last week for his winter stint but he did not have to wait long to get a winner, getting off the mark at just his second meeting.
“It’s good to get a winner nice and early,” Badel said.
“I haven’t noticed any changes, I feel like I am at home. I have been a bit surprised in the first 1000m; it is a different rhythm. In France we try to make the horse fall asleep, here you try to fire them up a bit, so it’s a different job.”
SA-trained Mauritian Karis Teetan moved within one victory of reigning champion Zac Purton at the top of the jockeys’ championship after Pakistan Baby prevailed in the second and the Australian went winless. The tally is 24 to 23 wins. – www.scmp.com