By Robyn Louw
South Africa’s Callan Murray, recently named as an emerging talent and predicted as ‘set for global stardom’ by the Thoroughbred Racing Commentary, seems to be fulfilling the prophecy with an invitation to join Hong Kong’s riding ranks. He will make his debut at Sha Tin on Sunday, 21 May 2017.
Twenty year old Callan hails from the Johannesburg suburb of Kensington and was a keen motocross enthusiast. A chance suggestion from a family friend inspired him to apply for a place at the South African Jockey Academy.
Callan was one of the smallest apprentices of his intake and with no previous riding experience, admits it took him a little while to get going. Having mastered the basics, he was just about to start race riding, when a fall from a young horse called Gogetthesherriff set him back three months. “They had to put a pin in my hip and shave the cartilage, but it actually made a big difference to my career. I gained a bit of weight, which was necessary at the time and it made me really keen to get back into it,” he says pragmatically.
His first ride under rules came on 3 November 2013 when the Mike de Kock trained Captain Lars finished 5th at Scottsville. Later the same day he earned a 3rd place on Two Tone Rocka for trainer Wendy Whitehead. Callan’s first win came at his second meeting, when he steered Mayfair Speculators’ Tennessee Strategy home to a 0.75 length win for the Charles Laird stable. He hasn’t looked back.
The Story So Far
The South African racing season runs from 1 August to 31 July, so despite only having 9 months in the saddle, Callan closed his first riding season 16th on the apprentice log with 13 wins, a 4% win and 34% place strike rate.
At the end of his second season, Callan had jumped to 3rd on the apprentice log with 41 wins, a 6% win and 38% place strike rate, but things really got going in 2015/16. On 11 November 2015, Callan partnered Deo Juvente to victory in the Gr2 Victory Moon Stakes for multiple SA Champion trainer, Geoff Woodruff. As an added bonus, the win came as one of three on the day making it a full house from Callan’s 3 carded rides.
Callan is exceptionally media friendly. He is fresh-faced, bright and articulate in front of a camera. His growing confidence in the saddle, combined with his cheerful personality and ready ability to deliver a confident opinion in post-race interviews, makes him a pleasure both to watch and to listen to. More importantly, his professionalism and sunny personality make him a pleasure to work with and have earned him the nickname ‘Sir Smiley’ from the Tara Laing yard in Port Elizabeth. But don’t be fooled by the friendly demeanour, Callan is hard-working and deadly serious about his career, thanks to a little help from a rather special mentor.
Callan was one of a lucky few to benefit from the expertise of Felix Coetzee, who spent a few months mentoring apprentices at the SA Jockey Academy in 2014. “Felix was only there for a short period, but the one thing he really drilled into us was a good work ethic. I don’t think he ever stops and it just shows that even being one of the best in the world, being a good jockey is not an easy task and as much as you need to work hard to get to the top, you need to work just as hard to keep yourself there.”
It is a lesson that has stood the young man in good stead and along with his cheery demeanor is one of the factors that makes him a standout among his peers. After his Gr2 Victory Moon win back in 2015, Callan listed the Apprentice Championship as his short-term goal along with cementing relationships in away centres to establish a secure base to work from once he came out of his time. Callan duly notched 78 wins with a 7% win and 42% place strike rate to be named Champion Apprentice for the 2015/16 season. As an added bonus, he won the Zimbabwean Apprenticeship for the same season and holds the unique distinction of being champion apprentice in two different countries.
Upping the ante
While many might have been satisfied with that, Callan quietly re-set his compass for the next phase of his career and set about chasing his new goals. After his championship triumphs, he set his sights on winning a Gr1 and gaining international exposure. As always, there was a little bonus thrown in as well.
With Anthony Delpech making a break with the international heavyweight Mike de Kock yard in early 2016, Callan stepped neatly into the breach. He vindicated their faith in him by winning the Gr2 Choice Carriers Championship aboard Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum’s Ektifaa on 29 October 2016. Callan’s success did not go unnoticed and Avontuur Estate singled him for a sponsorship. Avontuur are no fools and the fact that they grabbed the young rider while he was still an apprentice speaks volumes.
At the end of 2016, Callan received an invitation for a 6-week stint with David Hayes’ Lindsay Park Stables, an opportunity he grabbed with both hands. Although leaving the country just before making the notoriously challenging leap from apprentice to fully fledged jockey was a bold move, it was also a carefully calculated risk.
He says, “I was quite lucky, when the opportunity came up I was pretty involved with the Mike de Kock team. I consulted with Mathew (de Kock) first and he said that any international experience is huge.” With their blessing and the assurance that he would still have their support when he came back, Callan accepted. However, he made sure to leave an impression on departure, posting the final South African win of his apprentice career aboard Sheikh Hamdan’s Al Hawraa for the Mike de Kock yard on 6 December 2016. Callan hit the ground running in Australia, acquitting himself honourably and bringing home 4 wins and a fistful of places from a total of 14 rides.
Hitting the ground running
Returning to South Africa on 21 January as a fully fledged jockey, the likeable and determined young man started as he meant to go on, winning at his very first ride back, aboard Talbec in a 2600m handicap at Turffontein for the Mike de Kock yard. “I actually landed back in South Africa at 4am that day,” says Callan. Teasing that he must be a glutton for punishment, he admitted good-naturedly, “It was a tiring ride, but I was excited to get back. I’ve been getting good rides and into the winner’s enclosure which is what matters.”
Having come out of his time in January, it was always going to be a challenge to make an impression on the jockey log, so he chose to focus on his strike rate instead, setting a goal of 10%. He is already ahead of the curve on a 12% win strike rate and has also achieved his Gr1 ambitions, first with the Mike de Kock-trained Heavenly Blue in the SA Classic on 1 April and then a very impressive 3 Gr1 wins on South Africa’s Classic Day on Saturday, 6 May 2017.
Asked about his big day, Callan says, “I only had to be at work at 6, but I woke up at 4:30. I don’t like to be overly confident and put myself under too much pressure, but I don’t know hey, I just had a feeling.” One can hear the trademark grin all the way from Johannesburg and can’t help grinning back at him.
The day was made special with his first two wins coming aboard full brothers Mustaaqeem in the SA Nursery and Rafeef in the Computaform Sprint, both out of South African star race filly National Colours and campaigning in the silks of Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum. The third member of Callan’s Gr1 trio was Deo Juvente in the R4 million Premier’s Champions Challenge. Trained by Geoff Woodruff and owned by Mayfair Speculators, the win was an emotional one as Woodruff had lost his mother the night before. Deo Juvente is not the soundest of characters and had in fact been winless since winning the Gr2 Victory Moon with Callan in 2015. To top it all, they were taking on dual SA Horse of the Year Legal Eagle, as well as top flight Mike de Kock trained filly, Nother Russia. The three flew to the line as one, with Callan and Deo Juvente finding extra to win by a short head. “It was Deo’s day and he just gave me his all,” he says proudly.
Race caller Alistair Cohen, who did sterling service in the commentary box all day, probably summed it up best. “Callan Murray. Three Grade One wins. 20 years old. Take a bow, son.”
Three Gr1’s is a pretty big day for any jockey, but although there were a few celebratory drinks on Saturday evening, Callan had a good book of rides in Durban the following day, so it was home for an early night. “I’ll plan a dinner in the week probably,” he said.
Incredible as it is to think, a week after his Champions Day triumph, Callan will find himself on the world stage in Hong Kong.
It is a short-term stint and he will commute back to South Africa to fulfill his commitments for the Champions season features, the Daily News and the Vodacom Durban July.