Author: Howard Wright
The new year, the new decade even, began with a tale of two young jockeys that illustrates the make or break way results can play out and emerging careers can be fashioned. The underlying features of the wildly different stories of Jason Watson and Lyle Hewitson can be found wherever racing takes place, from Britain to South Africa, in the case of these two, or from the UAE to Australia, in other comparable examples. Both Watson and Hewitson have burst on the scene like firecrackers, rising to the top as leading apprentices in no time at all. Watson, who will not leave teenage status behind until May this year, was initially attached to the Andrew Balding stable, which has proved a magnificent academy for young riders in recent years, with their progress carefully managed by the trainer.
He did not ride his first winner until 2017 and went more than 200 days between that and his next win, which made up the sum total of his success from 41 rides in his first season. Come 2018, though, and Watson fired away, ending the year as Champion Apprentice with 111 winners from 717 mounts, which placed him 14th on the overall list. Hewitson had a similarly meteoric rise after graduating from the famed South African Jockeys Academy that produced such as Michael Roberts. Hewitson, who will be 23 in May this year, was runnerup in the national apprentice championship in 2015/16 before he landed the claiming jockeys’ title the following term with 124 winners. He was leading apprentice again in 2017/18 with 184 winners but more importantly took the overall title that season, and retained the crown in 2018/19 with 218 winners, despite two months out of the saddle through injury.
At that point the careers of the two youngsters took very different paths. Watson’s success in 2018 prompted Roger Charlton, now one of Britain’s most senior trainers, to take him on as stable jockey, while Hewitson decided it was time to spread his wings and he headed for a six month contract in Hong Kong. The contrast in their fortunes, starting from a similar base of unremitting progress, could not have been more stark. Watson sustained two hairline fractures in his neck in a race fall on 4 January last year and did not return until 22 March. Thereafter, though, he rattled through the winners again, taking his elevation to stable jockey in his stride. Although he dropped one place to 15th in the overall table for the year, he racked up 97 winners, including his first Group Ones for Charlton on Aspertal and Quadrilateral, from 744 rides in a season that was more sparingly managed by his new employer and ace agent Tony Hind.
Meanwhile, Hewitson found life as a jockey among the white hot competition of Hong Kong a very different experience from his daily diet of winners back home in South Africa. Winners were impossible to come across. Hong Kong has been a happy hunting ground for some South African jockeys, ever since Douglas Whyte shipped out in 2000 and won 13 championships in a row, before Joao Moreira and Zac Purton came along to challenge his domination. Karis Teetan, originally from Mauritius, went to Hong Kong as one of the lesser known jockeys to make the journey out of South Africa but was an instant success and now takes the best rides after the top two riders, while Grant van Niekerk has done well over the last season and a half and sits fifth in the table at the moment.
Others, though, have not been so successful. Callan Murray, who was Hewitson’s immediate predecessor as Champion Apprentice in South Africa in 2015/16, did well in a three month trial in Hong Kong at the end of the 2016/17 season, but found winners hard to accumulate when he took up a six month contract in 2018/19 and after notching two successes from 143 rides, he quickly left for a stint in Singapore, joining fellow South African Aldo Domeyer out of Hong Kong’s departure lounge. Another exiting overseas jockey, the Italian Umberto Rispoli, put the personal situation into words when he spoke to the South China Morning Post before taking his leave of Hong Kong last month. “I don’t have enough support,” he said. “If people think I am happy to go to the races and ride eight horses on the card that are 60/1, they’re wrong.
I am not happy with that.” Rispoli added that the biggest change during his time in Hong Kong was the seismic shift towards the dominant jockeys in the championship, with riders who occupy the middle division bringing along a horse but being quickly taken off the mount when it was regarded as being ready to win. The sentiment rings true all around the world, and the UAE is no exception, but Hong Kong’s concentrated environment, with no more than two meetings a week on the jurisdiction’s two tracks, magnifies the impact of what appears to have become the prevailing culture among owners and trainers over the last few years. With that in mind, contrast Lyle Hewitson’s experience in the second half of 2019 with that of Jason Watson, who celebrated Christmas at home in Brighton and promptly boarded a plane for Australia.
Leaving on 28 December to join the most recent Melbourne Cup-winning trainer Danny O’Brien in Victoria for a stint that will occupy no more than six weeks, he rode a winner on his first ride at the country course of Mornington four days later. There was a sting in the tail for Watson since the ever watchful Aussie stewards took exception to his ride on the winner and banned him for careless riding for ten meetings. He will be eligible to ride again from Saturday. Whatever he achieves before his return to Britain, Watson has the mindset and the mentorship, both at home and in Australia, that will stand him in good stead for next season. An earlier Andrew Balding apprentice whom O’Brien took under his wing for a similar brief spell was Oisin Murphy, who went on to become Champion Jockey. It is fairly short odds against Watson’s following his example. What will happen to Lyle Hewitson’s career in the short term is anybody’s guess.