WESTERN Province Groom School Riding Master Craig du Plooy is one positive racing industry employee at a time when there is a measure of negativity in racing circles.
Du Plooy’s enthusiasm is lodged in the success he’s achieved with his work riders over the last 13 years, and while the School’s funding presently only covers the basics, he’s got some plans for expansion and bigger ideas to come.
“Jockeys, like other athletes, need coaches,” says Du Plooy (45), who hung up his own boots two years ago. “If you look at track athletes, or gymnasts, or football players, they all have coaches available to them – professionals dedicated to improving the skills of the individuals they work with.
“This is something lacking in racing. When apprentices qualify and become licenced jockeys they have only themselves to rely on. Once they leave the Academy, they’re on their own and things can go wrong quickly.
It’s not an easy profession.”
Du Plooy has streamlined his classes over the years, offering a class for beginners, intermediates and an advanced class for experienced riders.
“There are dozens of work riders wanting to complete the course at any given time. I take eight to ten students at Philippi for each course, so it normally works out as they are quite a varied bunch of people.”
Du Plooy has two assistants who are fluent in English and other languages, which makes translation and interpretation much easier for riders who are not proficient in English.
“We start from scratch with those learning to ride, doing basic riding skills, trotting and cantering. The beginner’s course could take up to three months, the intermediates do more starting stalls and track work. We also use the mechanical wooden horse to help them with the use of reins, changing whips and what to do when the rein drops – a very valuable piece of equipment for all.
“The advanced riders fine-tune their skills, they are the guys who have been around a while or have ridden in races. There is only one race a month for work riders in Cape Town and it’s down the straight because that is all the budgets will allow. It’s hard for any jock to keep fit on one race a month, let alone learn how to go around a bend on a horse.
“A normal Jockey’s Academy apprentice won’t see a bend for a year or more and will have ten or more qualified riders helping him the first time he does. We can’t put our guys in races around the bend if they don’t have more races to compete in. Ten inexperienced jocks going around a bend is looking for trouble, even though we spend lots of time teaching them how to look after each other and themselves in a race.”
Du Plooy also focuses on the mental aspects of jockeyship, something he regards as most important. “Riding doesn’t stop above the stirrups, the mental attitude of a jockey is vital to success. Mentorship is another area that can be improved.”
Du Plooy has been making consistent progress in this area, teaching concentration and focus and a professional approach, something he personally “took to another level” in a number of sessions with former master jock Felix Coetzee.
“Felix Coetzee’s drive and work ethic is something extraordinary. His attention to fine detail and commitment is unbelievable. I am talking technical basics – like riding two holes higher in the stirrups. Leaning forward slightly. Holding your whip in a different position. Right down to a fitness regime second to none. Simply put – a mindset of winning,” Du Plooy told a Sporting Post interviewer two years ago.
“Riding is a job, like any profession that one works at every day. But Felix got me to focus. On the way to the start. Circling at the start. Focus and more focus. And small talk, and banter with colleagues was for later. I am a sociable and friendly guy.
“But I didn’t need to change my personality – just a behavioural tweak. When I tried Felix’ approach, I found I was getting horses out quicker and into better positions. I was a better jockey – by actually doing very little tangibly differently!”
Du Plooy doesn’t go all that ‘deep’ with work riders, and tells: “The most important aspects we have focused on are the basics – manners, a good demeanour, a professional attitude. And, importantly, we teach the riders to listen to instructions.
“Trainers have been most helpful over the years, they often give feedback and suggestions and the main complaint at times is that the guys don’t listen properly, they’d gallop a horse fast when asked to do a steady canter, for example. That can mess with a training programme.”
The Work Riders Academy has six permanent horse stables at Philippi, with a veterinarian and a farrier on call. “We rotate the riders on different horses so they get the feel of different runners. We also do long, slow work on the sand and fast work on the grass, both essential to working effectively as riders in a training yard.”
Du Plooy explains: “Because there are so few races, I have been concentrating on work riding. This is a specific skill, as explained, and when you have massive stables like Justin Snaith and there are near 200 horses to exercise and put through their paces in a day, the jockeys who ride work can’t get close to getting through the string. The more skilled, qualified work riders we can produce, the better for all the trainers.”
He feels that much more can be done with extra funding, so the Academy can expand to Milnerton. “Ideally, I’d like to devote time between the two training centres, or have an assistant at Milnerton, where there are even more work riders that need help.”
Also of vital importance for the future, Du Plooy believes, is a programme that caters for grooms training only. He explains: “Good, qualified grooms are hard to come by and trainers always need them. What happens most of the time when trainers require new grooms is that their resident grooms call their brothers and cousins to help out, inexperienced people with no idea how to work with horses.
“We should have a dedicated grooms’ school where students are taught the basics and more, and receive certificates when we are satisfied they can work effectively in a stable. I can tell you, trainers will jump at the opportunity to employ certified grooms. A Grooms’ Academy is something I am passionate about and hope to explore and launch in future.”