Just over a year ago, Grant van Niekerk was the toast of Hong Kong racing after landing a winner with his very first ride in the city, a feat he shared with trainer Jimmy Ting Koon-ho in the opening race of last season.
Fast forward 12 months and the South African jockey is experiencing a far more modest start to proceedings as he looks to back up an impressive debut season that netted 31 winners.
He had only four rides on opening day for a best finish of fifth and his book of six for this Sunday’s meeting does little to inspire, however – with a season of knowledge under his belt – the 28-year-old knows not to panic.
“Your first few years in Hong Kong you just have to see where you are and if you pick up the good chances and deliver on them, hopefully doors open for you,” he said. “But it does take a bit of time, you’re not going to just come here and get on the best horses.”
With 17 of his 31 winners last season coming on horses carrying 120 pounds or less, Van Niekerk is wary of the impact Joao Moreira’s return to freelance status – and the Brazilian’s ability to ride almost as light – will have on his own success.
“It’s a bit tougher with Joao becoming a club-licensed rider but I do believe if I can get the chances I can do better,” Van Niekerk said. “If I can go past my 31 winners from last season then it will be a good season for me.”
Stealing some of the limelight from Van Niekerk have been countrymen Aldo Domeyer and Lyle Hewitson – Domeyer arrived in May and rode a double on opening day while Hewitson carries big expectations into his debut season.
But while Van Niekerk knows their presence may make winners harder to come by, he is quick to focus on the positives.
“I enjoy having them here and it is nice having a few South Africans around, but when you get to the track it is purely competition,” he said.
Five of the six horses Van Niekerk rides on Sunday are yet to break their Hong Kong maiden and the one that has – Pick Number One – heads to the track stuck in a 17-month drought.
After winning five of seven starts in his debut season in 2017-18, Pick Number One battled foot and leg issues last season and failed to impress in four starts.
On the positive side, the Danny Shum Chap-shing-trained five year old showed glimpses of his old self when second behind Korea Cup runner Glorious Artist in a trial last month.
“He’s not lazy but he does take a little bit of time to get into his stride. He’s a nice horse though and I’m hoping I can end up in a good position. He’s got a good draw,” Van Niekerk said of Pick Number One, who jumps from gate four in the Class Two Po Yan Handicap (1,200m) on the all-weather track.
“Danny gave him a little break just to get his confidence back and he is working quite nicely into the bridle, so I’m hoping he runs well.”