By Jon Lees
Japan: Dual South African champion jockey Lyle Hewitson has turned a barren spell in Hong Kong into a bountiful one in Japan.
The 22-year-old rider, who endured a 140-race drought before he could get off the mark in Hong Kong, scored on his very first day in Japan and last weekend reached another milestone with his first Group success.
By winning the Group 2 Spring Stakes on Galore Creek at Nakayama on a weekend when he rode three winners, horse and rider could now take a shot at the Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2,000 Guineas).
Back in August last year Hewitson flew to Hong Kong to start a six-month riding contract which he hoped would help establish his name on the international stage.
He had broken records in his homeland where he became the first jockey in nearly 60 years to win the championship while still an apprentice and topped the rankings again in 2018-19 with 219 wins.
But he had to wait until December 29 to register his first winner and had three to his name by the time he decided to cut short his stay and accept a two-month contract in Japan.
“After my first weekend in Hong Kong I had to serve a suspension from South Africa,” recalls Hewitson. “That was a setback and then I could get no rhythm after that.
“I never ever got into it, never got opportunities. It can be quite a depressing situation but fortunately I was always tried to stay optimistic.
“It was really tough, especially when people start doubting you, and that’s probably the hardest part when people don’t believe you are good enough. But I kept working hard. I knew if all else fails I still have my reputation intact.”
That reputation helped persuade the Japan Racing Association to offer Hewitson a way out of Hong Kong. He has repaid them, and sponsors, owner Katsumi Yoshida and trainer Sakae Kunieda, with eight wins since starting on March 7.
“I’ve come here and got winners on the board which straightaway put me back to where I should be,” says Hewitson.
“In Hong Kong I always got rides, but I was taking rides on horses with not much chance because I knew that I had to keep going and couldn’t afford to be picky.
“My success here is first and foremost down to the opportunities that I have been given. As anyone knows once you get those winners you start riding with confidence again, trusting your decisions and then things just start happening.”
Galore Creek was sent off a near 16-1 chance for the Spring Stakes having recorded only one previous win. “It was a late pick-up ride for that race,” says Hewitson.
“When I worked him, he worked really well. I didn’t know his form at that stage and was thinking he was good enough to win. I then looked at the field and learned more about the other horses and I realised he was an outsider.
“As soon as I got on him on raceday, the confidence I felt in his work came back and the whole race went nice and smoothly. Hitting the front with 250 metres to go, I can’t say I got excited, but it was more a feeling of positivity, of getting my confidence back.
“Although I had had seven winners before, this was more where I should be, riding Group winners again. It was a real confidence-booster again. It was my first Group winner since I left South Africa, first in six months.”
Hewitson will attempt to make the most of the remaining six weeks of his Japanese sojourn, and more successes can only improve his chances of earning another short-term licence in the future. He will return to South Africa when his current licence expires.
“After this two-month visit I am headed back to South Africa,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind winning another championship. The whole reason I left was to become internationally recognised, open some doors and grow as a rider.”
He is enjoying Japan, where he lives in an Airbnb rental in Yokohama. Though the country has suffered from the coronavirus outbreak, leading to race meetings being staged behind closed doors, current measures are not as stringent as in other parts of the world.
“It almost seems like they have been through the worst of it, but you have to be sensible,” he says. “Racing is locked out and there is no public. In your personal time you take responsibility for yourself. There are no stringent rules but the virus is still very real.
“I am hoping it warms up a little bit but we are coming into the spring. Japan is a beautiful country, the food is great and the people are even better. The language barrier can be difficult but I am managing to get around.”
He hopes that by the time his visit is coming to an end he has had a chance to experience riding in front of Japan’s fanatical horse racing fans.
“Over social media I get loads of messages and letters sent to the house,” he says. “They are such good people. I can only imagine on a raceday what the atmosphere will be like when you have thousands of happy and supportive fans. I hope they can get it back on track before the end of my two months. That would be great.”