Craig Simon Gerard Zackey is in the hot seat at Turffontein today when he rides Nother Russia in the R4 million Premier’s Champions Challenge.
The race is one of nine features on Champions Day and it’s a day on which 22-year-old Zackey has enjoyed some of his best moments.
His first Grade 1 and 2 wins came in the SA Nursery (Arabian Beat) and the Gold Bowl (J’s Outsider) respectively two years ago.
This year he has his first ride in the Champions Challenge, one of the Big Four on the local calendar. The others are the Vodacom Durban July, the Sun Met and the Sansui Summer Cup.
He has ridden in the July once and in the Summer Cup twice, finishing unplaced on each occasion. However, he’s pumped up for this ride and firmly believes “if everything goes our way Nother Russia will run a big race”.
He is a man who lowers his personal shield for the horses he rides, bonding and developing rapport with them. He said: “I love getting to know my horses, to open a channel of communication.”
Nother Russia has responded to her regular rider, as most horses do, with a willingness to give her all.
She has won five of her nine career races, including the Grade 1 Empress Club Stakes at Turffontein recently, all with Zackey in the saddle. Now she is taking on the horse every trainer in the country fears – champion Legal Eagle who won the race last year, but Zackey has every faith that she can make a race of it.
“I think the world of her,” he said.
“She feels like she’s come on a bit at the track since her last run.
“She’s really doing well. And Legal Eagle has shown he is vulnerable with that loss to Smart Call in last year’s Met.
“This is a filly who has a lot of heart and an incredible finish. She missed out on the Grade 1 penalty for her last win so is well weighted, getting 4.5kg (the equivalent of nearly five lengths over 2 000m) from the champ.
“Nother Russia will put herself in the race and must have a strong chance.”
He added that Nother Russia is the best horse he is currently riding.
The other big horse in his short career, which started on March 18, 2012 at Clairwood, was Slumdogmillionaire, whom he rode once only to take advantage of his 4kg allowance.
The trick worked because they won convincingly over Heavy Metal. Zackey, who was born on April 7, 1995 in Benoni, was invited to attend the Orlando Pirates Academy in Grade 7 and could have had a career as a forward in soccer.
“I didn’t really enjoy it so I went back to playing school soccer.
“Then my late grandfather brought my attention to horseracing and I did some investigation. I was small and thought it was worth a shot.
“I’ve never regretted changing course,” he said. “Riding horses is amazing. I’m so lucky to do this for a living.”
Zackey took a while to get his apprentice licence and only started riding in races in his second year, but he got off the mark quite quickly with his first win coming on his 19th ride.
He won the Apprentice Championship in 2014-15, the year before he qualified as a jockey, and is on speed dial to trainers like Nother Russia’s handler Mike de Kock and Cape-based Glen Kotzen.
To date he has ridden 220 winners, including two Grade 1s, and is certain he will add to that tally today at Turffontein. His best chance, he believes, is Unagi in Race 1 and he thinks readers should chance an eachway bet on trainer Gary Alexander’s runner.