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Lyle Hewitson rode three winners from 251 starts during his first Hong Kong stint but the young South African is now in-demand, a go-to guy for Douglas Whyte and a potential future champion.
In video games there is something known, somewhat disparagingly, as a non-playable character – or ‘NPC’. They are part of the game, but not really, they don’t have a noticeable impact on gameplay itself and are the background bodies just to fill out the story.
Hong Kong racing has its own versions of NPCs among visiting jockeys each year. They might be stars in their homeland, but they blend into the background at Sha Tin, mostly riding rank outsiders, unable to impose themselves on a cut-throat circuit.
Lyle Hewitson doesn’t mind admitting that during his first foray into the Hong Kong scene he was one of those wallflowers. The statistics made it a hard case to argue against. Three wins from 251 rides tells some of the story, but not all, a 21-year-old, who struggled to adapt to life without the help of an agent.
Winning the two South African Jockeys’ Championships, one as an apprentice, is a nice line on a CV and gets you a ticket to ride in Hong Kong, but it takes more than that to cut through in a jurisdiction where Zac Purton or Joao Moreira have ridden one in every three winners for close to a decade.
“I was young and just didn’t have the confidence to impose myself here,” Hewitson says between trials on a Tuesday morning at Sha Tin. “Things started badly, and I couldn’t break down what had happened or get back into the circle and get support.
“I was just going through the motions, hoping I would get rides instead of putting myself out there and trying to generate that support.”
Soon, during that first stay, Hewitson was in the spiral facing every ‘NPC’ before him and since. “The less opportunities you get, the less you perform, and the less you perform, the less opportunities you can gain,” he says. “It is a vicious circle and it was just hard to get out of.”
Lyle Hewitson riding Dragon to victory at Sha Tin. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images)
Three years later, the 24-year-old Hewitson who is talking to Asian Racing Report, casually leaning on a rail next to the trotting ring, bantering with rival jockeys as they walk by, is anything but an ‘NPC’: he is the talk of the town, and given the rapidly shifting sands in the jockey ranks, perhaps even a potential future champion.
So how did the South African go from non-factor to game changer?
First, he pressed the game reset button. A confidence-building stint in Japan was followed by a return to his homeland to clinch a third championship with 263 winners.
Even though Hewitson now walks into the trainers’ stand with a spring in his step, he says it is an extension of the increased confidence he has in the saddle.
“I do think I have improved my riding since last time I was here, not just the physical but the mental side of things,” he says. “The more confidence you ride with is a big thing – having that confidence translates to success. And because you are doing better it is easier to talk to trainers and ask for rides, and impose yourself a bit more, it is 50-50, on the track and off the track.”
Growing up in South Africa, the son of a former jockey and now trainer Carl Hewitson, Hewitson can’t remember a time when he didn’t know the legend of Douglas Whyte, the country’s most famous racing export.
The first time Hewitson met the Durban Demon was at a Durban July meeting, the apprentice was so nervous he could barely muster a “Hello, Mr Whyte”, but last season the pair forged a partnership that extends beyond racing.
“It’s crazy right?” Hewitson says of the fact he now counts Whyte as a friend, mentor and key supporter. “I think it helps that we have a good relationship outside of racing and that makes things really comfortable from a professional and personal side of things, and that makes it enjoyable.”
If there was ever a jockey-trainer combination to follow in Hong Kong… @LyleHewitson and @DJWhyteTrainer do it again for a double on the card as Durham Star sweeps to victory in the finale at Happy Valley. ✌️ @SAJockeyAcademy | #HKracing pic.twitter.com/9S1TyGfFlc
— HKJC Racing (@HKJC_Racing) September 21, 2022
Last season it was Whyte who helped Hewitson bounce back from his horror Hong Kong Sprint fall in which he suffered a fractured pelvis and sidelined him for a month. It is clear the personal and professional support Whyte has offered that has helped the jockey blossom.
“It was fantastic that Douglas took me under his wing when he didn’t really need to,” Hewitson says. “His professionalism is unparalleled. He is a serious taskmaster, work is work, but when work is done that is when you have your time off. That makes it easier.
“You know what to expect and when it is expected, and from my point of view it makes the work in the morning and race riding quite simple because you know where you stand and you know what has to be done. And because Douglas has been there and done it you can trust him and believe in what he is telling you. You can be a sponge and soak it all up.”
Lyle Hewitson and Douglas Whyte during his early days in Hong Kong. (Photo: Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images)
Whyte provided 20 of Hewitson’s 27 winners last term and they combined for all three of the rider’s three wins from the first four fixtures of 2021-22.
The departure of Blake Shinn has given Hewitson the chance to slide into the saddle on Whyte’s stable star Russian Emperor.
“It’s a great opportunity to be on a genuine Group 1 horse,” Hewitson says. “It is all about getting him through his preparation well and on to the big ones. The main thing is that he comes through each run better than the last and into the December races.”
Hewitson suggested that he cannot become over-dependent on Whyte and his priority is latching on to a rising star for next year’s Hong Kong Derby.
“I just have to try and get on some good young ones, get on a horse that can take me through the four-year-old series. Obviously Douglas will be trying to find a Derby horse, but I need to search for support outside too,” he says.
In 2019 it would have seemed crazy to suggest that the shy youngster fading into the background at Sha Tin could one day press for a title, but Joao Moreira’s injury struggles and Zac Purton’s retirement talk seem to suggest a new champion will be crowned sometime in the next few years, and why not a proven South African champion like Hewitson?
Hewitson isn’t getting ahead of himself on that front, but just as his role model Whyte made Hong Kong his home it seems Hewitson is settled in for the long haul.
“At the moment I have no thoughts to move, especially now that I have solidified that support here,” he says. “As tough as it can be and whatever is in front of me I want to push through that and achieve as much as I can over the next ten years.”
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