Racing: `Striker' has date with Destiny

South Africa's champion jockey, Piere Strydom, is poised to make his mark in Britain.
EVEN THE most ardent South African football supporter will concede that the most talked- about striker around is not Phil Masinga, Benni McCarthy or Shaun Bartlett, three European-based goalscorers who have played such a major part in the country's improvement on the global ladder. The man simply known as "Striker" to a posse of fans in South Africa is the country's champion jockey, Piere Strydom, a man who, to his fanatical following has not blood in his veins, but ice.

Strydom begins a five-week stint for the Middleham trainer Mark Johnston at Thirsk on Saturday and the following day gets his first taste of a British Classic when he rides Atlantic Destiny for Johnston in the 1,000 Guineas.

One man who tips Strydom to make his presence felt in Britain is Michael Roberts, himself a 12-time South African champion, and Britain's champion in 1992. Now into his 13th season in Britain, Roberts feels "Striker" has all the tools to do well here.

"He's a very good rider, there's no doubt about that," Roberts says of the 33-year-old whose nickname hails from his ability to wait until the last possible moment before producing his mount. "He's very patient and that will stand him in good stead in Britain. Perhaps the biggest problem facing him will be the variety of the tracks and the state of the going."

Only two South African courses are left-handed, none are undulating and most are so hard that it is dust that is kicked up rather than the mud here.

However, like Roberts, Strydom is inspired by a challenge and is relishing the opportunity. "A ride in a Newmarket Classic is a dream come true and shows Mark Johnston has confidence in me," Strydom said. "I won't let him down."

The theory that Strydom was a one-dimensional jockey who could win only on late- finising horses was exploded with his performance in the country's most glamorous race, the 1m 3f Rothmans July, on the top weight and favourite, London News in 1996. Making all the running, Strydom kept his mount going long enough to win by a diminishing short-head.

Roberts is confident that, given a decent book of rides, Strydom will adapt and find his way into the winners' enclosure in Britain. "He's going to a stable that is doing well and that will give him confidence," he said."Much will be up to Piere, but I'm expecting him to do well."

In the last South African season, Strydom chalked up 332 wins from 1,436 rides, an impressive percentage of 23.12, and his total prize money won totalled nearly pounds 1.5m. In the current term he has visited the No1 box on 145 occasions, at a percentage of 22.27, which understandably keeps his followers coming back for more.

It remains to be seen how many new fans the blond rider makes over the next few weeks. Given his track record, "Striker" could show why, next to Roberts, he is rated the best jockey to come out of South Africa in the past 20 years.