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Mark Du Plessis - From humble beginnings in Zimbabwe to International Group 1 glory

By Gary Moore March 27 2012

 
Mark winning on Red Ruler, Counties New Zealand            
   Mark Du Plessis was born in Harare the capital of Zimbabwe in 1975, but did most of his growing up in the bush in a place called Kariba, which is situated north of Zimbabwe and is famously known for its Lake, which is the 3rd biggest man made freshwater lake in the world. Not your typical jockeys background by any means as there are no horses for about 300km and he had only ever seen African wildlife, which was easily taken granted for when fishing with his father every Sunday on Lake Kariba.   
 

His parents too, were not from a racing background but operated and managed a boat marina where they had to care for and look after around 180 all sized boats on and off the water. It was through his parents business that he met a racehorse owner, who tried to influence him into becoming a jockey, due to his size and build being suitable. He never thought much of it again until he went to high school, where the parents of one of his friends owned a racehorse and after attending a race meeting it was that day the journey was to begin.

In January 1991 after two years of high school, he joined the Zimbabwe Jockeys Academy and signed on for 5 years as an apprentice and qualified at the end of 1995 having ridden 85 winners. He had never been taught to ride professionally or otherwise when joining the academy, but was riding trackwork in four months and riding raceday at the end of his first year. He rode his first winner in March 1991 on a horse called Royal Myth and ended up being appointed to a trainer called Ivan Moore who himself was champion jockey for 11 years and at the time, a very successful trainer with a very big yard. Through him, he learned all there was to know about being a jockey as he was the perfect gentleman himself and taught Mark a lot about how to handle himself when riding for and dealing with the owners. He also obviously let him know when and where he did things wrong whilst riding in races and with his knowledge, Mark became champion apprentice in his last year of his apprenticeship. 

With being able to win the Zimbabwe Jockeys title, he was then invited to Mauritius to represent his country in a jockeys invitational, which was a great experience for him at that age (20) and the first time he had ridden outside of Africa.

After 18 months as a Jockey he was hungry for more overseas experience and was advised by a leading trainer in Zimbabwe to have a look at the racing in New Zealand, which interested him a lot.  He was very fortunate to have been given Russell Warwick’s contact, who is very well respected throughout all NZ racing circles.  It was through Russell, that Mark met many influential people when he arrived in New Zealand in November 1998. 

 
Mark Du Plessis riding Athenium in Hong Kong
 

Now it's time for his next challenge in a new country, trying to adapt to the very different riding style, tracks, weather and travelling that are all part and parcel of racing works in NZ.  Mark had never ridden in trials before, that in itself would have been an experience with 30 or so heats where he seemed extremely popular as a jockey compared to raceday, trials were still a very good guide to finding raceday rides and good young horses. Mark felt the only time he really got any kind of respect and confidence from trainers was when he was fortunate enough to be thrown aboard a very handy filly in Durzetta that was trained by the Dowling family in Cambridge. She won her first start with him on board and then he won the Eight Carat Classic on her, which was his first Group win in NZ.  In January 2001 he managed to win his first Group 1 on another filly in the NZ Oaks called Tapildo for Sheila Laxon and not long after that he won another Group 1 on Star Sattire for Ross Taylor. Better rides were to come his way and obviously more winners.

Not long after establishing himself in New Zealand, Mark was given an opportunity to ride in Singapore, in the Singapore Gold Cup and after doing so without knowing it, Singapore became home for the next five or so seasons from 2001-2006. In this time he rode over 250 winners, a Jockeys Premiership in 2006 and more Group 1 success on another good mare in Zirna who won the Singapore Raffles and Singapore Gold Cup in the same season. Zirna was the one horse (mare) that he enjoyed riding the most whilst in Singapore, as she is still the one with the biggest heart out of all the horses he has ridden to date. She certainly wasn’t the biggest by any means but had a big will to win and was owned by very good people in Russell Warwick and Eric Watson. Through his success on Zirna he managed to get to ride her in Dubai, another place he had never been or ridden. 

In March 2008, he accepted an invite to ride in Hong Kong for 4 months, which is recognised as one of the most difficult places to succeed. It does't matter where you come from or what results you have achieved in the past, Hong Kong is a place only where results matter and you need to get them as soon as possible, support from trainers and owners will soon dwindle. If you’re not winning, you're not popular, which certainly creates hunger for success. Mark has been fortunate to ride in Hong Kong for nearly three seasons, and his career has also given him the opportunity to ride in ten different countries where he has learned different riding techniques to enable him to become a stronger person and a better jockey today.
 
 
 

Mark has been extremely fortunate in his career and his biggest achievements are without a doubt having three Melbourne Cup rides and winning his first International Group 1 race aboard Green Birdie in the Krisflyer Sprint in Singapore in 2010.

His greatest achievement ever, apart from his career, is being a father to two wonderful children, his daughter Isabella 10 and his son Daniel who is 9, are the biggest drive in everything he does. The hardest part about his career is being so far away from his family but as Mark states "he wont be riding forever and New Zealand will always be his home.". 

 
Mark, Isabella, Daniel & Skye (the dog)
(photo courtesy of Lesley Warwick) 
 

About the Author

Gary Moore
GARY MOORE is the founder of Gavelhouse. He has been successfully racing and breeding horses for 30 years both in Australia and New Zealand, enjoying GR.1 success with Champion Trainer Mike Moroney, winning the Australian Thousand Guineas with SHIZU and has had multiple Stakes Winners with legendary trainers Bart Cummings (AM) and the late Colin Hayes (AM) (OBE). Gary is passionate about building long-term relationships and growing the business globally.