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KEAGAN LATHAM was ready to pull the pin on his riding career nearly seven years ago in the United Kingdom when he had “lost a lot of love for racing”.

Thankfully, his then English girlfriend and now wife Nancy convinced him to give Australia a try and ride work here for six months.

Such has been the transformation in the expatriate South African’s career that he is now on the verge of winning the provincial jockeys’ premiership for the second time in the last three seasons.

“I had been riding in the UK for about 18 months, and just couldn’t get rolling,” Latham recalled.

“The opportunities were few and far between, and I was ready to pack it in and stop riding.

“I had lost a lot of love for racing.

“It was the end of 2016 and Nancy, aware that the industry in Australia was buoyant, suggested I should come over here and ride work for six months, and not worry about the stress of keeping my weight in check to ride in races.

“She was really hoping I could try to fall in love with racing again.”

Needless to say, it surely worked.

“As soon as I arrived in Sydney in early 2017, I felt like I was home,” Latham said, “It’s a similar climate to South Africa, and my immediate impression was that I was meant to be here.”

Latham didn’t know anyone, but the luck of the Irish smiled upon him.

“Fortunately, an Irishman who was one of Gai Waterhouse’s foremen at the time noticed my application, and knew I had ridden in Ireland for four years.

“Whilst he didn’t know me personally, he recommended to Gai that she should employ me – and things just snowballed from there.”

Latham, his love for riding reignited, took out his licence after a couple of months – and at his first meeting and only his second Aussie ride for Waterhouse and co-trainer Adrian Bott, led throughout to win a 1200m Maiden on Savabeel filly Savapinksi ($5.50) against her own sex on Newcastle’s Beaumont track on Saturday, March 11.

Latham rode 17 winners in the last half of that season, 32 in his first full season here in 2017-18, and then 52 in the following season.

Unlike his UK sojourn years earlier, he was well and truly on a roll. Latham rode 86 winners in 2019-20, and then cracked the century in 2020-21 with 101, 62 of which netted him the provincial riding title.

“It was a goal of mine to do both, and I achieved it,” Latham said. “In my opinion, it’s important to have goals as it gives you an incentive to do the best you possibly can.”

Whilst he had avoided falls in a career which had taken him to many countries around the globe, Latham couldn’t steer clear of one at a Tuesday meeting at Hawkesbury only 10 days into the new season – and it was costly in more ways than one.

He had won the fourth race on Just A Brother for local trainer Terry Croft, but hit the deck in the final race on the seven-race card.

Riding $101 outsider Who Loves To Dance, he was dumped when the gelding fell near the 500m.

“There was no sign of that happening; the horse just went down,” Latham said. “I fractured my neck, along with a broken collarbone and a couple of ribs.

“I was sidelined for around five months, and rushed my rehab a bit as I wanted to ride Eleven Eleven in the Magic Millions Cup at the Gold Coast.”

Latham had already partnered the gelding on many occasions, including winning both the MM 3& 4YO Stakes at Wyong in December 2020 and Listed Xmas Classic at Canterbury on New Year’s Day 2021.

“I came back from the Hawkesbury fall to ride Eleven Eleven in the Listed Razor Sharp at Royal Randwick in mid-December, but connections must have felt I wasn’t fully recovered as Hugh Bowman got the ride at the Gold Coast and won the $1m Cup on him,” Latham said.

Latham enjoyed considerable success in his native South Africa at the beginning of his career; his breakthrough winner being Rebel Patriot at Scottsville on February 2, 2005, only a couple of months after his debut ride at Clairwood.

Keen to travel, he spent a season in Dubai, where he caught the eye of Johnny Murtagh, the Irish jockey (now training) who rode the Newcastle speedball Choisir in his historic 2003 Royal Ascot sprint double for Paul Perry.

“Johnny arranged for me to join Irish trainer Ger Lyons, and I had four good seasons there between 2008-11, and won a couple of Group races,” Latham said.

“I went back home and rode for a season, but to be honest had got a little bit content with life and lost focus.”

That’s when fellow South African jockey Anton Marcus (both he and his brother Basil also rode successfully in Hong Kong) stepped in.

“Anton gave me the wake-up call I needed,” Latham said. “He told me I was one of the biggest waste of talents in South Africa.

“His words kept replaying in my head and, as my Dad was British born and I held a British passport, I closed up shop and moved to the UK.”

As it turned out, whilst his UK sojourn wasn’t so successful, it eventually proved a winning move; heading to Australia 18 months later, prompted by his then girlfriend Nancy, whom he subsequently married.

It’s been another good season for 35-year-old Latham, who so far has ridden 72 winners (the latest on Outlandos in the 2600m Stayer’s Cup at Royal Randwick today); 57 having come at the provincials, giving him surely an unassailable 21-win lead over closest rival Koby Jennings.

Latham says of course he would love to be riding permanently in town, but understands where his place is at the provincials along with providing loyalty back to the trainers who have shown him the same loyalty.

“Sydney has one of the strongest jockeys’ rooms (competition) in the world, and a number of the top jockeys are well established, and the youngsters such as Zac Lloyd, Dylan Gibbons and Tyler Schiller are showing how good they are,” he said.

“I’m not a natural lightweight like them. I ride at around 55.5-56kg, so it’s difficult to compete regularly in town, though I do ride there when the opportunities arise.

“I ride work at Randwick on Tuesdays for John Thompson, John O’Shea, John Sargent and Michael Freedman and occasionally Anthony Cummings, and also at the trials.

“That definitely helps when horses I ride there go to the provincials to race.”

Latham paid a special tribute to the late leading Kembla Grange trainer Gwenda Markwell, for whom he rode 45 winners (second only to Ger Lyons in Ireland).

“Gwenda was an absolute superstar to me,” he said. “She gave me a fantastic opportunity, and also a leg-up to other trainers that I could ride well enough.

“Her actions clearly helped catapult me on to the provincial scene, and also the city midweeks

“Even when Gwenda was diagnosed with her illness, she was riding 16 horses work of a morning, and could tell me how they were going. She was an amazing person, and is deeply missed.”

With nigh on 400 Aussie winners to his credit, Latham is perfectly content with the progress of his career – and equally with life in Australia.

“Everything is going well; we’re really happy,” he said.

A far cry indeed from those not so happy days in the UK back in 2016!

HOOFNOTE: Whilst Latham is too modest to claim any credit, he did play a role in Newcastle’s star apprentice Dylan Gibbons clinching a maiden Group 1 in the time-honoured Sydney Cup at Randwick in April.

“I rode Explosive Jack in the Canberra Cup (2000m) in March when he finished strongly to run second to Bjorn Baker’s Arapaho, who 13 days later also won the Group 1 Tancred Stakes (2400m) at weight-for-age at Rosehill Gardens,” he explained.

“When I saw Dylan’s father Andrew at the races after the Canberra race, I told him to chase the Sydney Cup ride for his son.

“Explosive Jack had won both the ATC and SA Derbies the previous season as a three-year-old, and I felt the horse would be a strong lightweight chance with only 52.5kg.

“I’m pleased it worked out so well.”

*Words John Curtis, June 24, 2023 - Pics Bradley Photos#

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