Durban — A Durban man is galloping his way to new records in the US horseracing industry after making a name for himself in the Kentucky Derby, just two years after he relocated to Florida.
Marcell Pillay, 26, from Merebank, was responsible for breaking in Mage, the horse who powered to victory last year in what has been billed as the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports”.
“That’s the horse that I broke in. I started riding him when he was a baby until we sold him,” said Pillay.
“You can’t just put a horse in the Kentucky Derby, it has to win big races to be selected to run.”
By winning one of the biggest horse races in the world – it draws contenders from as far as Europe and Japan – Mage ensured his owner, a Venezuelan, pocketed $1.8 million (about R34m).
Pillay said he was in South Africa at the time of the race and watched it on TV. He only discovered that Mage would be at the starting gate two days before the Kentucky Derby.
“The horse wasn’t even supposed to get into the race because it was a reserve runner and then one of the other horses got scratched, so he got a run in the race. So he was a complete outsider and then he won,” said Pillay.
“After the race my boss sent me a message of congratulations, and then when I came back (to the US) she gave me a limited edition poster of the horse from the race.”
It’s not the first major achievement for Pillay, who currently works for Sequel Bloodstock in Florida as a work rider tasked with preparing horses to go on the track.
In 2022, another horse he worked with went under the hammer in Maryland for the “sales topping price” of $3.55m.
Pillay said his interest in horse racing was sparked after several trips to Clairwood Racecourse, which was close to his home in Merebank.
“I always used to go to the racecourse with my father. I saw these guys racing and I said ‘I want to do that one day’.”
While in Grade 9 at PR Pather Secondary, the jockey academy in Shongweni paid a visit to his school and he decided to take a chance and sign up as an apprentice. But being a professional jockey was not in his future, even though he is still at the current weight that jockeys need to be.
“They thought that when I got tall at the time that my weight was going to go up with my height, so that’s why they took me out,” said Pillay.
Keen to remain in the equestrian field, he headed off to the Summerhill School of Excellence in Mooi River. He received a sponsorship to go to Australia, where he worked for a year before returning to South Africa and working at various places, including Turffontein, before the US beckoned.
He previously worked with big names in the South African horse racing industry, like Johan van Vuuren and trainer Clinton Binda. Pillay hopes to become a horse trainer in the future, but for now he is happy where he is.
Independent on Saturday