GIFT FUNEKA (34) wrote his name into the record books of the South African Horseracing Industry when he became the first black jockey to ride in the prestigious Durban July. However, he will forever be remembered for his courage and bravery as Funeka recently returned to the saddle after a four and a half year illness-enforced break. Through sheer hard work, determination, the will to succeed and a great team, Gift, had his first winner back, a mere two weeks after renewing his jockey’s licence and ironically in the same year that the Durban July was for the first time in its history, won by a black jockey. He is an inspiration to many and has his own fan base in P.E., as was evident from the noise, when he partnered the rank outsider Daylami Star (40/1) to victory on the polytrack on Monday. He gets most of his rides from the Sham team and has averaged a winner per meeting. He has eight rides on this Friday’s Fairview card and is expecting to be competitive. WINNING FORM, HOLLYWOODBETS.NET and SPORTING POST is inspired by Gift’s miraculous comeback and are firmly behind him, every step of the way.
What is your name? My name is Langelihle Gift Funeka.
What is your star sign and birthdate? Sagittarius. I was born on 7th December 1979.
Where were you born and where did you grow up? I was born in Durban and grew up in Kwa Mashu.
Where do you live? I live in Chelsea Retreat or some may know it as the Old Greenbushes Hotel in P.E.
Tell us about your family? My current family is my wife Ntombi Viv, my son Nkosinathi and my daughter Nkanyezi. But I come from a family of three boys, me being the oldest, then there are my two brothers, Hopewell and Sibusiso.
Do you have a ‘nickname’? Yes, I have few. First one being, “Sparks”. Not sure why, but ex-jockey Lumumba Mofokeng gave me it and Gavin Smith loves calling me that. The next is ‘Giffie’ which was given to me by Warren Kennedy, back at the academy. The last one is ‘mnotho’ which means money and that was given to me by the grooms. They said that whenever the money is down, I would bring it home.
Favourite food? I’m a sucker for breyani and pap & vleis. Fortunately, I don’t battle with my weight.
Favourite drink? Nothing beats an ice cold coke to quench your thirst.
Favourite music? I listen to all types of music, but I’m really into Hip Hop and R&B.
Favourite holiday destination? Unfortunately, I haven’t travelled anywhere but I really loved Zimbabwe when I rode there.
Favourite sport? I love all sports but obviously horseracing, most of all, followed by soccer. I also enjoy Tennis and Boxing.
Favourite soccer team? Locally, Orlando Pirates (Amabhakabhaka) – we can still win the League, next season! In the English Premier League, I’m a ‘Gunner’ – Arsenal fan. The F.A. Cup is all ours, I tell you!
Favourite racecourse in South Africa? It would have to be Scottsville racecourse in Pietermaritzburg; I rode my first winner there. Of course Fairview, both tracks, my comeback win was on the polytrack.
Favourite author? Zanele Mbokazi. Her books are extremely motivational, especially the one called “PUSH”. It is a must read.
What would your super power be? I can’t think of any, except that I’m a chilled person.
What is the trait you most dislike in yourself? I would have to say that I’m easily persuaded and find it difficult to say NO.
What is the trait you most dislike in others? People who think they are too good for others. Life is a great leveler.
Who is the one person that you would love to meet and why? Definitely, Oprah Winfrey! I think she’s a very courageous, humble woman who is always trying to help transform the less fortunate. She is a true inspiration to me.
Property aside, what’s the most expensive thing you’ve bought? It would have to be a pair of Hugo Boss shoes.
Mention some of your hobbies? Playing soccer and cleaning the house.
Is there anything the public don’t know about Gift Funeka that they would be interested to know? I’m a Christian and a member of the Church Choir.
Where did you go to school and what qualification did you achieve? Well, during my early days I went to Thandokuhle L.P. Then I went to Khethamahle H.P, followed by Mzuvele High, before joining the South African Jockey Academy. I only achieved matric.
Who was the main person that influenced you to become a jockey? It was my dad. He always enjoyed having a punt on the horses. He saw an advert in the paper and we applied and by the grace of God, we were accepted.
In which year did you join the South African Jockey Academy, who were your fellow apprentices and which of them are still riding? I joined the Academy in 1995 and my fellow apprentices were Nicky Roebuck, John Panas, Lorenzo Karriem, Warren Kennedy, Lumumba Mofokeng and Morne’ Winnaar. Only Nicky, Warren, Morne’ and I are still riding.
Which senior people in racing had a major influence on you, early on in your career? It would have to be all my riding masters, especially Mr. Vince Curtis. He was particularly tough on me but it made me stronger and for that I am eternally grateful. Then, top jockey Kevin Shea and trainer David Payne assisted me as I worked for the yard. They are true horsemen who gave me great advice.
Who were your riding masters at the academy? Mr. Vince Curtis, Mr. Kenny Michel and Mr. David Cave.
Tell us about your first winner? It was on 24th April 1997 at Scottsville on Dale Vision for Miss C.P Shaw. Undoubtedly, one of the happiest days of my life.
How many winners did you ride as an apprentice? I rode 48 winners.
You were the first black jockey to ride in the Vodacom Durban July. Tell us about the experience and which horse you rode? The experience was amazing, out of this world. It’s hard to explain the sense of achievement you feel. I will cherish those memories forever. I rode His Nibs for trainer Anil Maharaj.
You were out of racing for quite a while. What was the reason for this? Yes, I was. Actually, for 4 and half years to be precise. I was seriously ill with meningitis (a serious and sometimes fatal illness), symptoms of which are severe headaches, vomiting, stiff neck and high fever. My doctor suggested I take time off, because the illness had affected my memory and eyesight.
Tell us how you got back into racing? Lol! Actually this may sound like a joke but it’s true, I followed my wife’s instructions. Due to a new addition into our family, she suggested I return to race riding and now you know who’s boss in my household. Naturally, I obeyed, we moved back to P.E and Mark and Dorrie Sham welcomed me back, as I had ridden for them before. I will never be able to fully repay them for the faith they showed in me, but I am extremely grateful.
When were you granted your jockey’s licence again? I was granted my licence on 27 November 2013.
Who were the people that made it possible? It was actually collective work from a few people. Mark Sham and Larry Wainstein really pushed hard for me to get back, but as I said collectively, Mr. Ian Levitan and Mike Jones all played a significant role. Once again, I have been blessed to have these wonderful people assist my family and I in our time of need.
How did it feel to be back in the saddle after a long break? Well, except for being pretty stiff and unfit, it came naturally as I was back doing what I really loved.
Tell us about your first winner back? It was on 13 December 2013 on the new polytrack at Fairview aboard BLOW ME A KISS for Mark and Dorrie Sham. I was so excited that when I went past the winning post the adrenalin kicked in and I ended up saluting for about 50m after the post. That moment will remain with me forever.
You are currently doing lots of riding for trainer Dorrie Sham. How many times a week do you ride work? I ride work every day except for Sunday.
Tell us about some of the better horses she has in her yard? We don’t have that many young horses but of those that have raced, Spellfire looks like a smart filly in the making. Also, it could pay to follow Tacitus as he goes over longer distances.
Which other trainers do you ride for? I mainly ride for Mitch Wiese, Yvette Bremner, George Uren and the Shams. I always try and ride work for as many different trainers as possible.
What are your thoughts on the polytrack in PE? I think it’s a great innovation for South African Horseracing. We won’t lose racemeetings due to poor weather conditions, which are quite frequent in P.E. It also gives everyone a chance as some horses prefer this surface as opposed to the grass. It has already given certain horses a new lease on life e.g. White House & Miss Imperial.
From a riding point of view, what are the differences between the polytrack and the turf? The poly is much more compact and it’s a really fast track. The draw is very important because it’s hard to come from behind as the pace horses don’t really stop, It’s unlike the turf where you have a long straight to plan your runs. Also, due to having no false rail on the poly, you really have to think on your feet because you can get stuck for room on the inside.
Speaking of P.E. racing, you have many rides at Fairview this Friday. Can you share your thoughts with us on your runners?
RACE 1: JACKIE BLACK (2) – This filly has done well since arriving in PE. She had a very good comeback run against male rivals over the c & d, two weeks ago. She has plenty of speed and will be fitter. She now races against her own sex and we expect a big run from her.
RACE 2: THUNDER FURY (9) – He has only moderate form to date but he is a nice horse with decent ability. He is still green and needs time to mature and will be better over further. He takes on winners here so will have his work cut-out for him.
RACE 3: RAVISHING JEWEL (4) – Her last run is best ignored as she was slow into stride and pulled very hard over the mile. She showed her capability with a cracking c & d run in her penultimate start and this drop in trip will suit her. She will certainly enjoy the fast pace over this shorter trip and if she settles, she should run a much improved race.
RACE 4: BESHAYER (10) – She made a bright local debut when she was beaten a neck into second over a mile on the polytrack on Monday. I am not sure whether she will race so soon but this longer run-in will suit her much better. The wide draw isn’t a major concern as she finishes her races well and they will go harder over this shorter trip.
RACE 5: PIANO FOREST (13) – This horse is having his first run for us. His work back home has been decent but we don’t know much about him and this is an educational run for us. If he runs into the placings, it will be a bonus for us.
RACE 6: DAYLAMI STAR (12) – I won on this grey gelding on the polytrack on Monday. He is a nice horse that will do well in P.E. Of course, I don’t know at this point in time, whether he will take his place in this contest and then there is the penalty that he is sure to receive.
RACE 8: DARING DO (5) – This filly made a promising debut over 1000m but she has been thrown into the deep end here. She tries further and takes on one and two time winners at level weights. It will be a very tough task for her but her conditioner obviously rates her and she should certainly improve with racing.
RACE 9: PACIFIC LINE (17) – I was beaten a neck on this filly over 1000m last Friday. That trip is a bit on the sharp side for her but this extra furlong suits her perfectly. She has a light mass and is a big runner. In fact, she is my best ride on the day.
How many winners have you ridden to date? To be honest, I haven’t kept a proper record of this.
How many feature races have you won? I’ve won the Borrowdale Sprint and the Guineas during my stay in Zimbabwe. In South Africa, I’ve won the Easter Handicap and the Greyville 1900 in KZN, as well as the Glendore Sprint in P.E.
What is your most comfortable riding mass? I’m lucky to be able to ride as light as 52kgs, without sweating.
What has been your favourite win as a jockey? It has to be winning the Grade 2 Greyville 1900 with His Nibs, because it led me to the Durban July.
Which is the one race that you really want to win? Every jockey’s dream is to win the Vodacom Durban July.
Do you feel like you still have room to grow as a jockey? Of course! Like in life, you always have room to grow as a person. You learn something new every day.
What do you still have to improve upon? Well, I’ve only been back riding for three months so I feel there is still a lot of improvement to come. I feel I’m not where I would like to be yet and am capable of better. So I will keep on working on every aspect of my riding.
Healthy competition is important for a jockey’s progression. Who do you rate as top jockeys in PE and can you learn anything from them? We have very competitive jockeys in P.E., including myself. I can always learn something from any one of them. Wayne Agrella stands out as he has all the good qualities you need in a jockey. Naturally, he is the loudest in the jockey’s room (LOL).
Do you think the attitudes of apprentices have changed since the time you were in the academy? Definitely! We were from the school of “Hard Knocks”. We had lots of respect for our senior jockeys, unlike apprentices nowadays. They are very disrespectful, they choose who they want to ride work for. I think they are not taught the way we were.
Can you name a few apprentices that you think will hold their own once they qualify? I think Nooresh Juglall, Keagan De Melo, Akash Aucharuz and Luyolo Mxothwa are good riders and will be competitive in the future.
Have you heard the news that Multichoice will be terminating the contract with Tellytrack from 26 March 2014? What are your thoughts on this? Yes I heard. This will be a huge loss for the industry as punters and owners rely on the feed. Without both parties, there is no sport of horseracing. However, I am pretty confident that the powers that be will find alternative measures as they also love being part of this wonderful sport.
What changes would you like to see in South African horseracing? Racing is big in SA but I feel we are still unable to attract big crowds on ordinary racedays. It would be nice to see more people at the races. I can assure you that this will spur us jockeys on, even more.
With many of the top jockeys having sponsors, do you have a sponsor? Unfortunately, I haven’t been approached by anyone yet, but if the chance came I would grab it with both hands. I will gain sufficient knowledge of my sponsor’s product, wear their kit with pride and mention them as much as possible in any interview. I would also market their product to my friends and family, even when I am away from the track. So, if there are any companies representatives reading this, then I am your man. Call me on ….. (LOL). A sponsor is very important, especially if you are associated with an important brand. You become the face of the company in horseracing and will have to live up to expectations. It will make you work even harder and to be extremely professional and successful. The benefits will be the added bonus.
Which of the current South African stallions really excite you? I like Silvano, Dynasty and the late Jet Master.
What short/long term ambitions do you have for yourself? Unfortunately, there are no guarantees in racing so you just have to ride the wave as long as you can, especially us P.E. guys. We have very limited chances, with racing being just once a week. It is quite difficult to secure rides in other centres.
What do you like to do when you’re not racing? I’m a very relaxed person, so watching television, going to Malls and reading is what I do when I am not riding.
Does the old maxim, “Behind every successful man is an equally successful woman,” apply to Gift Funeka? 100%, especially in my case. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my wife. She’s a strong, courageous, ambitious and supportive person who always wants what is best for me. I am eternally grateful to her.