“A horse is the projection of peoples’ dreams about themselves – strong, powerful, beautiful – and it has the capability of giving us escape from our mundane existence.” – Pam Brown
Magic and the power of dreams is something racing folk know a thing or two about. So it is fitting that on Wednesday, 6 August 2014 racing teamed up with another organisation that deals in dreams as its stock in trade, to realise 12 year old Sihle Botman’s ambition to ride a racehorse.
A bit of background
Reach For A Dream was the brainchild of Owen Parnell, a South African businessman and philanthropist who was inspired by the Make A Wish Foundation in the United States. On 7 July 1988, the foundation made its first dream come true for a youngster by the name of “JC” Steinman of Johannesburg, treating him to rides on a pony and a motorcycle for his birthday. Twenty-six years on and Reach For A Dream now has 7 branches country-wide and 30 full-time staff.
I rang up the Johannesburg branch to be answered by just about the nicest receptionist I have ever spoken to. I explain who I am, where I’m calling from and that I’m ringing about a little boy called Sihle, who got to go for a ride on a racehorse with Piere Strydom, one of South Africa’s best jockeys at the premises of another of our best jockeys and riding mentors, James Maree. “Really?” she breathes, “you’re giving me goosebumps!” It has me a little stumped, as they made all the magic happen, but her warm enthusiasm immediately makes me feel like part of the team and I admit that it is a pretty special thing to have done.
She puts me through to the branch manager, Melissa Green. Melissa is from a banking background, but says that having worked as a volunteer for 2 years, she begged Reach For A Dream to take her on full time and has now been there for a year. “We have a small team of permanent staff and 32 volunteers, most of whom have full time jobs and give of their spare time to help dreams come true. We realise 24 dreams a month – that’s nearly one every day. And we rely totally on donations and fund-raisers. We have very generous donors and we do fund-raisers throughout the year such as the recent Slipper Day.”
How does it work?
“It’s a calling and a passion for everyone who works here. Johannesburg has 2 field workers whose full time job is to liaise with our local hospitals and identify Reach For A Dream candidates. We also take referrals either from doctors, hospitals, or private individuals. We fulfil the dreams of children with life-threatening illnesses.”
“We don’t give financial or medical assistance, but our aim is to fulfill one dream to the very best of our ability, to inspire hope and hopefully give the children the courage and belief that tomorrow is worth fighting for. There are applications to be filled out and our field workers conduct several assessments with each child. By interacting with the children they get to know them and work out all the elements that would make up a really special and memorable day for that specific child. Once we’ve identified a candidate we try and fulfill the dream as soon as possible. In the banking sector, tomorrow was always another day, but with all these children having life-threatening illnesses, tomorrow’s not always another day.”
“We usually try and identify the child’s top 3 dreams because we may not be able to fulfill the first or the second choice for medical reasons. We met Sihle in June at Johannesburg General where he is being treated for aplastic anaemia and he had quite an unusual request. Most children want to go shopping or to meet a celebrity or perhaps go on holiday, but Sihle was different. When we filled out his form, he said that spending a day with a jockey, teaching him about horses would be his perfect day. Taryn Seegers is our dream coordinator and she contacted Phumelela to ask for assistance.”
Phumelela’s Racing Executive Patrick Davis takes up the story. “We were approached by Reach For A Dream about a young boy who wanted to learn to ride a Thoroughbred horse, potentially with a jockey. I immediately phoned Piere – he’s what I consider a ‘gentleman’ jockey and is always very generous with his time. Of course he jumped at it and was really amazing about the whole thing. I thought James Maree’s Thoroughbred Racing Development Centre was probably the right place as he’s got the horses and all the right equipment like body protectors and so on for the work riders’ programme and it worked out really well.
“It’s very sad – these poor children have horrible diseases and you just never know how long they’ll be around, so it was a very happy occasion in sad circumstances. It was really satisfying to see this guy – he was so confident. He had never sat on a horse in his life and he just hopped on and they wandered around. It’s the most heart-warming sight I’ve seen in a long time. He was just beaming from ear to ear the whole time. Everyone was so accommodating. James actually had a horses in training sale at his yard at 12 o’clock, but somehow managed to coordinate everything. We are lucky to have such amazing racing people who are so willing to give of their time and energy.”
“Piere gave Sihle a pair of gloves and James gave him a whip and a photograph to keep as mementoes. James said that Sihle was welcome back whenever he liked – he said ‘just give me a call in the morning and you can come and ride again anytime.’ It’s mind-blowing. There are some very generous people out there.”
Piere Strydom said “Phumelela put it all together. They’d organised snacks for everyone, photographers and journalists and everything. Patrick Davis deserves a lot of the credit – he thought that a successful jockey would help make the experience better. I was the first one that came to mind and I was happy to do it. I’ve done something like this before and it was quite sad – an owner wanted his son to meet me. The guy was in hospital and I went and talked to him and a few weeks later he was gone. You want to do a good deed, but it can also affect you emotionally.”
“We got there at about 9 and we were introduced to one another. He’s quite a pleasant little guy and couldn’t wait to get on his horse. He got kitted out with a skull cap and whip and I lent him a pair of gloves and then we each got on our horse. We were obviously a bit worried that the horse might be fresh and buck him off, but James Maree gave him a nice quiet one. We were in a paddock initially and then we went onto the grass track. The horses got a little frisky, but nothing to worry about. He wasn’t scared at all – he loved it. I showed him how you sit as a jockey and he was very keen to push the horse along. He seemed like a natural! I don’t think he wanted to leave either. We unfortunately had another engagement to get to, but he just wanted to stay on his horse. He wouldn’t let go of the gloves, so I let him have them,” he chuckles.
“My fiancée Claudia had also come with and driving home we were talking about it and we both loved the day. We had fun as well. It’s something that you don’t do all the time and the fact that you’re out there doing a good deed at the same time – it makes you feel good.”
James told us what it meant to him. “It’s just great that we can give this bloke an opportunity to fulfill his dreams and it was only a pleasure to help him. It was wonderful to get Piere to give up his time for someone else and it all went off very well.”
“Everyone got there at about 9:30. Phumelela put on tea and coffee and snacks and made sure everyone was entertained. Sihle rode a horse called Blue Sunday and Piere rode Misatso. The young man really enjoyed himself and he was all smiles – he didn’t want to get off. I think we fulfilled his dream. I gave him a whip and Piere gave him a pair of gloves and then I remembered a picture I had hanging in my office of Piere winning a big race for me. I said ‘let’s take it off and Piere can endorse it’ and he did. It was a horse called Naiyerah that went on to run second in the Dingaans. This was another feature race that he won and Piere was riding and of course that’s the picture that we gave him. Piere signed it and gave him his best wishes.”
Sihle said “I am very happy because my dream of two years finally came true. My dream is to one day become a jockey and I hope to pursue this afterwards”. His mother, Nomathemba commented “I’m happy to see my son’s eyes beaming. Today’s event is the optimism that Sihle needs to keep and remember when his condition tries to knock him down. Above all I am glad he now knows that nothing is impossible.”
Where to from here
I’m not really a kiddy person, but I do believe in the power of dreams. While doing some background research I came across an old Reach For A Dream ad on Youtube. It shows a young boy called Sam, hesitating outside his classroom door, embarrassed to go in because chemotherapy had made his hair fall out. He opens the door to find that his classmates had all shaved their heads too.
The boy was Sam Pretorius, who was diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of 11. He was not expected to reach adulthood. At the height of his illness, Reach For A Dream took Sam and his family to Disneyworld in 1997. “It was amazing. The most important thing, however, wasn’t Disneyworld itself; it was the fact that I had a dream and that this dream could become a reality,” said Sam. “The fulfillment of any dream – no matter how big or small – allows some light into the very dark tunnel through which terminally ill children must travel to become healthy. I am profoundly thankful to Reach For A Dream for providing that light in my tunnel. They gave me a reason to want to become better. It helped me have a will to want to live.”
Pretorius did reach adulthood. After a three-year battle with cancer, he beat the disease and had his last treatment in 1999. He matriculated in 2003 and went on to achieve a degree at the University of Stellenbosch. Today, he is a teacher.
“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us” – Wilma Rudolph
Thank you to Reach For A Dream, Phumelela, James Maree and Piere Strydom for helping a little boy escape his realities for a few hours and more importantly, giving him a dream to hang onto.