A Champagne Showdown!

Kobeli Lihaba's first winner for Sporting Post

Three South African Jockey Academy graduates from very different backgrounds delighted racing fans at Hollywoodbets Scottsville on Sunday, with the closest finish of the weekend.

Voldemort (Kobeli Lihaba), Northern Warrior (Rachel Venniker) and Licence To Thrill (Tristan Godden) deliver the showdown of the weekend (Pic – Candiese Lenferna)

Riding his first winner as a Sporting Post-sponsored rider, promising 1,5kg claimer Kobeli ‘James’ Lihaba got the grey Voldemort up on the inside to share the spoils with recent Saudi Cup International Jockey Challenge heroine Rachel Venniker (sponsored by Jonsson Workwear) on Northern Warrior, while another Sporting Post-sponsored rider in Tristan Godden was right in the middle of the mix on Licenced To Thrill in third.

So close was the pulsating finish of the seventh, an MR 80 Handicap, that veteran caller Craig Peters was left unsure – and some punters requested that we publish the official photo, as we do below:

The 20-year-old Kobeli Lihaba, better known as ‘James’, was over the moon to have broken the ice so early on for the Sporting Post.

“I am so proud and thrilled. Thank you for the support. I hope to make you proud.” he added, as he reflected back on a career that has always suggested great promise – even if his start wasn’t earth shattering, by any means.

James was nailed with a 21-day suspension (part of which was suspended) on Valentine’s Day of 2023, after he failed to ride Slim Jannie out on his first ever professional ride at Hollywoodbets Scottsville on 1 February 2023.

The National Horseracing Authority confirmed at the time that at an Inquiry held in Durban on 14 February 2023, Apprentice Kobeli Lihaba was charged with a contravention of Rule 62.2.3.

James pleaded guilty and was found guilty of the charge. The Inquiry Board, after considering the evidence presented, ruled that he be suspended from riding in races for a period of 21 days, of which 11 days were wholly suspended for a period of 12 months, provided that he was not found guilty of a contravention of the rule in that period.

The Stipes apparently determined that the wide-eyed youngster’s inexperience in race riding was a major mitigating factor.

“That wasn’t exactly a great start, I know! I just got overwhelmed by all the shouting and noise and stopped riding. It was my fault entirely. While it was a blow at the time, I think it has stood me in good stead and I’m stronger today for the wake-up call so early on,” reflects James.

Four months later, things started happening as James rode his first winner at Hollywoodbets Greyville. The horse was Shot Of Courage, who won at 25-1 for trainer Tim Pretorius on 23 June.

Champions present and past? Kobeli Lihaba and Rachel Venniker are interviewed by Warren Lenferna (Pic – Candiese Lenferna)

Six months on, James already has his first three-timer under the belt (at Fairview on 23 February) and has booted home 44 winners – 42 of which were achieved in this, his first full season.

He is 25 wins ahead of nearest challenger Siyanda Sosibo on the SA National Champion Apprentice log.

“Things are going very well. I am enjoying the opportunity of travelling down to the Eastern Cape and to the Highveld, when the opportunity arises. I am focused and am just relishing and appreciating the privilege of being coached in one of the great jockey training establishments on earth. And now I have the Sporting Post behind me too!” adds James.

Born in Harrismith on 7 September 2004, James never knew his parents and was raised by his clothes-maker Granny and his Grandfather, who was a laborer in the construction industry.

James attended an agricultural school and recalls watching the local bush racing every Sunday.

“I was fascinated by the horses and my life changed when an old man called Mr Stoffels told me at the age of 13 that I was the right size and needed to learn to ride. I loved it and rode many winners!”

Enjoy the replay:

Two friends from Harrismith, jockey Philasande Mxoli and trainee apprentice Thabiso Nyaka, who eventually dropped out of the academy, were instrumental in James considering a career as a professional jockey.

“I was knocked back as they were worried about my weight. So, I became a workrider, and eventually got a break when accepted into the SA Jockey Academy in 2022. I have never looked back. Today I stand in my boots at 52kgs, and I am fit and motivated to do my very best,” he adds proudly.

James says he has so many people to thank – from his Grandparents to Mr. Stoffels, to his mates who encouraged him, and the trainers who have given him opportunities and guidance.

“It’s inevitably dangerous mentioning names as there have been so many kind people who have guided me along the way. From Mr. Duncan Howells, to Mr. Garth Puller, Mrs. Alyson Wright, and many others, and then Mr. Gavin Smith and Miss Kelly Mitchley in Gqeberha. I have been a very lucky guy as we can’t ride winners without support!”

With travelling to other regions taking up a lot of time, and plenty of work-riding every day, James says there is no time for socializing, but he spends recreational time with his bestie, Siphesihle Hlengwa.

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