South Africa’s newest qualified jockey, dual national champion Rachel Venniker celebrated her new status with a winner at Hollywoodbets Scottsville on Sunday from her first ride as a fully-fledged professional!
The talented 22 year old’s next target is a WSB Cape Town Met and Hollywoodbets Durban July ride, after the former Roseway Waldorf student twice missed out in her brief career on a golden opportunity to ride in Africa’s greatest race.
She rode in the 2023 L’Ormarins King’s Plate, so that was a tick off the big race baptism bucket-list.
But the Hollywoodbets Durban July and WSB Cape Town Met are serious goals!
“I came off when my filly fly-jumped at the start of a race and was given the mandatory medical suspension, when I was engaged to ride Red Saxon for Mr Joey Soma in the Hollywoodbets Durban July in 2022. Then last year, Mr Verdonese asked me to ride Jimmy Don – and the gelding ended up a second reserve runner. So I am setting my sights high in South Africa’s two premier races for 2024, even though the Met declarations are due next week and I don’t have a ride at this stage.”
Rachel walks around at 52 kgs, and tells us how her weight has actually stabilised as she has matured.
“At a stage, I was worried that as I got older I would have to be very careful. But I don’t need to diet or waste, thankfully. I must admit though that I have always been a careful eater. But I can ride at 52kgs, which broadens horizons,” she adds with a smile.
Chatting to the Sporting Post earlier this week, the modest horsewoman, who has been in the saddle since the age of 4, admitted, almost apologetically, that she had fulfilled all of her apprenticeship goals, ‘and more’, since starting out on her incredible professional journey three years ago.
Rachel has ridden 211 winners, secured two SA champion apprentice titles, and has a Grade 2 Gauteng Guineas victory on Eye Of The Prophet under the belt – not bad for a rosy cheeked horse-crazy teenager who had to practically kick down doors to get a chance to realise her dream of becoming a jockey.
In her typically professional and diplomatic demeanour, she suggests that the challenges and hurdles that she had faced early on actually built character, and that she’d rather talk about the future and appreciate the good racing folk who have contributed to make her dream a reality.
The only member of the fairer sex in the local ranks, of what is undoubtedly one of the toughest and most dangerous occupations on earth, Rachel was obviously pleased as punch when she got Fire Tonic home in the KZN Capital City opener on Sunday with a typically polished display from the saddle for owners Jimmy and Viv Burgess, and trainer Stuart Ferrie.
Enjoy the replay here:
She rode her first winner as a work-rider in August 2020 when she steered Enjoy The View to victory at the very same Hollywoodbets Scottsville for owner Nic Jonsson and trainer Michael Roberts.
Reflecting today with the benefit of hindsight, the two aforementioned gentlemen have played a leading role in Rachel’s progress, and there is some irony in the reality that Mr Jonsson’s late Dad Benji was the architect of the introduction of female riders into the SA Jockey Academy.
“It is all about having the support of folk who believe in you, and then matching that with doing your best through hard work,” suggests Rachel, who adds that without the right people behind her, and good horses to ride, she wouldn’t be talking to us today.
“Mr Jonsson has been a loyal and fantastic supporter, both as an owner and a sponsor through Jonsson Workwear. Then, what can I say about the massive privilege of having one of the greatest riders in horseracing history as a mentor and a critical tutor? Next to the late Lester Piggott, Mr Roberts is an icon – a genius. Funny thing is, even when I ride away from KZN, and the owner and trainer there is happy with my ride, I will get back to Summerveld and Mr Roberts will watch the replay, and say, ‘but why did you do this, or that? A better option, would have been x, y or z.’ He is a perfectionist, and I learn virtually every day from him. It’s a priceless education in a discipline where one actually never stops learning,” she laughs as she takes the criticism in her stride, and absorbs every ounce of the golden guidance from the man we know affectionately as ‘Muis’.
So what is the difference, we ask, between the apprentice Venniker, and the jockette Venniker?
“Well, the SA Jockey Academy has been my home from home for three years – and now I am back home. And yes, I will miss the people, the friends and the memories. I could ride when I started there. But I have learnt plenty, and am privileged to call myself a member of the SAJA alma mater,” she adds emotionally.
And the lifestyle changes? Maybe a new car? Independence?
“No, I am plain old me. Nothing much changes! I have been taught to be careful with money. No debt, if I can avoid it. No new cars and things. Keep it simple and focus, is the best policy, I think,” as she admits that she drives a faithful used Hyundai I20.
“Funny, you talk about my car. I rode three winners the other day at Hollywoodbets Greyville. Then drove out of the racecourse after the last race with my fan-belt squealing and squeaking loudly. That wasn’t very inspiring from a personal PR viewpoint, I suppose. But I have a great mechanic, who looks after my car. So I’m lucky!”
What has changed though, is that Rachel will shortly announce the appointment of her new agent.
“It’s not being pompous or a big deal, believe me! It’s hectic trying to ride work regularly, travel, race ride, and then also to contact trainers or receive calls and negotiate rides at an awkward time of the morning, when on the way to races, and with the cell-phone reception as it is. So an agent makes every sense, and I can focus on riding,” she adds.
Asked about See It Again’s run on Saturday in the L’Ormarins King’s Plate, when chasing Charles Dickens home, Rachel suggests it was a cracking Met trial.
“He won the WSB Green Point Stakes as things worked out in his favour on the day. He is not a miler though, he’s a 2000m horse. I have ridden top Gr1 horses in work. He is the greatest horse that I have ever had the pleasure of riding. He’s a machine – a freak. I love him and in my opinion they will have to go some to beat him on 27 January!”
And any plans to relocate, or travel internationally?
“I am staying in KZN and will happily travel nationally as I am needed. Of course, we all have dreams to ride internationally. All in good time though, and I am happy to chase my goals here in South Africa and grow in experience.”
Good luck Rachel!